Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

The Rise of Big Oil in American Politics

Energy
The Rise of Big Oil in American Politics
In 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, part of a behind-the-scenes policy to ensure access to oil for the U.S. and its allies. Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration

By Brian C. Black

"How Big Oil Bought the White House and Tried to Steal the Country" is the subtitle of a book that tells the story of a presidential election in which a candidate allowed money from big oil companies to help him win office and then rewarded them with plum appointments in his cabinet.

With President-elect Donald Trump picking former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, one might think the book is an early exposé of the presidential election of 2016.

Instead, it's from The Teapot Dome Scandal, a book that tells the story of a corruption scandal that rocked the term of President Warren G. Harding's administration in the 1920s.

In the context of Tillerson's controversial appointment, history is a useful guide to understand the rising political power of Big Oil over the past century, a subject I've studied and written about. And with Tillerson, the political influence of the energy sector has reached a high point, particularly because it strikes the president-elect and other observers as a sensible, mainstream selection.

But this is only the latest episode of a tight relationship between energy and the U.S. government that stretches over decades.

Access to Energy

In 1921, when Albert Fall accepted his position as secretary of the interior, he interpreted his responsibility to accelerate energy development on federal lands, including some in an out-of-the-way place known as Teapot Dome, Wyoming. And he believed that this meant involving private entities.

He brokered a deal with Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, major players in the booming American oil fields of the early 1900s, blazing a new trail for federal policy—a trail that laid clear the crucial relationship between energy development and political power. In Fall's case, he personally accepted cash to allow this access to oil developers, which made him the first cabinet official to go to jail for crimes committed while serving in office.

Since its indiscreet beginning with Teapot Dome, of course, oil has only become more essential to the lives of every American. If we follow the lead of Life magazine creator Henry Luce, who referred to the 20th century as the "American Century," we are by association also declaring it the era of fossil fuels and particularly of petroleum. Oil and other fossil fuels were the relatively inexpensive energy resources that provided the foundation for the modern consumer society and political policy often focused on ensuring that supplies be assured and kept stable.

Albert B. Fall, the former secretary of the interior, became the first cabinet official to go to jail for accepting money from oil companies to clear the way for drilling on public lands. Library of Congress

Despite energy being central to our society, though, the policy influence of Big Oil most often functioned behind the scenes. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 struck a deal in a secret meeting with King Ibn Saud to allow the U.S. and its allies to have access to Saudi oil for decades to come. During the ensuing decades, foreign oil development was carried out by international companies but often required the support, if discreet, of the U.S. government.

Next Page
Plastic bails, left, and aluminum bails, right, are photographed at the Green Waste material recovery facility on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in San Jose, California. Aric Crabb / Digital First Media / Bay Area News via Getty Images

By Courtney Lindwall

Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice. Steve Sanchez / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Alexandria Villaseñor

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.

Read More Show Less
Trending
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a pair of climate-related secretarial orders on Friday, April 16. U.S. Department of the Interior

By Jessica Corbett

As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.

Read More Show Less
David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less