The Managing Scarcity project based at Maastricht University explores the long and ambivalent history of oil firms’ involvement in alternative energy and global environmental governance. The oil industry has never been solely an oil industry. Many oil firms are descended from companies that originally operated in markets far distant from oil, and many have sought to exploit “oil spillovers” between their oil-oriented activities (exploration, exploitation, refining, etc.) and other markets and technologies. Exploring these spillovers–particularly between oil and other energy sources–casts new light on the history and geopolitical influence of oil. Doing so also holds the potential to better understand the challenges and opportunities of the world’s current energy situation and the need for the oil industry not to hinder (and preferably to aid) a drawdown in use of fossil fuels.

Our story starts in the 1920s, when oil firms’ involvement with nuclear energy began. However, our main focus is the “long 1970s”–roughly 1968 to 1986–when oil spillovers to other energy sources proliferated, and when prominent oil actors led the formation of institutions of global environmental governance. In this period, oil firms were among the most important investors and innovators in solar power, nuclear fission and fusion, geothermal energy, advanced batteries and energy storage, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and so on.

This was also the period when a network of current and former oil executives built institutions in the arena of international environmental diplomacy, resource governance, and what became known as sustainable development. The Club of Rome, the United Nations Environment Program, Aspen Institute, International Institute for Environment and Development, Worldwatch Institute, International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, the Woodlands Conferences, the Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies, Biosphere 2, and other sites of environmental diplomacy were all controlled or heavily influenced by current and former oil executives such as Robert O. Anderson, Maurice Strong, George Mitchell, Joseph Slater, and George McGhee. The interlocking organizations these oilmen established set a policy agenda that echoed the investments in alternative energy made by their companies and by their competitors in the industry.

Yet in the 1980s, those investments mostly dried up, and the networks established by Anderson, Strong, and Mitchell fragmented or lost contact with their roots in oil. Today, it is largely forgotten–in some cases actively denied–that oil firms had anything to do with alternative energy or environmental diplomacy. The twin mysteries our project tries to solve, therefore, are why oil firms constructed these entanglements in the first place, and why they retreated from them in the 1980s.

The PI (Cyrus Mody), two PhD candidates (Jelena Stankovic and Michiel Bron), and a postdoc (Odinn Melsted) approach these questions by examining archival and published historical documents related to oil firms’ contributions to biotechnology and computing (Mody), nuclear power (Bron), solar energy (Stankevic), and environmentalism/resource forecasting/geothermal (Melsted). Project staff will synthesize these studies in a co-authored monograph alongside our individual and co-authored PhD theses, articles, edited volume chapters, and essays for the broader public.

We are proud to partner with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution, Rice University’s Center for Environmental Studies, and the Science History Institute in organizing a external events to engage the scholarly community and wider publics.

The Waddenzee off the north coast of the Netherlands, with a natural gas rig at center in the far background. Photo by Cyrus Mody.