Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940

Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940

Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940

Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940


Energy shortages, climate change, and the debate over national security have thrust oil policy to the forefront of American politics. How did Americans grow so dependent on petroleum, and what can we learn from our history that will help us craft successful policies for the future? In this timely and absorbing book, Paul Sabin challenges us to see politics and law as crucial forces behind the dramatic growth of the U.S. oil market during the twentieth century. Using pre-World War II California as a case study of oil production and consumption, Sabin demonstrates how struggles in the legislature and courts over property rights, regulatory law, and public investment determined the shape of the state's petroleum landscape.

Sabin provides a powerful corrective to the enduring myth of "free markets" by demonstrating how political decisions affected the institutions that underlie California's oil economy and how the oil market and price structure depend significantly on the ways in which policy questions were answered before World War II. His concise and probing analysis casts fresh light on the historical relationship between business and government and on the origins of contemporary problems such as climate change and urban sprawl. Incisive, engaging, and meticulously researched, Crude Politics illuminates an important chapter in U.S. environmental, legal, business, and political history and the history of the American West.


Ten years ago, I hitchhiked around the Ecuadorian Amazon on oil company trucks. I wanted to know how indigenous and colonist communities had responded politically to the oil development that had radically altered remote regions of the Americas since the 1960s.

I stayed one night with a colonist who had moved from the Andean highlands in order to illegally clear and settle land in the Amazon rain forest. When I met this man, he was growing coffee in a national park that, incongruously, also had oil wells and toxic pollution in it. My host told me about how he was organizing his fellow colonists against polluting by the government oil company—which had built the roads that he had used to colonize the rain forest. As I contemplated these political and ecological complexities, I grew increasingly convinced that the black-and-white way in which I had previously counterposed environmental quality and economic development did not make sense.

In studying how Ecuadorian communities struggled to assert control over natural resources, I began to realize that the indigenous people of the Amazon, as well as the highland colonists, were not stuck in history as the usual stereotype would have it. Nor were they seeking to resist all change to their way of life. Instead, they struggled to make the changes their own by reaping more benefits from the extractive industry and by limiting the industry’s environmental and social costs.

The communities negotiated through politics. They fought for royalty payments and secure land titles. They bargained for employment . . .

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