by Jie Jenny Zou
December 12, 2017
The Great War began in 1914 with cavalrymen on horseback and ended four years later with armored tanks and airplanes. It was, as one scholar put it, the “first war to run on oil.”
To ensure a steady flow of fuel, petroleum executives met regularly with federal officials in Standard Oil’s oak-paneled boardroom on Wall Street. The same industry broken up as an illegal monopoly in 1911 had become a quasi-arm of government.
As the Allies brokered peace in the spring of 1919, the American Petroleum Institute was born in a ballroom at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. Among its founding members were the same regulators entrusted to oversee the industry.
Over the course of a century, API has embedded itself in the U.S. government. Decades ago, the institute embarked on a campaign to sell Americans on a fossil-fuel future, despite having heard dire warnings of climate change as early as 1959. With more than 650 corporate members, the group now encompasses every sector of the oil and gas industry, from drilling to plastics manufacturing.
Big Oil’s influence has come at a steep cost to the public. From Kyoto to Paris, the institute has helped block or stall action on climate change, consistently putting profit ahead of health. API is now working to undermine bedrock environmental laws that promise Americans clean air and water — all while promoting deeper and riskier drilling in places long off limits.
Though the institute has for decades championed free-market economics, its success has been predicated on government buy-in at every level. Since the Wilson administration, API’s directors have enjoyed unfettered access to the White House and federal agencies, thwarting or slowing progress on everything from leaded gasoline to smog. With Donald Trump in the White House, the organization sees an unprecedented window of opportunity.
The story, in three chapters: