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Friday, September 29, 2023

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Prof’s oil drilling book recognized


The American Association of Petroleum Geologists will honor Tyler Priest, clinical professor and director of Global Studies at the C.T. Bauer College of Business, for his work chronicling the history the Shell Oil Company’s offshore operations.

Priest will formally accept the 2007 Geosciences in the Media award from the AAPG during their annual meeting in April.

Priest’s book, The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America, tells the "human story" behind deep-sea drilling production, a part of the industry’s past which Priest said he feels has been overlooked by historians.

"Most people focus on the Middle East and the geopolitics of oil, the political intrigue," he said. "The offshore part of the business is really under-studied. I wanted to tell that story, the science behind the strategy of exploration, the economic calculations and the impact on the public realm."

In 1988, Priest and fellow colleague Joseph Pratt were commissioned by then-president Phil Carroll of the Royal Dutch Shell Company to write up a history of the oil giant. The work was finished in 2002 but was never published due to a shakeup in RDS management, and the work fell by the wayside, Priest said.

"The new management was from the downstream part of the business, from overseas, and they probably saw no reason to glorify the upstream part of the business," he said. "I didn’t find out until a few years later that RDS had commissioned its own separate history project at the same time. It was a massive, three-volume thing, and the U.S. story was submerged in all that."

Despite setbacks, Priest found himself with an opportunity to use his research to tell the story of the RDS’ offshore operations.

Several offshore veterans he had interviewed for the commissioned history were eager to talk specifically about their work, he said.

"The retirees were great. Many of them were from the World War II generation. They were proud of their achievements and contributions to this growing field," Priest said. "They were willing to talk about their setbacks and failures along with their successes; it’s a human story."

The book was specifically credited by scientists and historians for portraying both the technological development of the offshore industry itself as well as the men and women behind the machines.

Priest began research for this new project, which would eventually become The Offshore Imperative, in 2002. Research for the book involved hundreds of hours of interviews and oral histories, and Priest said he often found himself conducting several follow-up interviews with geophysicists, paleontologists and drilling engineers just to finish a single chapter.

"I’ve always had an interest in geology and interdisciplinary studies, but I’m not really a technical person," he said. " I really had to bring myself up to speed and make sure I wasn’t saying something really stupid."

The Offshore Imperative, a culmination of nine years of research, was published on May 30 and immediately received acclaim from historians and the scientific community for what former AAPG president Peter Rose called a "humanizing" portrayal of the business.

"This is not a book about a big company – it’s a book about the people working in a big company," Rose said in a release.

Priest said he hopes that readers take from his book an appreciation for everything involved in drilling for the oil they depend upon daily.

"There’s a lot of money, innovation and risk involved with getting the oil we take for granted every day," he said. "People don’t often appreciate what it all entails. The decisions made about where to drill are billion-dollar decisions."

Priest holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Carleton College and a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His previous publications include Global Gambits: Big Steel and the U.S. Quest for Manganese, 2003, and his article "The ‘Americanization’ of Shell Oil" which appeared in Geoffrey Jones’ Foreign Multinationals in the United States: Management and Performance, 2001.

Priest’s next project, tentatively titled The Battle for the Tidelands, will be a history of the struggle between U.S. national and state governments in the 1930s concerning the rights to drill in the poorly defined "submerged lands" between coasts and the mainland.

"When a book comes out and people finally start to take notice of it, you’re well beyond it and into a different project," he said. "I’ll probably be working on some part of oil history for the rest of my life."


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