- Petroleum and Public Safety: Risk Management in the Gulf South, 1901–2015 by James B. McSwain
This book examines the politics of petroleum safety in four Gulf Coast cities: Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston, and Houston. The chronology in the title is misleading, as the five main body chapters cover the years from 1894 to 1937. McSwain’s focus is how interactions among public officials, the fire insurance industry, and the [End Page 81] oil industry “produced regulations for the storage and consumption of petroleum, establishing themselves as agents or social actors in a complex technical system built around petroleum use and regulation” (1). He offers two reasons for focusing on these four cities in particular: first, their historical and geographical differences are substantial enough to provide variety in the analysis; and second, they each have more historical resources available than other potential subject cities such as Beaumont or Pensacola (3–4). McSwain explains further that “many Gulf Coast residents and visitors believed that petroleum would bring industrialization and prosperity to the area,” but securing “its safe use was a prerequisite to the success of local and regional promotion campaigns” practiced by civic and business boosters. “It fell to Gulf South leaders in 1901–2 to weigh the safety of citizens against the potential economic benefits that huge quantities of newly discovered petroleum might bring to their communities” (4).
Readers interested in Alabama history will obviously pay most attention to the chapter on Mobile. It explains how diverse stake-holders vociferously argued over where to place petroleum storage tanks in the city. For example, in 1894, the People’s Oil Company proposed locating a storage tank at the intersection of Bloodgood Street and St. Joseph Street. Although city leaders supported the oil company’s proposal and fire insurers were willing to offer low rates on the project, neighborhood locals protested the proposed project (57–59). The remainder of this chapter chronicles these types of controversies into the 1900s.
As it turns out, reading the chapter on Mobile may be enough for some readers. Although McSwain covers three more cities in the book, the case studies are not different enough to provide compelling contrasts. The primary actors of city leaders, the fire insurance industry, and oil industry leaders worked out similar processes in these different cities over time. Although McSwain promises in the introduction that New Orleans’s unique history—presumably he means its transfer from the French, to the Spanish, back to the [End Page 82] French and then to the United States, creating a diverse cultural landscape—will inflect that city’s chapter, this barely enters into the narrative at all. Instead, it again focuses narrowly on the key players of oilmen, insurers, and civic officials.
McSwain makes exhaustive use of primary source materials, which is both the book’s biggest strength as well as its most significant weakness. A review of the footnotes reveals an extensive list of city government records, insurance industry documents, science journals, and other relevant records. There is no doubt that the author has spent many hours with materials pertinent to his subject of inquiry. However, there is a significant drawback to the author’s approach, which is that broad historical generalization, analysis, and contextualization gets lost in the technical aspects of the narrative. The author’s chronology largely overlaps with that of the Progressive Era, a period marked by the professionalization of many practical aspects of natural science, such as forestry, along with the social sciences, including economics, sociology, and political science. It was also a period of municipal reform. The author missed an opportunity to contextualize these debates about petroleum safety within this broader history, which would have added to our understanding about the complicated developments of the Progressive Era. Donald W. Rogers proved in Making Capitalism Safe: Workplace Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880–1940 (Champaign, Ill., 2009) – a study of work safety laws in Wisconsin – that it is possible to connect localized...