Energy Transitions and International Cooperation in the 20th Century

Energy Transitions and International Cooperation in the 20th Century

Rüdiger Graf / Henning Türk, Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam
digital (Potsdam)
Vom - Bis
10.06.2021 - 11.06.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Stefan Pulte, Historisches Institut, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

In the wake of the rising political attention to the decarbonisation of economies in the face of climate change, the field of energy history has grown enormously in recent years. However, connections to the history of international politics have only been made sporadically. The conference on “Energy Transitions and International Cooperation in the 20th Century”, organised by RÜDIGER GRAF (Potsdam) and HENNING TÜRK (Potsdam) at the ZZF Potsdam, was an attempt to overcome this predicament. In their introductory remarks, the organizers took the political discussion about the necessity of international cooperation to tackle the challenges of climate change as a starting point for both a reflection on how historians can contribute to a public debate that so far has mainly been informed by natural scientists and economists as well as an analysis of the role of energy transitions in the history of international relations. Against this backdrop, they raised the questions of how international cooperation shaped energy transitions in the twentieth century, either by encouraging, impeding or even initiating them and what impact energy transitions had on international cooperation.

Due to the ambiguity of the term, much of the further introduction focussed on a definitory approach to the guiding concept of the conference. Historicising the notion of energy transition, which itself is a product of the scholarly analysis of the energy crises of the 1970s and the emergence of energy policy as a distinct policy field at the time, they defined it loosely as a shift in the share of a society’s primary energy intake. Emphasizing that, historically, energy transitions were not clear-cut breaks between two energy regimes but rather significant transformations of an energy mix, they pointed towards the fundamental difference between the current task of decarbonisation as a substitution of energy sources and previous energy transitions that only added energy sources to the mix.

The first two panels of the conference chaired by RALF AHRENS (Potsdam) and ASTRID M. ECKERT (Atlanta), discussed energy transitions in the context of Cold War politics from both an eastern and a western perspective.

Most accounts of the energy crises of the 1970s regard the USSR as a beneficiary of the surge of oil and gas prices that helped the Soviet Union to raise much-needed hard currency. MICHAEL DE GROOT (Bloomington) offered a counter-narrative to that highlighting the struggles within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) to adapt to the energy shocks and the subsequent tensions between its members. The Soviet adjustment of the CMEA oil prices to the global price hike in 1975, that was itself partly motivated by the goal to free oil for exports to the West, aggravated the CMEA’s members’ trade deficit with the West since they could not sell parts of their subsidised oil imports for profit themselves.

In her contribution, SUSANNE SCHATTENBERG (Bremen) demonstrated that energy politics were not only a source of dispute within the Eastern bloc, but also a sphere of cooperation even across the iron curtain. In particular, she analysed how Otto Schedl, the Bavarian Minister of Economic Affairs between 1957 and 1970, negotiated contracts with the Soviet Union about gas deliveries and the building of a pipeline. Proceeding from her case study, she argued that the Soviet and Western economic systems were tied together in a symbiotic relationship, in which the USSR “delivered the fuel that kept the capitalist engine running” and the West in turn provided infrastructure and consumer goods. From a cultural-historical perspective on energy diplomacy, she maintained that the mutual trust between the actors involved was decisive for this project to be realised.

Whereas the first panel revolved around energy politics in general, the conference’s focus on energy transitions became more apparent in the second panel. In their joint paper ROBERT GROSS (Innsbruck) and ODINN MELSTED (Maastricht) explored the role that the Marshall Plan played in Europe’s shift from coal to oil after the Second World War. They thereby aimed to correct older accounts that only attributed the shift to the price and material advantages that oil had over coal. Rather, they pointed out that the importance of coal continued to prevail as a “co-evolutionary energy regime” in certain sectors due to different consumer needs. Drawing on the Multi-Level Perspective on Socio-Technological Transitions (MLP), they stressed the importance of international cooperation in the European Recovery Program (ERP) and the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), especially through their oil-related investment programs as well as the European Refinery Expansion Program, as exogenous factors accelerating the transition significantly.

In a comprehensive overview of the United States’ role in international energy cooperation from World War I to the 1970s energy crises, VICTOR MCFARLAND (Columbia) argued that US policy makers understood energy cooperation always as the cooperation with some states against others. Thus, it was primarily thought of as a weapon against enemies, whether against the Axis powers or the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Likewise, energy transitions for the US served as a rhetorical threat to compel other countries to cooperate, as in the context of the Oil Crisis of 1973. The US government saw the unity of the Western alliance in danger and pressured its European partners to cooperate, referring to its superior bargaining position and its potential energy autonomy, in order to prevent them from pursuing bilateral deals with oil-producing countries. In a critical assessment of the legacy of US energy policy with regard to the challenges posed by climate change, McFarland identified this mindset as a major burden.

The comparison between eastern and western perspectives in the first two panels revealed, as Astrid M. Eckert pointed out, not only how central oil and gas were for the relation between the two superpowers and their allies but also the structural similarities of how energy politics shaped these relations. Moving from East-West to North-South-relations, the third panel, chaired by Rüdiger Graf, dealt with energy cooperation in the “third world”.

Taking the current discussion about a limitation of international oil production as his point of departure, GIULIANO GARAVINI (Rome) explored the role of “pro-rationing supply-side energy politics” in a biographical study of the Venezuelan technocrat and politician Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo who played a crucial role in the formation of OPEC and the development of its pro-rationing scheme. Concentrating on Alfonzo’s economic and ecological thinking, Garavini singled out the motivation for his commitment to a conservationist policy: To give the scarce resource both an adequate price and to cap the petrostates’ rent, a reduction of oil production was for Alfonzo the only viable way to secure a more sustainable economic development. Whereas Alfonzo therefore had an ambivalent opinion of the 1973 “oil revolution”, which gave oil a “fair price” but did not reduce production, the so-called NOPEC countries, the non-oil-producing developing countries, initially celebrated it as a contribution to the project of economic decolonialisation despite the financial hardship that the price hike caused.

How the relations between OPEC and NOPEC countries changed in the course of the 1970s was the subject of the paper by JONAS KREIENBAUM (Rostock). While the Global South intensified its cooperation over the OPEC’S claim to sovereignty over natural resources and succeeded to put the New International Economic Order (NIEO) on the agenda of international politics, the reluctance of OPEC to charge NOPECs a concessionary price and thereby to put proclaimed mutual solidarity into effect drove the two factions apart. These frictions ultimately peaked during the second oil crisis that hit NOPECs much harder than the first one and contributed significantly to the collapse of the NIEO.

Focussing again more closely on energy transitions in a narrower sense and bringing the themes of the previous panels together, in the fourth panel, chaired by PETRA DOLATA (Calgary), Henning Türk offered an interpretation of the International Energy Agency (IEA) as an institution at the “intersection of the North-South-Conflict and the Cold War”. He suggested that the IEA was formed with the explicit goal to “reverse” the transition to oil. Thus, the IEA was not an apolitical and technical institution as the denomination “agency” suggests but an intermediary platform for the transatlantic coalition in order to unify the West against the Global South by developing strategies to reduce the dependence on imported oil. Although the discussants agreed on the special nature of the IEA’s objective, several criticized the use of the term “reversal” as it suggests a pushback of oil as a resource rather than a reduction of the dependence on foreign oil.

Tackling the question of how international cooperation provided a way of coping with assumed energy scarcities in the 1970s from an entirely different angle, CYRUS MODY (Maastricht) analysed how the “complementary scarcity” of oil and food led to the cooperation of elite networks between philanthropic organisations, state governments, development aid agencies and oil companies in the 1970s. He paid special attention to the involvement of oil companies in biotech and agroindustry: In the wake of the 1970s’ scarcity discourse, oil firms looked into new sources of revenue and saw the potential in biotech to not only overcome the natural scarcity of oil but also of food. Not least because of this involvement of the oil industry, biotech companies became one of the targets of the emerging international anti-globalisation movement.

The last two panels, chaired by JAN-HENRIK MEYER (Potsdam) and DUCCIO BASOSI (Venice), dealt with the present concept of an energy transition as the replacement of fossil fuels with nuclear and renewable energies. The contributions by ELISABETH RÖHRLICH (Vienna) and LUKAS SCHEMPER (Berlin) both discussed the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in promoting the use of atomic power and asked how it responded to the criticism of its opponents that has been growing since the 1970s. Röhrlich emphasized that the IAEA had been founded with a dual mandate both to promote the civilian use of nuclear power and deter its use for military purposes. When the distinction between a good and apolitical technology and its dangerous political use was increasingly questioned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the IAEA tried to uphold this distinction and thereby strengthen its legitimacy with a largely unsuccessful communication strategy.

In a similar vein, Schemper showed that the IAEA dismissed criticism of nuclear energy as irrational and for a long time did not take the emotional resistance to nuclear energy seriously. The reactor accidents in Harrisburg and Chernobyl served as a catalyst for raising awareness among its staff that was mainly composed of natural scientists to pay more attention to the image that was conveyed of nuclear power in the media. While the IAEA remained highly critical of what its staff saw as an emotional and sensationalist coverage of issues related to nuclear energy, it also realised that it depended on the media’s communication of scientific facts to a broader public in an accessible way.

In her contribution to the final panel, focussing on the transition to renewable energies, EVA OBERLOSKAMP (Munich) analysed the impact of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development on British and German energy policies. While the concrete implementation of the conference’s resolution widely differed between the two countries due to national path-dependencies, her comparison not only highlighted the importance of international cooperation for national agenda-settings, but also common strategies of legitimisation: In Germany and Britain, a neoliberal discourse framed how the energy transition was discussed. Most notably, both discourses followed an economic argumentation that regarded competition as a driver for sustainable development. Following the zeitgeist, both governments developed their policies within the frameworks of deregulated and globalised self-regulating-markets and “soft governance”.

The nexus between neoliberalism and climate politics was also in the focus of STEPHEN GROSS’s (New York) paper in which he argued that the liberalisation of the European electricity market was a textbook example of neoliberal privatisation, inspired by Thatcherite policies and fuelled by the fear of loss of global competitiveness due to high electricity costs. It not only jeopardised national efforts to internalise the ecological price of carbon, but also contributed – contrary to the Commission’s assumption that liberalisation would also lead to more energy efficiency – to a rise in electricity consumption due to a short-term drop in electricity costs. While there was a short-term fall in prices and a break-up of national monopolies, in the long run, liberalisation led to the emergence of large private conglomerations that embraced gas as an energy source.

In his concluding comments FRANK TRENTMANN (London) took up the question, posed by the organisers, of what can be learned from history for the challenges caused by climate change. He warned that the positive normative connotation of international cooperation implied the danger of suggesting a Whig History that obscures other drivers of energy transitions and hence teaches us the wrong lessons. Rather, he stressed the continuing agency of nation states in shaping energy transitions and pointed towards other concepts for the analysis of international power relations, like hegemony, that perhaps have a greater explanatory power especially for Cold War energy politics. Particularly, he pleaded not to focus too much on the processes of extraction, refinement and transport of energy carriers but to include the role of the consumers, their changing lifestyles, preferences and demands as well as the cultural ideas underlying them in order to explain the causes for energy transitions.

The diverse perspectives with which the conference’s topic was approached, ranging from diplomatic, economic and intellectual to technological and cultural history demonstrated not only the great potential of combining international and energy history but also the need for further discussion of its methodological foundations. Frank Trentmann concluded his comments by raising the question of the specific historical contribution to the study of energy transitions and which historical methods should be adopted by other disciplines. To answer this and to find a way of dealing with the question of what to make of the fundamental difference between previous energy transitions, which were rather “energy additions” and the transition to a “post-carbon age” are likely to be of vital importance of how energy historians will be able to inform the public debate.

Conference overview:

Rüdiger Graf (Potsdam) and Henning Türk (Potsdam): Welcome and Introduction

Panel I: Cold War Energy Cooperation: Eastern Perspectives
Chair: Ralf Ahrens (Potsdam)

Susanne Schattenberg (Bremen): Making Bavaria Great Again. How a Provincial Minister of Economy Changed the Federal Energy Politics of West-Germany (1960s)

Michael De Groot (Bloomington): CMEA Cooperation and Energy during the Late Cold War

Panel II: Cold War Energy Cooperation: Western Perspectives
Chair: Astrid M. Eckert (Atlanta)

Robert Gross (Innsbruck), Odinn Melsted (Maastricht): Creating the Conditions: The European Refinery Expansion Program and the Transition from Coal to Oil, 1948–1955

Victor McFarland (Columbia): The United States and International Energy Cooperation

Panel III: New Alliances: OPEC and “Third World” Cooperation
Chair: Rüdiger Graf (Potsdam)

Giuliano Garavini (Rome): Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo and the Failure to Establish OPEC as a Global Pro-Rationing Agency

Jonas Kreienbaum (Rostock): From Cooperation to Friction. OPEC-NOPEC relations in the 1970s

Panel IV: Coping with Assumed Energy Scarcities in the Long 1970s
Chair: Petra Dolata (Calgary)

Cyrus Mody (Maastricht): Complementary Scarcities: Oil, Food, and Oil Food and Life Itself

Henning Türk (Potsdam): The International Energy Agency in the context of the North-South-Conflict and the Cold War in the 1980s and 1990s

Panel V: A Post-Carbon Age I: Atomic Energy Cooperation
Chair: Jan-Henrik Meyer (Potsdam)

Elisabeth Röhrlich (Vienna): An Indispensable Source of Energy? The IAEA, Industrial Development, and the Myth of Apolitical Technology, 1970-1986

Lukas Schemper (Berlin): IAEA in the Age of the “Risk Society Paradigm”: Strategies, Policies and Discourse

Panel VI: A Post Carbon Age II: Europe and Renewables
Chair: Duccio Basosi (Venice)

Eva Oberloskamp (Munich): The Significance of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development for British and German Energy Policies

Stephen Gross (New York): The Paradoxes of Concentration and Competition: European Electricity Market Liberalization in the 1990s

Concluding Comments and Discussion
Chair: Rüdiger Graf (Potsdam)

Comments: Frank Trentmann (London)