I am an Associate Professor of History and Geography at the University of Iowa who studies the history of oil and energy. My research and teaching interests also include environmental history, the history of business and technology, the history of capitalism and globalization, and public history, which is a field that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history for a broader audience outside of academia. I joined the University of Iowa in 2012 after eight years as Director of Global Studies in the College of Business at the University of Houston.
Raised in Eastern Montana during a time of public controversies about coal, oil, and copper extraction, I took an early interest in the historical development of regions dependent on natural resources. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I specialized in the history of U.S. foreign relations and focused my graduate research on U.S. natural resource investments in Latin America. While residing in Houston, Texas after completing my Ph.D. in 1996, my investigations into the business, technological, and environmental aspects of natural resource development turned to the study of oil, the largest and most influential international business of the last 150 years, a major force in world politics and diplomacy, and a shaper of our daily lives.
My work broadly investigates oil, fossil fuels, and energy. I am particularly interested in questions relating to innovation in oil, struggles over access to oil resources, the economic and environmental impacts of oil development, oil politics and policy, and the interaction between technology and environmental processes in extraction. I strive to demystify popular perceptions of the oil industry, which are polarized in the United States between righteous denunciations of “Big Oil,” epitomized by calls to “Leave It in the Ground,” and reflexive pro-oil boosterism, captured by the slogan, “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Historians and social scientists often fan these perceptions by treating oil as a monolithic business, an abstract cultural construction, or a commodity divorced from the social context of extraction and production. We need a deeper and more nuanced historical understanding of oil to inform the vital decisions about energy that we face as a society. Fossil fuels, especially hydrocarbons, have generated unprecedented wealth and prosperity for a large plurality, if not the majority, of people around the world. But the benefits also came with social, political, and environmental costs. The job of the oil historian is to weigh and analyze these trade-offs.
I examine oil as a giant, complex, and sophisticated industry that does not lend itself to facile generalizations or analysis. I have written about petroleum geology and exploration, oil and empire, labor in the oil industry, the oil shocks of the 1970s, the peak oil debate, and U.S. energy policy. In 2012, I co-edited a special issue of the Journal of American History on “Oil in American History”, which features 22 essays that demonstrate a wide range of research and perspectives on the subject. The main thrust of my research examines the history of offshore oil, one of the most capital intensive, technologically innovative, and environmentally risky industries in the world. The future of oil extraction lies in the oceans, and as companies embark on an ambitious quest to draw oil from oceans around the world, I am dedicated to making sure we understand the issues relating to offshore oil’s past. In 2007, I published a prize-winning book, The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America (Texas A&M Press), that analyzes Shell Oil Company’s technological quest to find and develop petroleum reserves in ever-deeper ocean waters.
My research on offshore oil evolved into a long-range effort to preserve, document, and analyze the history of the offshore industry in the Gulf Coast region. I have served as chief historian on three interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects sponsored by the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (since 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM). My expertise on the history of offshore oil has led to positions on high-profile advisory committees and a role as a regular commentator for print, radio, online, and television media. In September 2010, I joined the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling as a senior policy analyst to provide historical expertise to the commissioners as they investigated the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo oil spill and developed recommendations for reforming federal oversight of the industry. As a result of this work, I was recognized by the University of Iowa with the 2016 Award for Distinguished Achievement in Publicly Engaged Research.
My current book project, Oceans of Oil: The Epic Struggle over Offshore Drilling in the United States, analyzes the politics and governance of offshore oil since the 1930s.
Featured Images: From June 2012 visit to Shell Oil’s Perdido Spar, the deepest offshore platform in the world, moored in 8,000 feet of water, 200 miles south of Galveston, Texas in the Alaminos Canyon, Gulf of Mexico.