The Value of Books

At MasterResource, a free-market energy blog, Alex Epstein posts a glowing tribute to the 1996 Cato book Oil, Gas, and Government by Robert L. Bradley, Jr. (who happens to be a co-blogger at MasterResource). Oil, Gas, and Government is surely the longest book Cato ever published, and nobody knows better than I do—well, Rob Bradley does—how much work went into researching, writing, editing, and publishing it.

In these days of blogs and tweets, we’re used to consuming information in very small bites. But one of the fundamental roles of think tanks is to produce long-form research, not just talking points and congressional briefings. And Oil, Gas, and Government is very long form—1,997 pages in two volumes. (We told him nobody wanted to read a 2,000-page book, so he stopped at 1997.) It’s a tremendous and comprehensive achievement, as Epstein explains:

While recently researching energy history for a writing project, I was reminded of how valuable—and underrated—Robert Bradley’s Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience is. While there are countless books covering the history of energy from one angle or another, very few, in my experience, can be counted on for precision and accuracy.

The majority of books I read that reference early petroleum history, for example, tell a radically oversimplified narrative of petroleum replacing whale oil. However, if one reads Harold Williamson and Arnold Daum’s definitive two-volume The American Petroleum Industry, one learns about a far more intricate and interesting progress, including the one-time dominance of camphene, a turnpentine-based illuminant that preceded petroleum–or the story of “coal oil,” which was once believed to be the illuminant of the future. (I discuss this history in my essay Energy at the Speed of Thought: The Original Alternative Energy Market.)

What distinguishes Williamson and Daum—and Oil, Gas, and Government—is the systematic use of primary sources. For a researcher, this certainly makes life more difficult as it is far easier to use popular accounts as a jumping off points.

But the researchers who undergo this difficult task give the rest of us an enduring resource. Williamson and Daum present the essential technological and economic history of the industry through the 1950s, with exact quantitative data and contemporaneous images throughout. Bradley’s book gives us the essential political and political-economic history of the oil and gas industry through the 1980s, with painstaking attention to detail.

Bradley’s introduction, incidentally, gives a valuable overview of the merits and shortcomings of various popular histories. Not surprisingly, Williamson and Daum receive high praise and are referenced throughout Oil, Gas & Government.

Bradley’s 2,000-page opus may be daunting for some, but if you ever need historical context on today’s developments, from offshore drilling to natural gas policy, this is the resource to consult.

Earlier this year, for example, I was wondering about the history of eminent domain in the oil industry, and Oil, Gas, and Government covered it comprehensively-–including this memorable passage about how Standard Oil created pipelines without using eminent domain:

Right-of-way was obtained by dollars, not legal force. Pipe was laid deep for permanence, and only the best equipment was used to minimize leakage. Storage records reflected “accuracy and integrity.” Innovative tank design reduced leakage and evaporation to benefit all parties. Fire-preventions reflected “systematic administration.” The pricing strategy was to prevent entry by keeping rates low. While these business successes may not have benefited certain competitors, they benefited customers and consumers of the final products.

The book does not need to be read cover-to-cover, though I have found it immensely rewarding to do so. Any chapter stands on its own, almost as an encyclopedia entry, though one will find references to intriguing concepts or history discussed elsewhere in the book.

Oil, Gas, and Government has an additional benefit: Bradley’s theoretical examination of certain important issues in petroleum policy. Most notable is his discussion of a “homestead” theory of property rights in oil. Under this theory, the individual who creates value by discovering a reservoir is the primary rights-holder, so long as he has made proper arrangements for any given surface access point.

Under traditional theory, every person whose land happens to be above a given reservoir, whether they do anything or not, is a rights-holder with a right to “capture” as much oil as they can once someone else has discovered it. When I first read Bradley’s account many years ago my reaction was “Of course—this is the only way to do it.”

I write all of this because I think the energy community would be served by possessing more copies of this book—along with Williamson and Daum—and, owing to its length and its age (nearly 20 years old) it does not get the attention it deserves. In our age of quick communication, where even medium-sized books seem on the wane, the old-styled treatise has a storied place in our understanding of history to better inform the present and imagine the future.

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