Extracting the Past from the Present: Exotic Prizes, Empty Wilderness, and Commercial Conquest in Two Oil Company Advertisements, 1925–2012
“Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world’s resources.”—Edward Said, Orientalism 
1. Introduction: Oil Cultures Past and Present
2.1. Imagining Persia and Petroleum
2.2. Imagining Exotic Prizes and Empty Wildnerness in Northern Alberta
Imagining the Past in the Present
Conflicts of Interest
|APOC||Anglo-Persian Oil Company|
|ILN||Illustrated London News|
|SAGD||Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage|
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- 1The Illustrated London News began publication in Britain in 1842, and was the world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper .
- 2The twelve advertisements were also published by BP in a large hardcover volume entitled “In the Land of the Shah: Being a Series of Announcements Issued by the British Petroleum Co. Ltd. 1 January 1925–25 December 1925” .
- 3The words “Britain”, “British”, or “Britannic” appear over 70 times in the “Persian Series”.
- 5Barrett and Worden note that the special issue represented “the first comprehensive account of ‘oil culture’, the broad field of cultural representations and symbolic forms that have taken shape around the fugacious material of oil…”.
- 6On the development of Energy Humanities, see . Boyer and Szeman write that “‘Energy humanities’ is a rapidly emerging field of scholarship that overcomes traditional boundaries between the disciplines and between academic and applied research. Like its predecessors, energy humanities highlights the essential contribution that the insights and methods of the human sciences can make to areas of study and analysis that were once thought best left to the natural sciences.”
- 8This volume gathers together several of the articles published in the special volume on oil in the Journal of American Studies 46, 2012.
- 9The concession contract was valid for a period of sixty years, and stipulated that the Shah was entitled to receive £20,000 sterling upon the discovery of oil, £20,000 in shares in the first company to successfully extract oil, and sixteen per cent of all future revenues derived from Persian oil. Notably absent from the Persian concession agreement were five northern provinces near the Caspian Sea, which were excluded due to their proximity to Russia, another expansionist empire seeking to exploit Persian oil .
- 10When D’Arcy discovered oil at Maidan-i-Naftun, he promptly renamed the location Masjid-i-Suleiman, meaning “Temple of Solomon”. This act offers a telling glimpse of the imperialistic and crusading mentality that D’Arcy and other British oil explorers possessed toward Persia .
- 13Between 1912 and 1925, APOC production of Persian crude oil rose from nil to 3% of total global production. As BP’s official historian wrote of the company’s dramatic expansion during the early twentieth century, “The growth of the Company in the two decades from 1900 to 1928 was a remarkable phenomenon…” (, p. 632).
- 14The refinery at Ābādān was constructed in October 1908 to process oil extracted at Maidain-i-Naftun. The site functioned as an important rail and shipping hub for crude and refined oil products in the British Empire. By the mid-1920s, Ābādān was one of the largest refineries in the Middle East. The APOC refinery at Skewen, in South Wales, was named Llandarcy in homage to both its Welsh location (the prefix Llan identifies a “village” or “lawn” in Welsh) and to oil explorer William Knox D’Arcy. Construction on this plant commenced in 1921 on “a waste of rabbit warren and low-lying bogland”, and finished a year later. Llandarcy was the first large-scale oil refinery in Britain, and produced oil products until it closed its doors in 1998 (, p. 135; ).
- 15The British Petroleum Company, or BP, was initially formed in London in 1906 to act as the local marketing and distributing agent of the German oil company Europaische Petroleum Union. By 1914, BP had become the second-largest oil distributor in Britain. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, BP was classed as an enemy concern and was placed under public trust. Eventually, in May 1917, the company was sold to APOC for £2,650,000. For the remainder of the interwar period, BP functioned as the local marketing and distribution agent of APOC’s Persian oil in Britain (, pp. 219, 291).
- 16The company’s expenditure on advertising becomes even more staggering when one considers that BP’s overall profits for the fiscal year 1924–1925 totaled £323,000.
- 17Christopher Clark was a well-known ‘Black & White Man’, a group of artist-reporters that drew or painted weekly images depicting news events and general interest subjects for British magazines and newspapers during the interwar years. Clark’s work was published frequently in the Illustrated London News and The Sphere magazine.
- 18Stories about D’Arcy’s early twentieth-century exploits are also presented in .
- 19Although violently dismissive of the Bakhtiari tribespeople, Williamson did discuss at some length the ways in which Persian labourers were being trained and put to work in myriad roles within the company, including as machinists, specialized craftsmen, and general tradesmen. Williamson draws a sharp distinction between urban and middle-class Persians, who were being trained to “work for” the company, and “the simple nomads” with which the company seemed to always be “working against” (, pp. 121, 145).
- 21In addition to “Canadian Ideas at Work”, Cenovus produced several other video advertisements that were presented to television and movie theatre audiences from 2012–2014, including: “Fuelling Our Lives”, “Rising to the Challenges”, “A Different Oil Sands”, and “More than Fuel.” See .
- 22According to Cenovus external communications manager Leanne Deighton, “Canadian Ideas at Work” and other commercials from this period were produced in response to negative public opinion about the oil sands. In an interview in July 2012, she stated that “People don’t really need to know the ins and outs of our business…They just want to know why you need oil and gas and in the simplest way, how we’re developing it in the most responsible way that we can” .
- 23The first recorded European encounter with Alberta’s oil sands is James Knight’s 1715 account of the free flowing ‘gum’ that he witnessed seeping out of the banks of the Athabasca River. Later, in 1788, Sir Alexander MacKenzie recorded his encounter with “bituminous fountains; into which a pole of twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance.” See .
- 24In 1967, Great Canadian Oil Sands Limited (later Suncor) began producing oil at 32,000 barrels per day. In 1978, Syncrude began operations producing 109,000 barrels per day .
- 25Encana Corporation was itself comprised of two historical oil sands companies of the twentieth century: PanCanadian Energy Corp. and the Alberta Energy Company .
- 26Cenovus’ conventional oil facilities are located at Weyburn, southeast Saskatchewan, and Pelican Lake, 300 kilometres north of Edmonton, Alberta. The company’s unconventional oil sands facilities are located at Christina Lake, 150 kilometres south of Forth McMurray, Alberta, and Foster Creek, 330 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, Alberta. The company’s co-owned refineries (with ConocoPhillips) are located at Wood River, Illinois, and Borger, Texas. At the time of writing, Cenovus had acquired further regulatory approval for three additional projects: Narrows Lake, Telephone Lake, and Grand Rapids .
- 27As Cenovus states on its website, the amount of natural gas produced by the company “is enough to heat almost 1.7 million average-sized single detached homes in Canada for an entire year”.
- 28By comparison, the tract of land that William Knox D’Arcy was granted concessionary rights to in Persia was nearly 300 million acres—40 Times larger than Cenovus’ concession footprint in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Cenovus predicts its reserves of oil will last for 24 years .
- 29In a feature issue on Cenovus, AMÖI Magazine reported that “In 2013, Cenovus alone spent nearly $400 million contracting with Aboriginal companies that provide oil producers with everything from camp and catering services to site security and well servicing.” See: .
- 30BP also used aerial flyovers of its oil extraction facilities in Persia as a tool for promoting the themes of wildness and emptiness. As Henry Longhurst recalled in 1959 of his trip to Persia in the mid-1920s, “As we flew comfortably over the 120 miles which separate Abadan from the headquarters of the oilfields in the distant foothills, we looked down on a barren, sun-scorched wilderness in which the temperature in the shade, when there is any shade, hovers for months on end in the neighbourhood of 115°” . Priya Satia, an expert on British aerial campaigns in the Middle East during the mid-twentieth century, has said that “It was perceived as all tribal, all desert, all Bedouin, and that such people and such terrain could take violence that others could not. The assumptions about the people who lived there made it permissible to use planes there” .
- 31This phrase appears in the commercial in a slightly augmented form, as “…unlock the potential in the oil sands”.
- 32Much of the literature on oil produced during the early twentieth century discusses the resource as something that was “won.” Albert Lidgett, for example, wrote in 1919 that “The ancients, and even those of the last century, were content to resort to the most primitive means for winning petroleum from the earth” . See also: .
© 2016 by the author; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Wereley, I. Extracting the Past from the Present: Exotic Prizes, Empty Wilderness, and Commercial Conquest in Two Oil Company Advertisements, 1925–2012. Humanities 2016, 5, 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5020044
Wereley I. Extracting the Past from the Present: Exotic Prizes, Empty Wilderness, and Commercial Conquest in Two Oil Company Advertisements, 1925–2012. Humanities. 2016; 5(2):44. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5020044Chicago/Turabian Style
Wereley, Ian. 2016. "Extracting the Past from the Present: Exotic Prizes, Empty Wilderness, and Commercial Conquest in Two Oil Company Advertisements, 1925–2012" Humanities 5, no. 2: 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/h5020044