OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Tyler Priest

Portrait of Tyler Priest

Tyler Priest is an associate professor of history and geography at the University of Iowa. A widely published scholar of energy and environmental history, he is the author of The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil's Search for Petroleum in the Postwar United States (2007), which won the Geosciences in the Media Award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. He also won the American Society for Environmental History's Alice Hamilton Award for his article, "Extraction Not Creation: The History of Offshore Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico," in Enterprise & Society (June 2007). He coedited "Oil in America," a special issue of the Journal of American History (June 2012). From 2000 to 2015, Priest was the chief historian on three interdisciplinary research projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management). These projects documented the growth and expansion of the offshore oil industry along the Gulf Coast and collected 740 audio and transcribed oral histories with people who worked in all aspects of the industry. Priest's expertise on the history of offshore oil has led to government and industry advisory positions and a role as a regular commentator for print, radio, online, and television media. In 2010 he also served as a senior policy analyst on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Since 2005, the United States has witnessed a spectacular growth in oil and gas production, reversing decades of decline, due to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." This lecture discusses the technological, geographical, social, and policy aspects of the rise of modern fracking. It brings the story into the present, analyzing the major battles at the state and federal levels over how to regulate this new industry, how the fracking revolution has strengthened American power in the world, and what it means for climate change. The industry's talented if not mad scientists created a technological marvel and changed the course of energy's future at the global level. For many at the local level in the United States, however, the maturing oil and gas creature is not a force for progress, but a scary Frackenstein's Monster. The creature is here to stay. It is too formidable and valuable to kill. The challenge is to make it sociable.
The lecture surveys and critiques the burgeoning literature on "petro-criticism" and "energy humanities." It argues that much of the writing in this genre reads into the history of oil the story of future catastrophe. Apocalyptic projections of what the future of oil holds distort our effort to understand the oil history. The lecture takes issue with essentialist narratives that are often rife with factual errors, evidentiary problems, and a lack of empathy for historical actors. Historians still have a lot of work to do in explaining the role of labor, technology, culture, and politics in the development of the oil industry in the United States.
This lecture discusses the global emergence of offshore deepwater (depths beyond 1,500 feet) oil since the 1980s. The largest oil discoveries in the past two decades, onshore or offshore, have nearly all been found in the deepwater Atlantic Ocean margins of three places: the Gulf of Mexico, southeast Brazil, and West Africa. By the late 1990s, as multi-billion dollar production facilities followed discoveries in these regions, industry insiders began referring to this triad as the "Golden Triangle." Treating the history of the Deepwater Golden Triangle as a single story reveals important aspects of deepwater development that are obscured by examining each region in isolation. It specifies how the offshore oil industry's push into the deepwater frontier actually unfolded over time. It underscores the interrelated factors of geology, capital allocation, technological innovation, culture, and policy that shaped deepwater exploration and production in all three places. Although the Golden Triangle did not emerge from some grand design, the offshore industry successfully turned it into a post-Cold War space of opportunity for oil and gas extraction beyond the increasingly unstable Middle East and largely independent of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil discoveries and developments in the DGT helped propel the consolidation of major oil companies into "super majors." They also reshaped the national security stance of the United States and reconfigured the geographic contours of the global oil market. Finally, by pushing oil exploration and drilling into such extreme ocean depths, they greatly increased the environmental risks of the world's dependence on oil. We still do not fully comprehend the dimensions of these risks.