A Pipeline Runs Through It: The Story of Oil from Ancient Times to the First World War by Keith Fisher - review by Barnaby Crowcroft

Barnaby Crowcroft

Drills & Spills

A Pipeline Runs Through It: The Story of Oil from Ancient Times to the First World War


Allen Lane 733pp £35

The phrase of the last US president that is least missed today – and there are many candidates – may be the one celebrating ‘clean, beautiful coal’. Keith Fisher will probably not forgive me for saying that his new book brings to mind a similarly oxymoronic statement about oil. In his survey of every appearance of the stuff in world history and literature from the time of the Babylonians to the early 20th century – which reads like a grand Google Books search – we find ‘beautiful oil’ turning up everywhere, including in the writings of Herodotus and the poetry of Ovid. In pre-Columbian California, Native Americans used it to rainproof their humble houses; on Barbados, indigenous islanders relied on it as an ointment for sore limbs; Mexico’s Olmec peoples painted it onto religious statuary for decorative purposes. In pre-Islamic Persia, it may have been the source of a whole religion revolving around temples of perpetual fire, produced by steams of oil and gas seeping up from the ground. True, oil also makes plenty of appearances in this book as a weapon of war: the Byzantines employed it as part of a particularly lethal, ship-mounted flame-thrower (though lobbing burning oil-based projectiles at your enemies dates as far back as the Peloponnesian War). But it seems striking nonetheless that this substance – one associated with all that is ‘artificial’ in the modern industrial age – has always been a part of our extraordinary natural world.

Yet if this is the good in A Pipeline Runs Through It, everything that follows is very much the bad and the ugly. The modern, industrialised oil industry was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, pioneered by prospectors hoping to supply the growing demand for oil-burning lamps, which traditionally relied on whale oil. Fisher paints a brilliantly vivid picture of what this meant for western Pennsylvania’s idyllic natural environment. In the 1850s, Titusville was a quiet, backwoods place, its peace broken only ‘by the tapping of a woodpecker, the distant chopping and sawing of lumberjacks and … the whine of waterwheel- or steam-powered sawmills’. Once the Pennsylvanian oil rush took off, however, speculators descended on the area like ‘a plague of locusts’ and the whole valley soon resembled a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Uncontrolled wells shot oil into the streets and rivers, derricks appeared in every back yard, catastrophic fires broke out, the air reeked of gas and petroleum, and there was not a green thing anywhere in sight.

This chaotic new industry – which quickly rivalled that of cotton in terms of exports – was brought under control by an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, John D Rockefeller. In 1870, Rockefeller created Standard Oil, and via various shady business practices and collusion with local legislators, succeeded in taking over most of the area’s refining capacity. Rockefeller completed his conquest of the oil region by gaining control of the oil transit system. The first oil pipelines had been constructed in the early 1860s, and Rockefeller built up the network, creating a ‘sprawling pipeline empire’ that enabled him to pump oil directly to the coast. In the process, he crushed independent producers and eventually brought even the powerful railroad companies to heel. By the 1880s, Standard Oil not only controlled the American market but was also shipping its oil and petroleum-based products into every corner of the world, turning Rockefeller into one of the great titans of the Gilded Age.

As US oil exports spread across the globe, other countries sought to develop their own resources. Faced with a single American company with almost 90 per cent of the Russian market, in the 1870s the Nobel brothers Robert and Ludwig – the ‘Russian Rockefellers’ – began large-scale exploitation of the oil region around Baku, in Russian Azerbaijan. Russian engineers pioneered the first modern oil tanker, to send oil up the Volga for distribution throughout Russia, and later developed vessels capable of crossing the Atlantic and Pacific. By the end of the 1890s, the Russian Empire had overtaken the United States as the world’s largest oil producer, a status it held until the revolution of 1905. Another piece in today’s geopolitical puzzle fell into place when Europe’s colonial powers began developing the resources of their empires. The Dutch exploited the oil resources of northern Sumatra (in modern Indonesia), where the companies that would later form Royal Dutch Shell were born amid a bloody war of pacification. After the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, the British began exploiting those of Burma. Following a major strike in Persia in 1909, Britain’s Burmah Oil Company gave birth to Anglo-Persian, which later became BP.

The main action of the book is centred on the extraordinary decades leading up to 1914, the first age of globalisation. Petrol-fuelled vehicles, pioneered in the 1880s and 1890s, took off after 1900, their number going from 1,500 in Britain and the United States in 1900 to 150,000 in Britain alone by 1908. At the same time, Europe’s great navies began experimenting with oil-powered fleets. Fisher sheds new light on yet another aspect of Winston Churchill’s remarkable career: as First Lord of the Admiralty after 1911, he pushed through the British fleet’s transition to oil power amid concerns over security of supply and against significant establishment opposition. Indeed, A Pipeline Runs Through It offers a foretaste of almost everything that followed in the later 20th century, with British officials becoming ever more concerned about the need for imperial control of global oil resources. To give just one example among many from a book that will be a treasure-trove for oil-on-the-brain conspiracy theorists, we find British diplomats in 1911, faced with tough Turkish bargaining over oil exploration in their empire, discussing the benefits of forming independent relationships with the Arab tribal leaders of the Ottoman territories, including an upstart Ibn Saud in Arabia.

With one or two exceptions, Fisher narrates this hefty history with admirable restraint. One doesn’t have to read very far between the lines, however, to divine the overriding moral of his story. His descriptions of each new oil-producing region of the world relate how in the beginning there was racism, colonial violence and genocide. Oil’s consequences are always explained in terms of environmental degradation and a net loss to humankind; each new strike seems to be inaugurated by the shooting of thousands of barrels of oil into a pristine river. This history of the global oil industry, according to one of the book’s endorsements, lays bare its ‘pernicious influence on human history and the planet we inhabit’.

In this, A Pipeline Runs Through It reveals something of the anti-humanism of modern-day apocalyptic environmentalism. The book is punctuated with lengthy quotations – supplied for our apparent amusement and introduced with withering sarcasm – from politicians or correspondents for the Scientific American extolling the promise of new oil-based developments for human prosperity and civilisation. Passages about the nomadic tribes, from Persia to Pennsylvania, whose noble ways of life have been lost as a result of oil exploitation and development (‘invaded by the modern industrialized world’), read as if they might have been narrated by Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.

There is something faintly ridiculous in our being invited to think all this while reading by electric light a book mass-produced through machine-powered processes and delivered to our local bookshop by gas-guzzling vehicles. There are new ways of examining the histories of commodities that better capture their ambiguous legacies – by tracing, for example, the passage of a single ingot of gold around the world, from Inca mines to the ships of Spanish conquistadors to northern Italian bankers, or the journey of a single barrel of Standard’s oil, produced amid much pollution but eventually helping to light the schoolroom of some impoverished community in Scandinavia through the dark winter. Modern industry – whatever else it may have done – has delivered global improvements in life expectancy, nutrition and literacy and reductions in poverty, infant mortality and the need for back-breaking manual labour unknown in all previous human history, making possible unprecedented gains in personal freedom. A pipeline runs through that too.

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