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A FAREWELL TO KING COAL: GEOPOLITICS, ENERGY SECURITY, AND THE TRANSITION TO OIL, 1898–1917

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

Abstract

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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Corresponding author

Center for Energy and Sustainable Development (CESD), Kadir Has University, Cibali, Istanbul, Turkey, 34083volkanediger@gmail.com; johnbowlus@gmail.com

References

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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.

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15 Yergin, The prize, pp. 150–64.

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

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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).

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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.

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88 Herwig, ‘Luxury’ fleet, pp. 59–63.

89 Ibid., pp. 87–8.

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91 Ediger, Osmanlı’da Neft.

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

95 DeNovo, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 643–4.

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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.

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105 Ibid., pp. 151–68.

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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), www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html.

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

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122 Yergin, The prize, pp. 172–3.

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125 Pratt, ‘The ascent’, p. 20.

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

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129 Podobnik, Global energy shifts.

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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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