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19 October 2022

How oil become the world’s most contested resource

Keith Fisher’s A Pipeline Runs Through It charts how oil revolutionised transport and war, and continues to shape today’s geopolitics.

By Brendan Simms

Today, as Europe confronts an energy crisis aggravated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, the importance of hydrocarbons is a commonplace. So it was too for most of the 20th century and the early 21st century, especially with regard to oil, the great “prize”, to cite the title of the economic historian Daniel Yergin’s famous 1990 book on the subject. What, though, of the time before 1914, when oil was known but did not loom large in the political or popular imagination.

Keith Fisher tells the story of “oil before oil” in his new and deeply researched book A Pipeline Runs Through It. He begins in ancient times, when oil was already being used – among other things – as an adhesive, for waterproofing, for medicinal purposes, as a lubricant, for illumination. Fisher tells us that according to the Epic of Gilgamesh it took about 270 tons of bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum, to waterproof the hull of Noah’s Ark, which would have given it the largest carbon footprint of its time. 

Sometimes burning oil was used as a weapon, as in the form of “Greek fire”. Sometimes it was fought over: the first recorded clash over the substance seems to have been in 10th-century Iraq. Fisher effectively illustrates the link between oil and violence, long before the 20th century. Whether it was native Americans, Burmese tribesmen, or Achinese Muslims in the Dutch East Indies, the extraction of oil and the expropriation of locals often went hand in hand.

It was in the mid 19th century, rather earlier than one might imagine, that the modern oil industry began to emerge. Refined oil was used to fire lamps, and produce lubricants, solvents, dyes and paints. Fisher describes the greed, chaos and accidents of those times vividly. According to a witness, one explosion blew a man 20 feet in the air, “not a vestige of clothing was left upon him except his stockings and boots. His hair was burned off as well as his fingernails, his ears and his eyelids, while the balls of his eyes were crisped to nothingness.” He lived on another nine hours in agony.

For its first 25 years or so, the international oil industry was centred in the north-eastern United States. But it soon spread to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, the Tsarist empire (which had the largest single reserves around Baku in Azerbaijan) and elsewhere. Prospectors followed, as Fisher writes, “the scent” of oil. Production was modernised, with the traditional wooden barrels (which still live on as a unit of measurement today) giving way to pipelines. Huge fortunes were made, for example by the Rockefellers, by monopolising various stages of production, or better still, the whole process. 

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The real breakthrough for oil was the general recognition in the 1890s that it could be used effectively as motor fuel. Here the main potential consumer was not the motor car, still in its infancy, or the yet to be invented aeroplane, but the steamship (whose boilers had hitherto been fired by coal). The world’s navies began to change from coal to oil. As a result the leading maritime powers, above all the British empire, were forced to seek a secure supply of crude. Unfortunately, from London’s point of view, the British had very few oil reserves, most of them in Burma. In August 1903, the Admiralty set up an “Oil Fuel Committee”. Crude was becoming a critical resource and would feature in grand strategy throughout the century to come.

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This was the context in which the Middle East took on a new importance. Britain hoped to source most of its oil in Persia and therefore looked with anxiety on German activities in the region. The book’s cover blurb suggests that this fear may even have been a “catalytic ingredient” in the outbreak of war in 1914. This seems to be stretching a point, or at least projecting later preoccupations back into the origins of the First World War. Britain had been battling with Russia for influence in Persia since the early 19th century, long before oil was an issue. In fact, the discovery of oil there in May 1908 came after a compromise between the two powers was reached in August 1907. There is also no evidence that oil played any significant role in the lead-up to the First World War. It simply doesn’t feature in deliberations of the major protagonists in the way that it did, for example, in Hitler’s grand strategy. 

That said, it certainly played an important role in the conflict itself. Fisher shows how the hundreds of thousands of aeroplanes and motor vehicles produced by the combatants between 1914 and 1918 were supplied with fuel oil. Most of the oil consumed by Britain came from the United States, but the flow from Persia was not trivial either. Huge tanker fleets were constructed because these ships were scarce before the start of the war. The greatest difficulties, though, were experienced by Germany, which was cut off from global markets by the Allied blockade. 

As Fisher argues persuasively, the Allies won the race for oil easily. Just after the end of the conflict Lord Curzon, soon to be foreign secretary, wrote a paean to the importance of oil: “Without oil how could [the Allies] have procured the mobility of the fleet, the transport of their troops, or the manufacture of several explosives?… All products of oil fuel, gas oil, aviation spirit, motor transport spirit, lubricating oil etc played an equally important part in the war. In fact,” he concluded, “[we] might say the Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

This is an interesting and worthwhile book. Sometimes, the text comes alive with description and drama. On other occasions, the argument is bogged down with lengthy source quotations, many of which would have been better broken up or paraphrased. Fisher has certainly done an informative and entertaining job of extracting his material, but the final product could have done with a bit more refining.

That said, this is a timely intervention in a debate that lacks historical perspective. Since he went to press, the world has been rocked by a series of explosions in the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea. Clearly, the vexed question of energy supply and security, whose origins Fisher describes in detail, is still with us.

A Pipeline Runs Through It: The Story of Oil from Ancient Times to the First World War
Keith Fisher
Allen Lane, 768pp, £35

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency