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Redefining Efficiency: Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry

Author(s):Gorman, Hugh S.
Reviewer(s):Castaneda, Christopher J.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Hugh S. Gorman, Redefining Efficiency: Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2001. xv + 451 pp. $39.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-884836-75-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christopher J. Castaneda, Department of History, California State University, Sacramento.

For many Americans, the terms “oil” and “pollution” go hand-in-hand, and the culprits are the big oil companies. While the United States depends upon oil for more than one-third of its total energy requirements, this fossil fuel attracts perhaps more public attention, and ire, as a source of pollution than as an indispensable fuel.

The way in which American business and government has dealt with oil as both a fungible commodity and as the source of air, water and land pollution is the focus of Hugh S. Gorman’s book, Redefining Efficiency. This is a very well written book that looks carefully at the concept of efficiency. Early in the twentieth century, oil firms sought to more efficiently produce, transport and refine oil and through enhanced efficiency expected to reduce oil waste and, therefore, pollution. Thus, Gorman examines “the ‘gospel of efficiency’ as a pollution control ethic” (p. 3). Significant improvements in efficiency, however, had not reduced pollution sufficiently by the late 1950s. Increasing pollution levels evoked a public response beginning in the 1960s that led ultimately to government regulatory policy aimed at controlling oil pollution.

Gorman’s book is divided into three sections. The first section examines the oil industry from its beginnings in the U.S. through the early 1920s. Chapter One sets the book’s tone by discussing numerous cases of early responses to oil waste, particularly in waterways, that created problems for ships, bathers and hunters. Discharge of oil into rivers, streams and the coastal areas was the most troublesome pollution problem during these years and continued to be a serious problem throughout the twentieth century. Generally during this earlier era, new petroleum production, refining and transportation technologies became more efficient and therefore contributed to reduced waste and pollution. Industry sought to stave off regulation by pointing to its own success in reducing unwanted effluents without government intervention.

Part II focuses on the years between 1925 and 1955 when industry’s efforts to improve overall efficiency became somewhat disconnected with efforts to reduce pollution. This was essentially a transition period between the hey-day of the petroleum industry and the era of overt government regulation.

The final section of Gorman’s book, then, traces the events leading to the imposition of government controls designed to protect the environment from an industrial sector that had lost its ability to fully associate technological efficiency with pollution reduction. Essentially, the government mandated that the oil industry reintegrate environmental sensitivity into its continuing efforts to achieve the most efficient operations.

Gorman shows how the Oil Pollution Act of 1924 set the tone for federal policy toward pollution into at least the 1950s. This Act, the result of a congressional investigation of oil pollution, prohibited the discharge of oil from ships within three miles of shore. While the Act itself was not particularly far reaching, it did represent an early and substantial effort to investigate the cause and effects of pollution. The U.S. Bureau of Mines and the American Petroleum Institute (API), representing the government’s interest in controlling mineral waste and the oil industry’s collective desire to avoid regulation, respectively, helped to shape this Act that ultimately prompted tankers to flush their tanks of oil residue at least fifty miles from shore instead of requiring long-term technological solutions to open water oil pollution. The API succeeded here in promoting the oil industry’s preference for self-regulation.

Petroleum industry waste came in many other forms. Oil drillers often unintentionally produced salt water that ruined nearby farmland and contaminated fresh water aquifers; oil dripped from leaking pipelines; toxic vapors emanated from storage tanks; and refineries emitted smoke into the air and dumped acidic sludge into nearby pits or streams. Improvements in drilling methods and technology, pipeline construction and materials, and refining procedures helped to eliminate some of these pollutants. Thus, early efforts to improve technological efficiency also helped reduce pollution. Industrial efficiency, in the early twentieth century, seemed to offer the answers.

In the early 1960s, however, the public’s rising expectations for maintaining and improving air and water quality did not seem to be shared by industry. New legislation, such as the Water Quality Act of 1965 and Air Quality Act of 1967, was a response to, and a sign of, increasing pollution. And the concept of pollution control through efficiency took another blow when highly public and large-scale accidents seemed to suggest that industry was not capable of policing itself. In 1967, the Torrey Canyon oil tanker spilled 36 million gallons of crude off the coast of southern England; the high concentrations of detergent used in the cleanup proved to be toxic to sea life as well. More accidents followed. Then, in 1969, an oil well blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara, California provided further evidence to the growing ranks of environmentalists that government needed to act in order to prevent further environmental degradation. The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 actually ranked thirty-second in the amount of oil spilled in major tanker accidents, yet that accident attracted a tremendous amount of attention in the United States for its effect on the Alaskan ecosystem.

Gorman argues that by the 1990s, the new environmental regulatory regime has redefined industrial efficiency as a process that explicitly includes meeting environmental objectives. The new regulatory ethic does not simply target industrial polluters; it also regulates how people use their physical environment. Gorman describes the new regulatory regime as a system that balances a wide variety of technological, economic, political and social interests with the goal of maintaining a forward-looking and broad-based environmental polity.

This book is effective in several ways. For one, the author provides a very readable and descriptive account of the technological features of the early twentieth century oil industry, from exploration and production to oil transportation (both by pipeline and tanker), and refining. In addition, Gorman effectively explains the background of issues such as the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline and contamination of fresh water aquifers. In some respects, the book seems to be strongest in tracing the technological and regulatory issues related to ocean-going oil tankers and oil waste in the oceans and rivers, but it is comprehensive and not narrowly focused. This is a work about pollution that ends on a hopeful note, at least in terms of the mandate of the environmental regulatory regime that shares the responsibility for maintaining the shared environment.

Chris Castaneda’s publications include, Invisible Fuel: Manufactured and Natural Gas in America, 1800-2000 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII