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Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History by Brian C. Black (review)

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 4, April 2014
pp. 427-428 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0056

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Reviewed by
Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History. By Brian C. Black. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. Pp. 208. Illustrations, figures, notes, index. ISBN 9780742556546, $35.00 cloth.)

The oil industry has served as a mainspring of the Texas economy and a backdrop for the state’s public image since 1901. The status of Texas in the world petroleum economy has waxed and waned, but Texans and the industry have embraced one another through booms and busts. Crude Reality is a reminder that academic historians do not necessarily share that attachment.

The author of Crude Reality, Brian C. Black, is a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona. His book recounts the historical relationship of petroleum producers and consumers with an emphasis on the negative social and environmental consequences suffered by producing regions and the global environment. The author’s environmental focus proves somewhat tangential to the book’s stated subject, petroleum in world history.

Crude Reality breaks the industry’s past and future into four broad eras: 1750– 1890, 1890–1960, 1960 to the present, and the era of climate change (starting around 1980). About one third of the text covers the infancy of the petroleum economy, before the internal combustion engine was widely commercialized. While the early days of drilling in Pennsylvania and the Caucasus may be interesting in their own right, this retelling contributes only marginally to the author’s larger economic and environmental themes.

The book is marked by unfortunate errors that an industry scholar should have avoided. As early as page 3, the author confuses “thousand barrels per day” (in the text) with “million barrels per day” (in the charts). The latter is the accurate number. He also conflates “Big Oil” into a generic term for the domestic petroleum industry, when historically it has been used to distinguish “majors” from “independents.” Recognizing the differences between majors and other industry players remains crucial to understanding petroleum industry history in Texas and the United States.

Black does a better job summarizing other eras. He correctly identifies the mid-twentieth century Texas Railroad Commission as a “primary enforcer of control over the price” of domestic oil (82), a function that the state of Texas disingenuously labeled “conservation” rather than wellhead price maintenance. Chapter 5 ably describes how surging oil production in Texas helped ensure the Allies’ victory in the Second World War.

Chapter Six catalogues the widespread environmental havoc that Black attributes to petroleum dependency. He raises valid questions, but one must ask whether the Bhopal pesticide plant tragedy and the worldwide plague of flimsy [End Page 427] April plastic bags should be charged to the tab of the petroleum industry. Climate change caused by fossil fuels may ultimately affect human survival, but Crude Reality paradoxically affords it about the same amount of discussion (about two pages) as plastic bags.

Crude Reality undertakes to provide both a concise history of the petroleum industry and an assessment of its negative economic and environmental impacts. It ultimately falls short in both tasks. As a history, it is sometimes impressionistic and weakened by inaccuracies. As an analysis of adverse global impacts, it is uneven and in places simplistic. These are both crucial topics that deserve more diligent treatment.

James E. Cousar
Austin, Texas
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