- Refining Nature: Standard Oil and the Limits of Efficiency by Jonathan Wlasiuk
Most previous accounts of the history of the Standard Oil Company have focused on the business techniques that John D. Rockefeller used to dominate the newly emerging petroleum industry: ruthless competitive practices, new technologies (such as Frasch’s process to desulfurize crude oil), systematic cost cutting, and, especially, vertical integration. These techniques enabled Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, with its refining capacity centered in Cleveland, to acquire control of 90 percent of America’s petroleum production by the 1880s and become the model for modern corporate organization. Wlasiuk’s book, however, takes a different tack. He focuses on the environmental repercussions of Standard Oil’s concentration of refining in Cleveland.
Refining Nature’s four central chapters are named after the four classical elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Contrary to what a reader might expect, the chapter on earth does not focus on how Standard’s refineries altered the landscape. Instead, it provides a background on Cleveland’s early history and Rockefeller’s early life. The chapter on fire focuses on the increased fire dangers posed by the transition from traditional illuminants to petroleum-based kerosene, Standard’s primary product before 1900. Some of the hazards were due to the nature of kerosene, others due to skirting safety regulations. The chapters on water and air look more directly at Standard’s impact on those aspects of Cleveland’s ecology. The impact of Standard Oil and other industries on Cleveland, originally nicknamed “the Forest City,” were devastating. The city saw the last of its virgin trees die by the early twentieth century and its river caught fire from oil slicks on multiple occasions. Cleveland’s new moniker became “the Mistake on the Lake.” A concluding chapter covers the company’s move to Whiting, Indiana, in the 1890s and the subsequent environmental impact on Indiana’s northern coast.
A key theme that flows through the narrative is Wlasiuk’s contention that Cleveland’s government, when faced by the massive environmental problems [End Page 99] created by Standard and other business enterprises, turned to technological solutions rather than enact and enforce regulations that would have compelled these enterprises to clean up their effluents. For example, on multiple occasions in the late nineteenth century, Cleveland’s government built enormous and expensive new water-intake systems further and further out into Lake Erie as a way to ameliorate the rapidly deteriorating quality of city water, rather than seeking to regulate effluents. This, as Wlasiuk points out, effectively shifted the financial burden of moderating the problem from the perpetrator to the victims (the citizens of Cleveland).
The link between the “limits of efficiency” in Wlasiuk’s subtitle and the volume’s dominant narrative seems a bit obscure at times. Essentially, he argues that traditional scholarship has portrayed Standard as a model of efficiency, absorbed with cutting costs and eliminating waste in transforming crude oil into kerosene and delivering it to consumers. But, he notes, contemporary descriptions of Cleveland’s deteriorating environment make it clear that Standard was not efficient from an environmental standpoint. It flushed wastes into the air, the water, and onto land well beyond the ability of natural systems to cope. This disconnect—the failure of corporate efficiency in dealing with the natural world even while operating well in the human-made world—accounts for the subtitle.
Wlasiuk’s subtitle also makes it sound as if his book is overwhelmingly about Standard Oil. It is in a sense, but only in part. Wlasiuk was clearly unable to isolate Standard’s contribution to the steady deterioration of Cleveland’s environment from what other firms were also doing. Cleveland’s abundant steel mills, paint factories, chemical refineries, and other manufacturing establishments all contributed to the disaster. Isolating or quantifying Standard’s contribution was simply not possible. Thus, Wlasiuk’s book, while focusing on Standard Oil as a prime contributor, is, in some sense, also a more general account of...