- Energy Capitals: Local Impact, Global Influence ed. by Joseph A. Pratt etal.
Historians of energy systems have long been interested in cities as sites for the production and consumption of power. Recent works by Christopher Jones (on networks of energy distribution) and Andrew Needham (on the electrification of the American Southwest) have exemplified the most recent “spatial turn” in historical scholarship. So far, however, many questions about the connection between cities and energy remain unstudied. The insightful essays in Energy Capitals further open this line of analysis. The volume adopts a comparative perspective on the growth and development of cities that are tied to energy, from extraction to refining to managing its distribution, finances, and technical organization.
The editors divide the volume into three sections. The first explores four American cities or regions that have, in varying ways, benefited from fossil fuel development: Pittsburgh, Houston, Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor, and Los Angeles. A second section examines Perth, Calgary, and Stavanger (Norway), three cities that have integrated themselves successfully into the world oil economy as regionally significant centers of energy infrastructure, services, and corporate activity. The final section discusses the Mexican port of Tampico and Gabon’s Port-Gentil—two examples of oil regions that saw little benefit from a temporary boom and instead poverty and environmental damage.
In a sense, the stories of Tampico and Port-Gentil read as most familiar, given the large literature on the “resource curse,” the “paradox of plenty,” and “sacrifice zones.” Placing them in a volume alongside cities that more successfully entered the global petroleum economy, however, only highlights what might have been. There is nothing inevitable about a resource curse. Cities—and national governments—have delivered widespread [End Page 1000] prosperity with energy development through a commitment to well-planned production, an openness to regulation, and a dispersion of control and benefits to many stakeholders. As the editors note, “geology, geography, and timing” matter too, but only so long as prospective energy capitals can assert political control in the broad interest of their citizens.
Consider the contrast between Port-Gentil and Stavanger. Port-Gentil, seen in Douglas Yates’s fascinating study, remained politically opposed to Gabon’s central government in Libreville; in response, the country’s autocratic ruler, Omar Bongo, siphoned oil wealth and starved the oil-producing island of any revenue as political retribution. In stark contrast, Gunnar Nerheim’s study of Norway’s oil capital, Stavanger, shows the results of careful planning from Oslo to create not only a national center for the burgeoning North Sea oil business, but a state-owned oil company with a mandate to ensure that Norwegians benefited broadly from the jobs, technical expertise, and wealth that oil made possible.
Ultimately, however, no energy capital, not even Houston, could capture the wealth and prosperity of energy production without consequences. Stavanger secured a role in the North Sea but hitched its fate to the cycles of boom and bust in the world oil market. Calgary found itself separated from the major sites of Alberta’s oil production, limiting the perspective of its leaders toward the environmental cost of tar sands development. Houston struggled with the health and environmental costs of oil pollution.
This is a provocative volume that ultimately raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Most essays deal primarily with oil, with natural gas occasionally appearing in a secondary role (the one exception, Joel Tarr and Karen Clay’s chapter on Pittsburgh, deals primarily with coal and gas). Are the dynamics of energy capitals really those of oil capitals? Would centers of nuclear power exhibit the same features or is the integrated global network of oil somehow unique?
And what about the other capital? While focusing on energy capitals as physical locations, the contributors only intermittently touch on the capital that forms the foundation of economic investment, corporate organization, and consumer economies. Even with respect to “successful” cities like Houston, what fraction of its oil wealth remained in Houston and what was...