Ukraine war

Peter Dykstra: As inevitable as blood and taxes

A brief history of oil and warfare.

Just like the looming disaster in our future, the unfolding tragedies in Ukraine are rooted in oil.


One of the less-remembered aspects of World War I is Britain’s effort to corner the then-nascent market in Middle Eastern oil.

“Oil explorer” William Reynolds drilled seven years of desert dry holes in what is now known as Iran before his first big strike in 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was born, and the rush was on.

Turkey militarily challenged Britain’s oil control during and after the war. A young Territories Minister named Winston Churchill fended them off, including the first, primitive aerial use of chemical weapons: Barrels of phosgene gas hurled off a biplane.

The Turks had a major oil strike near Kirkuk, Iraq, in 1927. In Saudi Arabia 11 years later, an American-owned well came in—the first strike in what became known as the world’s largest oil field.

In World War II, a major part of Japan’s strategy was to cripple the U. S. Navy, then make a run to capture the oil fields in Indonesia and Malaysia. The Germans staged their ill-fated betrayal of the Soviet Union in part to seize the Caspian Sea oilfields. While many feel the Nazis lost the war with this failed move, it was a loss caused by an Army’s need for oil.

In 1953, fed up with his nation ’s fealty to oil, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Big Oil’s Iranian assets. He fell victim to a coup the same year—even though it took nearly 70 years for the U.S. to admit what the rest of the world had long assumed: The CIA had staged the coup.

Let’s race through a few more oily events.

  • The 1973 “energy crisis” saw a tightening of supply by OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and sent U.S. gasoline prices soaring to 36 cents a gallon (yikes!). A repeat OPEC embargo in 1979 saw prices shoot up to 86 cents (that’s $2.31 a gallon in recent prices).
  • The 1979 Iran hostage crisis roiled U.S. foreign policy and sunk Jimmy Carter as a one-term president. Iranians still seethed over Mosaddegh’s overthrow and dozens of other indignities.
  • George H.W Bush’s 1991-92 liberation of Kuwait after its occupation by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq saw the largest intentional release of oil in history as Iraq abandoned its offshore wells in the Persian Gulf.
  • His son, George W. Bush, looked America in the eye during his 2006 State of the Union speech and said “America is addicted to oil.” Under the remaining two years of his presidency, we did virtually nothing to kick the habit.
  • In March 2010, President Barack Obama authorized an expansion in offshore drilling, stating that technological advances ensure that offshore operations “generally don’t spill.” Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and triggering the largest offshore oil spill in history.

And now, with oil and gas as its economic base, Vladimir Putin and Russia is allegedly committing war crimes as he overruns Ukraine.

There's one thing that’s bothered me about America’s odd love affair with petroleum. Many of us are intensely bothered, or even offended, when we perceive that Big Government is keeping us down through excessive taxes or regulation. But we tend to cut Big Oil far more slack when prices shoot through the roof (even when the U.S. “roof” is half that of Europe’s).

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Moldova - People fleeing the military offensive in Ukraine. (Credit: UN Women)

Turkey drafting long-term strategy to combat climate change

The Turkish government is working on a long-term climate change strategy and action plan that will help the country meet its targets in line with the Paris Agreement

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Foresters urged to adapt woodlands to minimise climate change risks

Future-proofing forests and woodlands to be more resilient will ensure they continue to provide environmental, social and economic benefits and play a key role in achieving net-zero by 2045.

Lucie Drummond: The beginning of our new lives?

There's no silver bullet to decarbonise the whole economy; it will require multiple answers, working in tandem.

B.C. salmon abundance ‘a sixth’ of what it was half-a-century ago: Study

Catches of wild pacific salmon on the Fraser, Skeena and Nass Rivers are only a sixth of what they were half a century ago, according to a new study from UBC.

Kenya: Climate change and water sports join growing list of sea turtle threats

Sea turtles in Kenya are classified as protected by legislation that prohibits any form of direct exploitation of the animal or its products. Illegal harvesting is declining, but conservationists say their preservation is still an uphill task.

Midwest at greater risk for rolling blackouts

Electricity demand on the Midwest's grid is expected to be strong this summer, with hot weather and a growing economy sucking plenty of juice. At the same time, electricity supplies are tightening.

Three children die as scorching heatwave bakes Pakistan

A searing heatwave continued to bake most parts of Pakistan as temperatures soared up to 51 degrees Celsius (about 124 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday, meteorological officials and local media reported.

From our Newsroom
environmental justice

Op-Ed: Black gold and the color line

How historical racist redlining practices are linked to higher exposures to oil and gas wells.

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

Our mothers' gifts: Readers respond

We asked you to share one "big lesson" your mother gave. And you responded

Lake Mead

Dykstra: A corpse in a barrel in a drying reservoir

And other climate change tales for our age

A mother's gift

Gifts from our mothers

What one "big gift" did your mother give you? We want your story.

Bird photography

Earth Day 2022: Amidst the crises, don’t forget the beauty

Words and images from our founder, Pete Myers, on how bird photography keeps him connected to and curious about a planet in peril.

fracking pennsylvania

Public health in Pennsylvania ignored during fracking rush: Report

A new report outlines the alleged missteps in protecting Pennsylvanians from the health impacts of fracking.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.