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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.

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