The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power

by Daniel Yergin

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Last Updated on October 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

In exploring the history of the oil industry over a century and a half, Daniel Yergin shows how petroleum products first gained a foothold and then became essential to all aspects of life. While he concentrates on fuel, he also notes the connections with other areas of commerce and manufacturing. He notes in the prologue that three themes distinguish oil’s importance from other resources. The first two are capitalism and modern business, as well as national and global politics and power. The third theme, which is perhaps less obvious and more controversial, is the idea of a permanent change that oil caused, which was to create our contemporary “Hydrocarbon Society.”

[O]urs has become a hydrocarbon society and we, in the language of anthropologists, “Hydrocarbon Man.” . . . In the twenty-first century, we are so dependent on oil, and oil is so embedded in our daily doings, that we hardly stop to comprehend its pervasive significance. It is oil that makes possible where we live, how we live, how we commute to work, how we travel—even where we conduct our courtships.

While we now accept oil as a fundamental fuel, the historical portion of Yergin’s book addresses its distinct early uses. One important feature of the Industrial Revolution was the desire of businesses to operate facilities for longer hours to maximize the use of expensive technology. Working through the night required illumination. A search was on for a replacement for candles and lamps fueled by whale oil (which was costly) and the newer camphene (which was highly flammable). The first uses of “rock oil” applied to illumination, as kerosene was developed as a lamp fuel. Its applications in the United States would build on mid-nineteenth-century European developments.

[A] small oil industry had developed in Eastern Europe—first in Galicia (which was variously part of Poland, Austria, and Russia) and then in Rumania. Peasants dug shafts by hand to obtain crude oil, from which kerosene was refined. . . . By 1854, kerosene was a staple of commerce in Vienna. . . . [A] lamp with a glass chimney was being produced in Vienna . . . [A] New York salesman started to import the lamp, . . . [which] became the basis of the kerosene lamp trade in the United States, and was later re-exported around the world.

In the twentieth century, in part because of the growth of the automotive industry, oil became established as an essential fuel source. The global industry was threatened by national divisions, made critical by World War I. A decade later, as the Great Depression threatened the industry, further international cooperation was needed. Agreements were forged in the face of considerable and varied political pressure. Protecting a country’s interests was one main factor, as national governments aimed to protect their own companies and interests from foreign competition.

Governments imposed import quotas, set prices, and placed restrictions on foreign exchange. . . . They levied a multitude of new taxes and intervened to control the direction of the export and import trade in oil to match bilateral trade agreements and larger political links. . . . As a result of the Depression, autarchy and bilateralism were the order of the day in the 1930s, with consequent pressure to circumscribe the major oil companies.

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