BP disaster Spikes Interest in Energy HistoryTyler Priest has long been recognized in Houston and among the small fraternity of energy industry historians as an authority on offshore oil.
Within hours of the April 2010 fatal blowout at BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, that started to change.
The director of Global Studies at the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston was fielding media calls from around the country, and ultimately the world.
From the day of the blowout through August, when he appeared before a White House panel investigating the explosion and record oil leak, Priest was quoted in news stories, appeared on TV and radio shows, and wrote online op-ed pieces for The New York Times and Politico. There were more than 50 in all, beginning with a call from USA Today.
The pace of the calls was slow in the early days, and built as it became apparent the BP spill could set records and last for months.
“One of the most interesting days was when I was contacted by both Geraldo Rivera and Al Jazeera,” said Priest, who is also a clinical assistant professor at UH Bauer. With only so many hours in the day, the media blitz deadlines were so intense that Priest had to decline many requests.
For the global media, Priest was one of a limited number of impartial experts on the oil industry willing and able to explain things, like how the business is regulated. After his name showed up in some widely circulated wire stories, he got more requests than he could handle. He steered clear of requests for someone to explain rig engineering — his areas are energy business history and globalization — and avoided speculating on what might happen next.
The experience made him realize he assumed people knew more about offshore oil than they actually do.
One Florida radio host didn’t realize oil companies had drilled wells in water 10,000 feet, or that the waters in the Gulf of Mexico ever got that deep, he said.
Fifteen minutes before a radio call-in show on Wisconsin Public Radio, Priest was surprised to learn he’d be debating Antonia Juhasz, the author of the book The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must Do To Stop It.
The conversation went better than he’d expected. But at one point, she said oil from the Gulf of Mexico was exported – which is incorrect, Priest said. It was one of many reminders that, even those who study the industry have a limited knowledge of the offshore business.
“It was an opportunity to do your service as an educator and as a public intellectual,” Priest said.
Now he’s taking that expertise to Washington as an adviser to the National Oil Spill Commission. Priest’s assignment as a senior policy analyst is to contribute a history of offshore oil regulation to the report by The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
This has also been an opportunity for the small, but growing, group of oil industry historians to get their due. Priest has been asked to be a guest editor for an all-oil history edition of the Journal of American History – the flagship journal for the study of U.S. history. He will write the introduction and three experts from UH will contribute articles for the issue scheduled for 2012.
Despite all the attention, Priest has mixed feelings about the experience.
“This disaster is having such an adverse impact on so many people,” he said.
Priest and several colleagues from various departments on campus will host roundtable discussions about the potential environmental, energy and regulatory implications at the 2010 Oil Spill Symposium, scheduled for Sept. 23. For more information about the event, click here.
By Stephen Rassenfoss