Colby College
Spring 2003
Professor Leonard Reich
Miller Library 312,
phone x3535

ST398 The Biography of Oil


Human life on this planet has changed dramatically over the last century in good part because of the vast, flexible, and inexpensive energy source made available to us in the form of petroleum, primarily oil and natural gas. Not only has petroleum fueled our cars and ships, our electric power stations and airplanes, it has also provided the basic building blocks for important new materials, generally known as plastics or synthetics. These materials form the structural basis of America's Cup racers and computer keyboards, polyester pants and the tires on your car. In addition, petroleum feedstocks have found their way into all sorts of industrial and chemical processes, including life-saving and life-enhancing pharmaceuticals as well as fertilizers and pesticides that have transformed world agriculture. Human society in the 20th and early 21st centuries would be very different without petroleum. However, be forewarned: the days of petroleum shortages (and high prices) are not too far away. How will our lives change then?

It is important to realize that the biography of oil is our biography. According to author Daniel Yergin, by the 1950s we had become (with apologies to women) "Hydrocarbon Man" -- and the hydrocarbon Yergin had in mind was unquestion-ably petroleum. Petroleum is so thoroughly integrated into our lives and lifestyles that we take it for granted. We often don't recognize how it has influenced our daily activities, how it has changed our assumptions about mobility, human capabilities, and wealth.

The biography of oil is thus a huge topic, with multifaceted linkages. We will expend considerable time and effort exploring many (but certainly not all) of them. Now to the course: This is primarily a readings-discussion course, which meets once per week for two and a half hours. The reading load is heavy, as is necessitated by the subject matter. We will begin the semester by reading Daniel Yergin's path-breaking book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, in five installments. After that, we will consider six topical areas, one each week. (See course schedule, below.) The Prize has been made into an eight-part PBS videos series, and we will view all eight during the last hours of classes early in the semester. We will also see several other relevant videos later in the semester. In addition to The Prize, students should purchase at the bookstore Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. (Not to worry, the shortage probably won't happen before the end of the semester...)

Students will write short weekly response papers based on the readings, due on Mondays by 3:00 p.m. A question (or questions) related to the coming week's readings will be passed out during class on Wednesdays. After doing the readings, students should respond to the question(s) in approximately 500-700 words. Students may choose to answer other question(s) of their own choosing, so long as the response demonstrates that they are familiar with all of the week's readings and have thought about the issues that they raise. The papers will be graded for both content and presentation and returned at the beginning of class on Wednesday, so that the authors may look them over before discussion begins. Of the 11 weekly papers, the top nine will be counted toward the course grade. (You may choose to not turn in up to two papers, if you wish, but that means your remaining papers will count.) See attached "Response Paper Style Sheet," which speaks directly to presentation issues.

Students will research and prepare term papers of approximately 20 pages, exclusive of notes and appendices. The papers are to be research projects designed to answer the basic question of how the development of the oil industry and/or the use of oil/natural gas has afffected the lives of people (as individuals) and societies (collectively). This can be within the United States or all over the world. A list of suggested topics is attached, but there are many other possibilities, and you are encouraged to consider what issues interest you (and what materials are available) before making a choice. Term-paper topics must be approved by the fifth week, March 5th. (Duplicate topics among students will not be permitted, and topics will be approved on a first-come, first-served basis--so get started early!) A reasonably detailed outline, complete with bibliography, is due on April 9th. During the last two meetings of the semester, students will make presentations of approximately 15 minutes each summarizing their papers for the class, with particular emphasis on how their findings relate to issues raised in the course. (These presentations will be graded, counting 10% of the term-paper grade.) Term papers are due at 3:00 p.m. on the date of the scheduled final exam. Lateness on any of the three deadlines will result in a lowering of the term-paper grade. It is important that your research be original and that the written paper entirely your own. Please see the following Colby web page for information about plagiarism, a serious academic offense that can result in failing the course:

The course grade will be determined as follows:

Weekly papers (5% x 9)         45%
Research paper                       35%
Class attendence/participation 20%

 Course Schedule:
Feb.5Film: Twenty-Four Hours of Progress (1950, 15 mins.)
Video: The Prize, part I (Our Plan)
Reading/Discussion Question #1, for 12 February 2003
Feb.12The Prize: The Founders (pp.19-163)
Video: The Prize, part II (Empires of Oil)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Feb.19The Prize: The Global Struggle (pp.167-302)
Video: The Prize, part III (The Black Giant)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Feb.26The Prize: War and Strategy/Hydrocarbon Age (pp.305-449)
Video: The Prize, Part IV (War and Oil)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Mar.5 The Prize: Hydrocarbon Age/Battle World Mastery (pp.450-612)
Video: The Prize, Part V (Crude Diplomacy)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Mar.12 The Prize: The Battle for World Mastery/Epilogue (pp.613-788)
Video: The Prize, Part VI (Power to the Producers)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Mar.19 Oil and Mobility in the Age of Plenty: The Automobile
Flink, The Automobile Age, selections
Foster, "The Automobile and the City"
Reich, "The Dawn of the Truck"
Porter, "Fuel Efficiency" (from Economics at the Wheel) Video: Road to the Future
Reading/Discussion Question #
Apr.2 Plastic and Synthetic: A New Way of Life
Meikle, American Plastic, selections
Spitz, Petrochemicals, selections
Smith, "The Ten-Year Invention"
Video: The Prize, Part VII (The Tinderbox)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Apr.9 Oil in the Ground: What, Where, and How Much is There?
Deffeyes, Hubbert's Peak (entire)
Video: The Prize, Part VIII (The New Order of Oil)
Reading/Discussion Question #
Apr.16 Oil in the Environment
Pratt, "Letting the Grandchildren Do It"
Frey, "How Green is BP?" (NYTimes Mag)
Hodgson, "Alaska's Big Spill: Can the Wilderness Heal?" (Natl Geo)
Begley & Hegar, "Keep Holding Your Breath" (Newsweek)
McNeill, "Fuels, Tools, and Economics" (from Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century World)
Video: America's Biggest Oil Spill
Reading/Discussion Question #
Apr.23 & Oil and Human Rights
Onishi, "As Oil Riches Flow, Poor Village Cries Out" (NYT)
Manby, "The Role and Responsibility of Oil Multinationals in Nigera"
Christian Aid Report, "The Scoched Earth: Oil and War in Sudan"
Kimmerling, Amazon Crude (selections) or Kane, "With Spears from All Sides' Video: On Ken Saro-Wiwa
Reading/Discussion Question #
Apr.30 Current issues Klare, "Oil, Geography, and War" and "Oil Conflict in the Persian Gulf" (from Resource Wars)
Mandle, "A War for Oil: Bush, the Saudis, and Iraq"
CQ Researcher, "Energy Policy" (entire issue)
McCarthy, Blackman, & Dickerson, "War Over Arctic Oil" (Time)
Second half of class: Term paper presentations
May7 Term paper presentations