Urban Government and Environmental Policies: Regulating the Storage and Distribution of Fuel Oil in Houston, Texas, 1901-1915

By McSwain, James B. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Urban Government and Environmental Policies: Regulating the Storage and Distribution of Fuel Oil in Houston, Texas, 1901-1915


McSwain, James B., The Journal of Southern History


IN JANUARY 1901 A NEW OIL FIELD OPENED AT SPINDLETOP NEAR Beaumont, Texas. This production area and its successors made vast amounts of cheap crude petroleum available to the Gulf South, where boiler plants traditionally consumed expensive coal, lignite, and wood. (1) Although fuel oil did not seriously challenge coal as a general power source nationally until after World War I, its introduction in superabundant quantities transformed the regional energy market. Humans had long used wood and coal, but fuel oil was the first new energy source employed in centuries. Because it was liquid (and therefore difficult to store) and feared to be explosive, its use presented special problems. Houston's pioneering role in the production and utilization of this new energy source deserves careful historical examination. (2) Houston's experience illustrates how a southern municipality devised policies to regulate a potentially dangerous new fuel supply and its consumption. To accomplish this, city officials engaged in the politics of risk analysis and management; in the midst of heated debate they identified and employed the legal basis and economic justification for protecting the built environment.

Owing to population density, commerce, and production, towns and cities by definition are centers of energy consumption. As a case study, Houston's role in constructing a rational interface between energy production and consumption clarifies an important feature of post- 1900 southern urban history. Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, Tampa, and Savannah, all coastal communities otherwise quite different in size, population, and regional status, also faced problems posed by fuel-oil storage. (3) Understanding what happened in Houston opens the above-cited municipalities to comparative investigation and analysis of who supported or opposed large-scale oil storage and of the various regulatory tactics and strategies developed to deal with energy market issues at a time when cities across the nation were dramatically expanding their reliance upon expert knowledge and bureaucratic supervision. Appreciation of Houston's fuel-oil experience bolsters our knowledge of an important episode in energy adoption in the southern United States.

By 1901 Houston had survived a decades-long competition with Galveston for preeminence in maritime trade and, as a railroad center, had become by design an entrepot for East Texas and its vast timber, rice, and cotton production. Buffalo Bayou was a lifeline to the coast, and with federal aid this watercourse would later be widened and deepened to allow seagoing ships to come close enough to Houston to establish it as a major port. Cheap fuel oil fitted easily into this constellation of city promotion, commercial dominance, and well-designed transportation facilities.

Seizing the opportunity for commercial hegemony brought Houston face-to-face with a basic issue. To make petroleum, a fuel that prior to 1900 the public had largely exploited for illumination, available to meet anticipated energy demands, the city set down conditions of safe storage, distribution, and consumption. This process involved selective adaptation of energy-delivery technologies to Houston's particular circumstances and the city's community-defined safety standards. Both contributed to the creation of a new energy market that brought together buyers and sellers of oil. Informed by necessary rules, or "systems of regulation," that specified how to marry energy supply with new energy demands, consumers were free to substitute oil for traditional energy sources. (4)

Deciding how to proceed raised several important questions for Houston leaders, dilemmas that required thoughtful answers. Should Houston subordinate the safety of its infrastructure--roads, buildings, wharves, manufacturing districts, railroad networks, and channel access to the Gulf of Mexico--to accommodate oil investors, producers, and distributors? …

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