- Petroleum and Public Safety: Risk Management in the Gulf South, 1901–2015by James B. McSwain
James B. McSwain's Petroleum and Public Safety: Risk Management in the Gulf South, 1901–2015tells the municipal history of how cities in the South passed legislation to account for the consequences of the new petroleum industry in their midst. Storage, movement, and use of petroleum-based substances posed potent threats to each municipality where residents engaged in petroleum's capture and refinement. While the petroleum menace was new to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cities had long accepted a responsibility of protecting their citizens from noxious influences. Soon after the American Revolution, for example, municipalities regulated the town watch to prevent fires and other outrages. In the 1850s, city after city established municipal oversight of firefighting clubs, converting them in a sense into city-directed services. Insurance companies had long established formulas using [End Page 720]actuary data and experience to indemnify individual and public property for damages caused by themselves and others.
It was within these traditions that city governments confronted the petroleum industry. Municipal officials recognized that cities had obligations to protect the welfare of their citizens. They also understood that cities began as closed commercial ventures; municipalities were erected to regulate the occupations of their citizens to provide an environment for profitability. Petroleum was a new actor in this venerable undertaking. What was new was how municipal corporations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went about securing their environs. They developed partnerships with insurance companies and the petroleum concerns.
In case after case, cities relied on the scientific expertise of insurance underwriters and petroleum engineers and scientists to help establish expert-derived regulations that would protect the populace and enable petroleum manufacture, use, and distribution within the urban setting. This de facto private-public partnership mimicked the public utilities common around the turn of the twentieth century, such as electric and telephone companies. Dependence on the technical authority and skill of experts had another consequence. Laws and regulations to govern the conduct of petroleum-related activity in one city were readily copied by other cities facing similar technical challenges. In effect, reliance on technical expertise resulted in similar petroleum laws being passed in cities across the Gulf South. Regionwide municipal regulation of petroleum was the consequence. Again, the movement to create model laws had been commonplace in the late nineteenth century. Persons either sought national legislation or passage of the same law in place after place to establish that desiderata. Similarly, the use of science to resolve an urban condition did not originate with the petroleum industry. The famous dumbbell tenement, for instance, was a scientifically designed solution to the problem of pauperism and urban crowding.
McSwain's story fits neatly in the new technocratic vision of the end of the nineteenth century, but it does not go beyond that story. The actions and positions of the persons involved are recounted, but the book reads less like how things happened than how technocratic problems were dealt with technocratically. This book presents a story of regulating a new risk in a new environment. There were entities who fostered this: insurance and petroleum corporations and their engineers and scientists. What particular acts were the riskiest, why certain things demanded additional or special regulation, how consensus was established, how risk management fit within the mantle of municipal reform, and other similar questions are of less interest to the author of this useful book.