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The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America

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The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America

Posted on: Saturday, 23 August 2008, 03:00 CDT

By McSwain, James B

The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America. By Tyler Priest. Kenneth E. Montague Series in Oil and Business History, No. 19. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007. Pp. [xiv], 317. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-58544-568-4.) This book examines Shell Oil’s daring exploitation of offshore oil fields- growing out of a deliberate strategy to find, develop, and profit from domestic oil sources, particularly those off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico-from 1945 to 2004. It is the story of an Americanized oil company that enjoyed near autonomy in business decisions from its U.K./European parent syndicate, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

The book’s narrative is sustained throughout by easily understood explanations of the technical details of drilling and production. Though it is not a full-scale company history on the order of Stephen Howarth’s A Century in Oil: The “Shell” Transport and Trading Company, 1897-1997 (London, 1997), it surpasses Kendall Beaton’s Enterprise in Oil: A History of Shell in the United States (New York, 1957). Since Priest has confined his work to Shell Oil (U.S.), he avoids in-depth analyses of environmental, property, political, and human rights altercations addressed by Grant Jordan, Shell, Greenpeace, and Brent Spar (New York, 2001); Michael J. Veron, Shell Game: One Family’s Long Battle Against Big Oil (Guilford, Conn., 2007); Louis Wesseling, Fuelling the War: Revealing an Oil Company’s Role in Vietnam (New York, 2000); and Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta (San Francisco, 2001).

Priest successfully draws together the major threads of company activities. First, Shell management, operating out of Houston and New Orleans, recruited and rewarded very talented engineers, geologists, and sophisticated computer specialists who solved many intimidating deepwater drilling problems with innovative technical solutions on an unprecedented scale. These managers, who had boundless confidence in their engineering colleagues, garnered large amounts of company resources to drill in places that presented truly staggering technical problems and financial hurdles.

Second, the company’s constant push to be independent of Royal Dutch/ Shell Group by finding and producing its own crude in North America earned Shell Oil a degree of autonomy not normally accorded a subsidiary unit in a worldwide oil complex. Third, Shell amassed a mixed record of field development. It missed the Prudhoe Bay field and instead drilled in offshore Alaska and the Atlantic, very expensive ventures that produced nothing. This was in contrast to a fourth theme-the company’s enormous financial and technical risks in the Gulf of Mexico, from drilling at an unheard depth of 30 feet in the 1950s to establishing monster rigs with multiple wells in 7,600 feet of water in the twenty-first century. The company’s willingness to bid for leases over vast areas of the Gulf at high prices showed its confidence in its technical expertise in deepwater operations and, most of all, in its evolving and sophisticated geological mapping of me Gulfs substrata of salt domes, faulted anticlines, and seismic “bright spots” (p. 130). Fifth, until its parent syndicate reined in spending in the 1990s, Shell lavished money on its Bellaire Research Center, whose staff achieved fundamental scientific advancements in geology, geophysics, and production technology.

This strong book shows how important Shell Oil’s activities in me Gulf were to modern oil production, both in support of a domestic energy market and in sustaining economically the Louisiana-Texas Gulf Coast delimited by Houston and New Orleans.

JAMES B. MCSWAIN

Tuskegee University

Copyright Southern Historical Association Aug 2008

(c) 2008 Journal of Southern History, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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