“I’ve been accused of having a fairly good sense of recall, but will leave that to the judgment of those who may be sufficiently interested in these recollections as to actually read them.” — Lloyd N. Unsell

“It has been suggested that I…,” or “I have been urged to…,” are typical of the predicates often used by some writers, platform speakers, analysts, even occasional historians, in reference to some project or undertaking. It is a relatively harmless device that transfers a little of the blame to others for the quality, or lack of quality, reflected in such work. Well, it happens that since I left the Washington scene some 15 years ago, I have been encouraged by certain oilmen and women, a few politicians, several family members, and some just plain friends to write a political memoir covering some of my personal recollections and experiences in the service of the Nation’s independent oil and gas producers. Though I’ve finally succumbed to these persuasions, I shall not burden a single one of these well-meaning souls with an identity, for I should not want one of them held accountable for the accuracy, pertinence, relevance, or entertainment value of these recollections.

My past resistance to attempting such a memoir has been well known to some of my friends, who understand that I believe such a book should be accurate with regard to dates, months, years, statistics, quotations, individual and collective actions, results, wins, losses, and the like. Such detail requires a great deal of personal research, or the employment of researchers who know or can guess what you want. I’m now too lethargic to do it myself, and too impatient to keep some perfect stranger in the right groove to get it done. Unlike some politicians whose names may come to mind, I kept no diary and made no tapes, so I make no pretense of striving for precise detail and factual fidelity. I do have my reasons for this: First, as just stated, I’ve become too lazy and undisciplined to do painstaking research, and more important, I believe that writing burdened with such minutia is a sure cure for insomnia, anyway.

So this so-called “memoir” will be purely anecdotal. It will deal with my earlier life, and with some amusing entanglements growing out of legislative and political actions, and the players including oil personalities, politicians, journalists, and others as I recall them. It also will include reference to some industry legends on which I have an acquired knowledge. I’ve been accused of having a fairly good sense of recall, but will leave that to the judgment of those who may be sufficiently interested in these recollections as to actually read them.

Since I’ve confessed my resistance to fine detail, some may be moved to question the value of assertions devoid of documentation. I wouldn’t argue the point, except to say there are distinctions between value and purpose, and my purpose is to save some reference to past events to which I’ve been witness, some of them important, many more or less trivial. In Washington, the facade of one of our federal buildings is adorned with the much quoted engraving, “The Past is Prologue.” I believe this is a literal truth. Human beings, industries, and nations are what they are because of the forces, within and outside of their control, favorable and unfavorable, pleasant and unpleasant, moral and immoral, with which they’ve been buffeted, shaped, influenced, and at times maybe even brutalized, over times past. The domestic oil industry historically has been the target of as much unfounded criticism and counterproductive intrusions by Government as any economic entity in America, and most assuredly has been shaped in part by misguided political actions and effluvium. I hasten to add, because I’m not just an apologist for oil and gas, that the industry at times clearly invited some lumps by its own mistakes. I should add too that it has been the beneficiary of positive policies put in place by legislative leaders concerned for the country’s energy future. From a history of negotiating uncertain political seas, alternating between calm and storm-tossed, has emerged “the oil industry” of today, which certainly is light years different than when I entered the scene more than half century ago, or even from the day I “hung ‘em up,” in 1987. Even if it had existed in a neutral political climate continuously since World War II, the oil and gas industry would have faced daunting challenges, both economic and technological. But in long stretches of time, it experienced harsh treatment by political critics — some who could justify industry-bashing as a strategy to advance their controlling philosophies, and some who were opportunists adept at recognizing any vulnerable target when it entered their field of vision.

Aiding and abetting such attackers was the industry’s vastness and complex nature, with its disparate segments often at loggerheads and never reticent about airing their differences in public. This made it tough for oil’s political sympathizers, who detested demagoguery in their ranks, to get handles on constructive strategies. Much of that has changed now. In fact, sheer anti-oil demagoguery once rampant in Washington has all but disappeared, but environmental purism has become so identified with the public weal, that political actions addressing the nation’s energy policy dilemmas seem less likely than ever.

Like most everything ongoing in the human experience, political attitudes on energy issues grow out of individual and collective experiences. The great leaders of World War II, including President Dwight Eisenhower, came out of that conflict as eyewitnesses to the indispensability of oil in the conduct of warfare. Even Life Magazine, at war’s end, issued a coffee-table pictorial book on the success and complexity of the massive effort to supply petroleum fuels to allied forces on far-flung battlefields on both sides of the planet. Eisenhower would contend even late in the l950’s that U. S. oil producing capacity was tremendously important because it “makes war (with the Soviet Union) less likely.” He saw sufficient oil as a strength that dissuaded potential aggressors. It was access to oil that U. S. forces sought to deny both the Germans and the Japanese; one of the largest bombing raids in history was the massive attack on Rumanian refineries at Ploesti, which were fueling the axis armed forces in Europe. Oil was an essential ingredient in the U. S. military arsenal, and Ike’s experiences had convinced him that the Nation should never lag in maintaining a war-ready oil producing capability. He was joined in that resolve by dozens of his contemporaries in military command, by the first secretary of defense, James Forestall, and by numerous political leaders of the l940’s and 50’s.

But those perspectives are now just part of history. The now prevailing attitude toward energy resource development and public energy policies prove once again that “change” is the most reliable constant in our lives. The environmental activists and their financial and political supporters have fought to see that oil resources in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge will never be disturbed. American technology has lifted both Great Britain and Norway from zero production to net oil exporters, from production in one of the roughest patches of water on the globe, the North Sea, but drilling in much of our relatively benign but potentially oil rich offshore is prohibited. We strike deals for General Electric and others to sell nuclear power generators to China, and even look the other way when Russian nuclear power technology is peddled to unstable regimes, but build another nuclear plant in America? Never!

What about “energy security,” a tenet to which the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations were committed? Well, we don’t have to worry any more because America is “the only remaining Super Power.” And we proved in “Desert Storm” that if any little despot interferes with oil supply lines we can send our missile-bearing strike forces to take the situation in hand. As one of the Washington pundits wrote, Desert Storm might more aptly have been called “Oil War I.” The New York Times quoted one unnamed Washington observer as saying, “That is our energy policy – Desert Storm.”

Can America maintain its status as the only surviving Super Power while becoming progressively more dependent for basic energy supplies on unstable regimes both remote and insecure? That may be the most important but least discussed geopolitical question facing our country, having far and away more serious implications than “global warming,” one of the consuming topics of the day. Does energy contingency planning rest on some strategic hypothesis about what circumstance may justify “Oil War II?” How did we reach this new stage where our smugness about our presumably everlasting invincibility has become the apparent guiding principle of national energy policy? Well, it was a long road. With our future security and domestic economy depending on forced access to somebody else’s oil, a strange new ball game indeed, some may contend that everything that has gone before is irrelevant.

But as one witness to much of what has gone before over more than a half century, I think that in the end, and as some few may still believe, history will be the judge.

Read about Unsell’s introduction to the Oklahoma petroleum industry in Chapter One, “Oil on my Boots.”


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

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