Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry
Publication Year: 2001
Published by: The University of Akron Press
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How has industry’s response to pollution concerns changed over the course of the twentieth century? It is an important question to ask if we are to get beyond the stereotype of industrial firms being negligent in the years before systematic regulation and resistant in the years after. Although there is some truth to this characterization, it is just the skeleton of a much richer story. Putting a body of evidence on this skeleton not ...
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In the United States, public concerns with industrial pollution and efforts to address those concerns have a long history, dating back well into the nineteenth century.1 Initially, those concerns hovered in the shadows of larger and more pressing issues associated with the industrialization and urbanization of an agricultural society. As railroads linked local economies together, waves of immigrants, entrepreneurs, and capital radiated ...
Part I. Early Pollution Concerns and the Direction of Technological Change
1. Pollution Concerns Articulated
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As the nineteenth century turned toward the twentieth, the long-term future of the oil industry looked bleak. In the United States, electric lights had become a fixture in most urban areas, leaving older methods of illumination in the shadows. Hence, the oil industry’s main product—kerosene for use in lamps—no longer shined as brightly as it once did. Even the future of transportation appeared to depend on ...
2. Concerns in the Oil Fields
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While Congress debated over what to do about oil-related pollution, other government leaders expressed concern about another oil-related issue that emerged in the early 1920s. Too much oil was being wasted. A significant proportion of the petroleum in newly discovered oil fields never made it to market as refined products. Given that economic growth and national security seemed to depend on securing a steady ...
3. Keeping Oil in the Pipelines
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Most petroleum in the United States being transported from oil fields to refineries moved through pipelines. The extent of the U.S. oil pipeline system by 1920—over 25,000 miles of interstate trunk line and 11,111 miles of gathering lines—testified to its significance.1 However, from the perspective of those who wished to conserve the nation’s oil supply, this system had a major problem. It leaked. ...
4. Refineries, Pollution Concerns, and Technological Change
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In 1920, the petroleum that had taken millions of years to accumulate in formations far below the cotton fields of El Dorado, Arkansas, began reaching refineries throughout the eastern half of the United States. Some of these refineries were nothing more than a loosely organized system of pipes, stills, and tanks that stripped kerosene and gasoline from the crude, leaving behind a heavy oil that could be sold as fuel for industrial ...
5. What to Do with Tankers?
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In the congressional hearings leading up to the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, participants recognized that oily discharges from tankers and oil-burning steamships represented the major source of scum floating in the nation’s harbors. The problem was straightforward. Much of the residue that stuck to the sides of fuel and cargo tanks ended up being ...
Part II. Fighting Pollution Under an Efficiency Ethic
6. Validating a Guiding Ethic
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After passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, legislators had a choice to make, a choice that no one actually articulated or even saw the need to articulate. They had to choose between two general approaches. In regulating uses of the shared environment, should they first establish clear objectives and then take action to reach those objectives? Or should they simply attempt to optimize the economic benefits extracted ...
7. Success and Failure in the Oil Fields
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A provision of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924 required the secretary of war, as overseer of the Army Corps of Engineers, to determine what polluting substances were being deposited into the navigable waters of the United States and the extent to which they endangered navigation, commerce, and fisheries. The law charged the secretary to report back to Congress within two years. The report eventually issued by the chief of ...
8. Eliminating Corrosion and Monitoring Flows
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In the 1920s and 1930s, engineers in all sectors of the petroleum industry fought a never-ending battle against corrosion. This fight against corrosion—and hence against leaks, structural failures, fires, and explosions— represented another area in which engineering efforts to reduce waste and increase efficiency overlapped with efforts to reduce pollution-causing discharges. Oil companies also sought better ways to monitor the ...
9. Creating a Pollution Control Manual
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In the period from 1925 to 1955, engineers in the refining sector were forced to address pollution concerns more directly than their counterparts in the production and pipeline sectors. Indeed, in the 1930s, a technical committee sponsored by the API produced a manual for the disposal of refinery wastes, which became the standard against which individual refineries compared their own disposal efforts. The technical committee that created ...
10. The Ocean Ignored As Tankers Grow
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The way in which oil tankers disposed of their oily wastes changed little in the three decades following passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924. That law prohibited ships from discharging any oily wastes within three miles of shore, and captains typically complied by flushing their tanks further out to sea. Doing so, however, only delayed the day of reckoning. ...
Part III. Regulating Industrial Activity to Maintain Environmental Quality
11. Crude Awakening
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In the first half of the twentieth century, efforts to optimize the efficiency of industrial operations served as a general guiding ethic for many engineers and technical managers, even in their efforts to address pollution concerns. From their perspective, pollution-causing wastes from industrial facilities would cease to be a problem after they optimized the efficiency with which firms transformed resources into valuable products. Setting, or even discussing, long-term environmental ...
12. Redefining Efficiency
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When the Torrey Canyon ran aground in 1967 and focused public attention on the problem of oil spills, efforts to establish air and water quality standards in the United States were underway but floundering. In the next five years, dramatic changes in the world of pollution control would occur. Strong federal pollution control legislation related to air and water quality would lay the foundation for a new regulatory ...
13. Environmental Objectives and the Evolution of Tankers
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In the 1970s and 1980s, as federal and state agencies constructed a regulatory system capable of controlling emissions and effluents from industrial facilities, oily discharges from oceangoing tankers remained a concern. Indeed, in 1970, when the explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Atlantic in an Egyptian-style papyrus reed craft, he reported encountering something that he did not expect to see in open ocean: lots of oil. In places, oily scum ...
14. Closing the Loop
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Efforts to reduce one type of pollution have often increased other types of pollution, with the problem simply being shifted from one form to another. For example, in the 1930s, when some refineries starting burning their acid sludge to reduce the amount of acid released into streams, they ended up releasing more sulfur dioxide into the air. Even in ...
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In The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, a popular and influential book written in the early 1970s, biologist-author Barry Commoner described his first law of ecology succinctly: everything is connected to everything else. In an ecosystem, he explains, interconnected parts act on one another in complex ways. Technology, Commoner emphasized, should be considered as one of those parts. Indeed, he concludes the ...
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Page Count: 451
Illustrations: 9 line drawings, 28 photos
Publication Year: 2001