Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

The Rise of Big Oil in American Politics

Energy
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

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Looking across the Houston Ship Canal at the ExxonMobil Refinery, Baytown, Texas. Roy Luck, CC BY 2.0

By Nick Cunningham

A growing number of refineries around the world are either curtailing operations or shutting down entirely as the oil market collapses.

Read More Show Less
Traffic moves across the Brooklyn Bridge on Aug. 2, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The Trump administration is expected to unveil its final replacement of Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks Tuesday in a move likely to pump nearly a billion more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the lifetime of those less-efficient vehicles.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases speaks in the Rose Garden for the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 29 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Just over a month after proclaiming that the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. would soon "be down to close to zero," President Donald Trump said during a press briefing on the White House lawn Sunday that limiting U.S. deaths from the pandemic to between 100,000 and 200,000 people would mean his administration and the country as a whole did "a very good job."

Read More Show Less
Dicamba is having a devastating impact in Arkansas and neighboring states. A farmer in Mississippi County, Arkansas looks at rows of soybean plants affected by dicamba. The Washington Post / Getty Images

Documents unearthed in a lawsuit brought by a Missouri farmer who claimed that Monsanto and German chemical maker BASF's dicamba herbicide ruined his peach orchard revealed that the two companies knew their new agricultural seed and chemical system would likely damage many U.S. farms, according to documents seen by The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and other leaders speak to the press on March 28, 2020 in Seattle. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

Washington State has seen a slowdown in the infection rate of the novel coronavirus, for now, suggesting that early containment strategies have been effective, according to the Seattle NBC News affiliate.

Read More Show Less