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  • VOLKAN Ş. EDIGER (a1) and JOHN V. BOWLUS (a1)


Interest in energy transitions has accelerated in recent years due to rising concerns about global warming and resource scarcity, but the drivers of these phenomena are not well understood. To date, scholars have primarily focused on commercial and technological factors, highlighting that oil was ‘better’ than coal – more powerful, cheaper, cleaner, and more practical to use – and that the internal combustion engine made it more advantageous to use in transportation. Yet oil was also a strategic commodity that powerful states sought to acquire for military reasons. This article contends that geopolitics, military decision-making, and energy security hastened the transition from oil to coal prior to the First World War. It argues that Britain, Germany, and the United States sought to transition their naval fleets from coal to oil to gain a military advantage at sea, which created, for the first time, the problem of oil-supply security. Through government-led initiatives to address oil-supply security, vast new supplies of oil came online and prices fell, the ideal environment for oil to eclipse coal as the dominant source in the global energy system.


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Center for Energy and Sustainable Development (CESD), Kadir Has University, Cibali, Istanbul, Turkey,;


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1 Fouquet, Roger, ‘Demand for environmental quality in driving transitions to low-polluting energy sources’, Energy Policy, 50 (2012), pp. 138–49; idem, The slow search for solutions: lessons from historical energy transitions by sector and service’, Energy Policy, 38 (2010), pp. 6586–96; and Araújo, Kathleen, ‘The emerging field of energy transitions, progress, challenges, and opportunities’, Energy Research & Social Science, 1 (2014), pp. 112–21.

2 Smil, Vaclav, ‘Perils of long-range energy forecasting: reflections on looking far ahead’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 65 (2000), pp. 251–64; idem, Energy resources and uses: a global primer for the twenty-first century’, Current History, 101 (2002), pp. 126–32; and idem, Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects (Santa Barbara, CA, 2010). For a recent overview of the field of energy transitions, see Kern, Florian and Markard, Jochen, ‘Analysing energy transitions: combining insights from transition studies and international political economy’, in Van de Graaf, Thijs, Sovacool, Benjamin K., Ghosh, Arunabha, Kern, Florian, and Klare, Michael T., eds., The Palgrave handbook of international political economy of energy (London, 2016), pp. 291318.

3 Rubio, M.d.Mar and Folchi, Mauricio, ‘Will small energy consumers be faster in transition? Evidence from the early shift from coal to oil in Latin America?’, Energy Policy, 50 (2012), pp. 5061.

4 McCabe, P. J., ‘Energy resources – cornucopia or empty barrel?’, American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, 82 (1998), pp. 2110–34.

5 E.g. Rubio and Folchi, ‘Will small energy consumers’, p. 50.

6 Kander, Astrid, Malanima, Paolo, and Warde, Paul, Power to the people: energy in Europe over the last five centuries (Princeton, NJ, 2014).

7 Slomon, Barry D. and Krishna, Karthik, ‘The coming sustainable energy transition: history, strategies and outlook’, Energy Policy, 39 (2011), pp. 7422–31; and Araújo, Kathleen M., Low carbon energy transitions: turning points in national policy and innovation (London, 2017).

8 Energy Policy, 50 (2012), included a special section entitled ‘Past and prospective energy transitions – insights from history’, but barely mentioned geopolitics or energy security. A new journal, Energy Research & Social Science, was launched in 2014, in which Araújo, ‘The emerging field of energy transitions’, listed history, energy security, and geopolitics as subjects for further research in understanding energy transitions. Yet none of the papers in the journal's special issue on energy transitions, Energy Research & Social Science, 22 (2016), discussed them.

9 Johnson, Victoria C. A., Sherry-Brennan, Fionnguala, and Pearson, Peter J. G., ‘Alternative liquid fuels in the UK in the inter-war period (1918–1938): insights from a failed energy transition’, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 20 (2016), pp. 3347.

10 Ibid., p. 44.

11 Painter, David S., ‘Oil and geopolitics in the 1970s: the oil crises of the 1970s and the Cold War’, Historical Social Research, 39 (2014), pp. 186208.

12 Jensen, W. G., ‘The importance of energy in the First and Second World Wars’, Historical Journal, 11 (1968), pp. 538–54. According to Kelanic, Rosemary A., ‘The petroleum paradox: oil, coercive vulnerability, and great power behavior’, Security Studies, 25 (2016), pp. 181213, at p. 197, the threat of oil coercion was poorly understood prior to 1917.

13 Madureira, Nuno Luís, ‘Oil in the age of steam’, Journal of Global History, 5 (2010), pp. 7594.

14 The most attention has been given to the British Admiralty. See Dahl, Erik J., ‘Naval innovation: from coal to oil’, Joint Force Quarterly, 27 (2000–1), pp. 50–6; Jones, G. Gareth, ‘The British government and the oil companies, 1912–1924: the search for an oil policy’, Historical Journal, 20 (1977), pp. 647–72; Skelton, Reginald W., ‘Coal versus oil for the navy’, Royal United Services Institution Journal, 79 (1934), pp. 241–59; Sumida, Jon Tetsuro, ‘British naval administration and policy in the age of Fisher’, Journal of Military History, 54 (1990), pp. 126; Sumida, Jon Tetsuro, ‘British naval operational logistics, 1914–1918’, Journal of Military History, 57 (1993), pp. 447–80; and Warrick Michael Brown, ‘The royal navy's fuel supplies, 1898–1939: the transition from coal’ (D.Phil. thesis, King's College London, 2003). Studies on oil and the US navy include DeNovo, John A., ‘Petroleum and the United States navy before World War I’, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 41 (1955), pp. 641–56; Maurer, John H., ‘Fuel and the battle fleet: coal, oil, and American naval strategy, 1898–1925’, Naval War College Review, 34 (1981), pp. 6077; and Shulman, Peter, ‘“Science can never demobilize”: the United States navy and petroleum geology, 1898–1924’, History and Technology, 19 (2003), pp. 365–95; Stern, Roger J., ‘Oil scarcity ideology in US foreign policy, 1908–1997’, Security Studies, 25 (2016), pp. 214–57. Yergin, Daniel, The prize: the epic quest for oil, money, and power (New York, NY, 1991), looks at both Britain and the United States, as do two doctoral dissertations: Robert B. Nestheide, ‘State responses to energy transitions: great power navies and their transition from coal to oil’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cincinnati, 2016); and David Allen Snyder, ‘Petroleum and power: naval fuel technology and the Anglo-American struggle for core hegemony’ (D.Phil. thesis, Texas A&M University, 2001). Very little has been written on German oil policy before the war outside of Flanigan, M. L. and Flaningam, M. L., ‘Some origins of German petroleum policy (1900–1914)’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 26 (1945), pp. 111–26.

15 Yergin, The prize, pp. 150–64.

16 Jack, Marian, ‘The purchase of the British government's shares in the British Petroleum Company, 1912–1914’, Past and Present, 39 (1968), pp. 139–68.

17 Jones, ‘The British government’.

18 Kent, Marian, Oil and empire: British policy and Mesopotamian oil, 1900–1920 (London, 1976); and Earle, Edward Mead, ‘The Turkish Petroleum Company – a study in oleaginous diplomacy’, Political Science Quarterly, 39 (1924), pp. 265–79.

19 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, is an exception, establishing a clear connection between naval policy and oil-supply security.

20 France, Italy, Japan, and Russia would also be interesting cases to explore, but we confined our study to these three countries.

21 Cowan, Robin and Hultén, Staffan, ‘Escaping lock-in: the case of the electric vehicle’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 53 (1996), pp. 6180.

22 Lautenschläger, Karl, ‘Technology and the evolution of naval warfare’, International Security, 8 (1983), pp. 351, at pp. 18–19.

23 Battleships were the linchpins of naval power because they supplied the firepower to destroy other ships, but were not the only components of a fleet. Capital ships were the larger, leading ships and consisted of both battleships and cruisers. Navies also had torpedo boats, which were designed to destroy capital ships; destroyers, which escorted capital ships and protected them against torpedo boats; and submarines, which were essentially underwater torpedo boats.

24 Madureira, ‘Oil’, p. 89, relies on Lautenschläger to argue erroneously that after 1907 ‘conversion to fuel oil ceased to be a priority for most countries, though not for the United States’.

25 Volland, C. S., ‘Comprehensive theory of long wave cycles’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 32 (1987), pp. 123–45; and McCabe, ‘Energy resources’.

26 Keohane, Robert O., After hegemony: cooperation and discord in the world political economy (Princeton, NJ, 1984), argues that a global hegemon must dominate militarily and economically and possess a willingness to lead and maintain a system of world order.

27 Podobnik, Bruce, Global energy shifts: fostering sustainability in a turbulent age (Philadelphia, PA, 2006); and Modelski, George, ‘The long cycle of global politics and the nation-state’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 20 (1978), pp. 214–35.

28 Azerbaijan is the oldest oil-producing region in the world. A Russian engineer, F. N. Semyenov, drilled the first well in the Bibi-Eibat area of the Apsheron Peninsula in 1848. See Alekperov, Vagit, Oil of Russia: past, present & future (Minneapolis, MN, 2011).

29 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, pp. 41–3.

30 Movsumzade, E. M., ‘The first attempts to use oil as navy fuel’, Icon, 6 (2000), pp. 142–8, at p. 142.

31 Jevons, William Stanley, The coal question (3rd edn, New York, NY, 1906).

32 Aldcroft, Derek H., ‘The entrepreneur and the British economy, 1870–1914’, Economic History Review, 17 (1964), pp. 113–34; and Smil, Energy transitions, p. 78.

33 Dacey, Raymond and Murrin, Kevin P.. ‘Nineteenth-century Britain as a subtle commercial hegemon’, Synthese, 113 (1997), pp. 205–16.

34 Johnson, E. R., ‘Characteristics of American railway traffic: a study in transportation geography’, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 41 (1909), pp. 610–21.

35 Volland, ‘Comprehensive theory’.

36 Alekperov, Oil of Russia, p. 134. Yergin, The prize, is puzzlingly silent on Russia's world-leading production from 1898 to 1901.

37 McCabe, ‘Energy resources’.

38 Grover, Frederick Warren, A practical treatise on modern gas oil engines (2nd edn, Manchester, 1897).

39 Hutton, Frederick Remsen, The gas-engine: a treatise on the internal-combustion engine (New York, NY, 1903).

40 Hiscox, Gardner D., Gas, gasoline and oil vapor engines (New York, NY, 1901).

41 Hutton, The gas-engine.

42 Hiscox, Gas.

43 Paine and Stroud, Oil production methods.

44 Grover, A practical treatise.

45 Parsons, C. A., ‘Engineering science before, during and after the WAR’, Science, n.s., 50 (1919), pp. 333–8.

46 Mahan, A. T., The influence of sea power upon history, 1660–1783 (Boston, MA, 1890); and idem, The influence of sea power upon the French Revolution and empire, 1793–1812 (London, 1892).

47 Sumida, ‘British naval administration’, p. 3.

48 Herwig, Holger H., ‘Luxury’ fleet: the imperial German navy, 1888–1918 (New York, NY, 1980), p. 42.

49 Dahl, ‘Naval innovation’; DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’; Maurer, ‘Fuel’; Snyder, ‘Petroleum and power’; and Sumida, ‘British naval administration’.

50 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, pp. 43–8; and Lautenschläger, ‘Technology’, pp. 18–19.

51 Dahl, ‘Naval innovation’, p. 54.

52 Seligmann, Matthew S., Nägler, Frank, and Epkenhans, Michael, eds., The naval route to the abyss: the Anglo-German naval race, 1895–1914 (New York, NY, 2014), p. 135.

53 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, pp. 49–50.

54 Sumida, ‘British naval operational’, p. 461.

55 Yergin, The prize, pp. 150–4.

56 Sumida, ‘British naval administration’.

57 Ibid.; and Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, pp. 50–2.

58 Dahl, ‘Naval innovation’, pp. 51–2.

59 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, p. 59.

60 Yergin, The prize, pp. 150–64; Podobnik, Bruce, ‘Toward a sustainable energy regime: a long-wave interpretation of global energy shifts’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 62 (1999), pp. 155–72, at p. 160; and Dahl, ‘Naval innovation’, p. 50.

61 Jones, ‘The British government’, p. 650. Lyon, Hugh, ‘The Admiralty and private industry’, in Ranft, Bryan, ed., Technical change and British naval policy, 1860–1939 (London, 1977), pp. 3764, also emphasizes the contributions of private industry for design advances that enabled the use of oil on the Admiralty's ships.

62 Skelton, ‘Coal versus oil’, p. 244.

63 McKay, John P., Pioneers for profit: foreign entrepreneurship and Russian industrialization, 1885–1913 (Chicago, IL, 1970), p. 85.

64 Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley, Oil in the Middle East: its discovery and development (London, 1954).

65 Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 35–42.

66 Nestheide, ‘State responses’, p. 198.

67 Henderson, W. O., ‘German economic penetration in the Middle East, 1870–1914’, Economic History Review, 18 (1948), pp. 5464.

68 Ediger, Volkan Ş., Osmanlı’da Neft ve Petrol (Ankara, 2006).

69 Hannigan, Robert E., The new world power: American foreign policy, 1898–1917 (Philadelphia, PA, 2002).

70 Bönker, Dirk, Militarism in a global age: naval ambitions in Germany and the United States before the war (Ithaca, NY, 2014); and Livermore, Seward W., ‘The American navy as a factor in world politics, 1903–1913’, American Historical Review, 63 (1958), pp. 863–79.

71 Nestheide, ‘State responses’, p. 110.

72 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 641–3; and Melville, G. W., Report of the U.S. Naval Liquid Fuel Board (Washington, DC, 1904), pp. 430–5.

73 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, p. 642.

74 Melosi, Martin V., Coping with abundance: energy and the environment in industrial America (Philadelphia, PA, 1985).

75 Pratt, Joseph A., ‘The ascent of oil: the transition from coal to oil in early twentieth-century America’, in Perelman, Lewis J., Giebelhaus, August W., and Yokell, Michael D., eds., Energy transitions: long-term perspectives (Boulder, CO, 1980), pp. 934.

76 Fay, S. B., ‘The Kaiser's secret negotiations with the Tsar, 1904–1905’, American Historical Review, 24 (1918), pp. 4872.

77 Yergin, The prize, p. 133.

78 Livermore, ‘The American navy’.

79 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’; and Maurer, ‘Fuel’, p. 68.

80 Nestheide, ‘State responses’, pp. 120–3.

81 Sumida, ‘British naval administration’, pp. 7–8.

82 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, pp. 55–8.

83 Skelton, ‘Coal versus oil’, p. 245.

84 Reguer, Sara, ‘Persian oil and the first lord: a chapter in the career of Winston Churchill’, Military Affairs, 46 (1982), pp. 134–8, at p. 134.

85 Kent, British Policy, pp. 22–3; and Ediger, Osmanlı’da Neft, pp. 250–76.

86 Brown, ‘Royal navy's fuel supplies’, p. 58.

87 Sumida, ‘British naval administration’.

88 Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 59–63.

89 Ibid., pp. 87–8.

90 Seligmann, Nägler, and Epkenhans, eds., The naval route, pp. 315–18; and Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 65–71.

91 Ediger, Osmanlı’da Neft.

92 For an interesting account of the challenge to Standard Oil's dominance in the Austrian market, see Frank, Alison, ‘The petroleum war of 1910: Standard Oil, Austria, and the limits of the multinational corporation’, American Historical Review, 114 (2009), pp. 1641.

93 Flanigan and Flaningam, ‘Some origins’, pp. 111–12.

94 Nestheide, ‘State responses’, pp. 131–2.

95 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 643–4.

96 Shulman, ‘“Science can never demobilize”’, pp. 369–70.

97 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 646–7.

98 Nash, Gerald D., United States oil policy, 1890–1964: business and government in twentieth-century America (Pittsburgh, PA, 1968), pp. 1415.

99 Dahl, ‘Naval innovation’, p. 54; and Maurer, ‘Fuel’, p. 70. That year, a memorandum to the secretary of the navy even emphasized that the United States could use its oil exports strategically to ‘limit the extent of the adoption of the oil engine by our possible enemies’. See Maurer, ‘Fuel’, p. 73.

100 Livermore, ‘The American navy’, p. 873.

101 Maurer, ‘Fuel’.

102 Shulman, ‘“Science can never demobilize”’, p. 372.

103 Yergin, The prize, pp. 153–6.

104 Jack, ‘The purchase’, pp. 143–51.

105 Ibid., pp. 151–68.

106 Jones, ‘The British government’.

107 Jones, ‘The British government’, p. 655; and Sumida, ‘British naval operational’, p. 468.

108 Anand Toprani, ‘Oil and grand strategy: Great Britain and Germany, 1918–1941’ (D.Phil. thesis, Georgetown University, 2012), p. 46.

109 Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 81–3.

110 Stranges, Anthony N., ‘Friedrich Bergius and the rise of the German synthetic fuel industry’, Isis, 75 (1984), pp. 642–67; and Hughes, Thomas Parke, ‘Technological momentum in history: hydrogenation in Germany, 1898–1933’, Past and Present, 44 (1969), pp. 106–32.

111 Yergin, The prize, 169.

112 Earle, ‘The Turkish Petroleum Company’; and Kent, British policy, pp. 17–30.

113 Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 61–4.

114 Shulman, ‘“Science can never demobilize”’, pp. 371–2.

115 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, p. 656.

116 Stern, ‘Oil scarcity’, pp. 222–3.

117 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 653–4.

118 BP, ‘Statistical review of world energy’ (13 June 2017),

119 Shulman, ‘“Science can never demobilize”’, pp. 373–4.

120 Yergin, The prize, p. 194.

121 Jensen, ‘The importance of energy’.

122 Yergin, The prize, pp. 172–3.

123 Hart, Basil H. Liddell, Strategy: the indirect approach (2nd edn, New York, NY, 1967), p. 358.

124 Kelanic, ‘The petroleum paradox’.

125 Pratt, ‘The ascent’, p. 20.

126 Hogan, Michael J., ‘Informal entente: public policy and private management in Anglo-American petroleum affairs’, Business History Review, 48 (1974), pp. 187205; Jones, , ‘The British government’; and William Stivers, ‘International politics and Iraqi oil, 1918–1928: a study in Anglo-American diplomacy’, Business History Review, 55 (1981), pp. 517–40.

127 Lautenschläger, ‘Technology’, pp. 7–8.

128 Moore, Elwood S., Coal: its properties, analysis, classification, geology, extraction, uses and distribution (New York, NY, 1922); and Fernie, John, A geography of energy in the United Kingdom (London, 1980).

129 Podobnik, Global energy shifts.

130 Court, W. H. B., ‘Problems of the British coal industry between the wars’, Economic History Review, 15 (1945), pp. 124; Fernie, A geography; and Turnheim, Bruno and Geels, Frank W., ‘Regime destabilisation as the flipside of energy transitions: lessons from the history of the British coal industry (1913–1997)’, Energy Policy, 50 (2012), pp. 3549.

131 BP, ‘Statistical review’; and Podobnik, Global energy shifts. The United States again became the world's largest oil producer in 2013 thanks to the shale oil revolution, but Saudi Arabia and Russia have each assumed the position at different times since 2013.

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