At the Celebrating Excellence: Discovery and Innovation Awards Ceremony sponsored by the Office of Research and Economic Development, Richard Tyler Priest won the Distinguished Achievement in Publicly Engaged Research Award—and for good reason.
Priest, UI Associate Professor of History and Geography, has contributed to gathering more than 700 oral histories of people working in every aspect of the offshore oil industry for three public history studies for the U.S. Mineral Management Service and U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. He also served on President Barack Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling as a senior policy analyst to provide historical expertise to the commissioners as they investigated the spill and developed recommendations for reforming federal oversight of the industry.
Additionally, Priest has written numerous articles and op-eds and delivered lectures to a variety of audiences, from the general public to the business and policy community.
“I find the oil and gas industry endlessly fascinating,” Priest said. “It’s so big and so important. You can’t talk about the Middle East, for example, without talking about oil. It has a central a role in international affairs, domestic politics, and debates over climate change.”
According to Priest, we are living in the age of oil and gas. We use these fuels to get around in our cars and to heat our homes. Our clothes and countless other materials are made of synthetic fibers from petrochemicals. Plastics, rubber, detergents, fertilizers, paints, and even cosmetics and toiletries, are also made from them.
“We live in a hydrocarbon society,” Priest said. “I’m interested in telling the story of how that came to be.”
As an expert in his field, Priest is frequently contacted by journalists, law firms, and policy makers who want advice and historical knowledge on the oil industry. After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the first of his oral history projects and accompanying essays were used by many to understand how the industry operated.
“Few journalists or policymakers knew very much about the offshore industry prior to that,” he said.
In conducting the project, Priest spoke with people involved in all aspects of the industry, from platform workers to CEOs and geologists. He interviewed the people who pioneered the change from analog to digital seismic imaging and learned how technologically sophisticated the industry is. He learned about the danger of working in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico and the many accidents that claimed lives.
Divers had the most hazardous job in the industry. Deepwater operations are now performed by underwater robots, but originally, human divers did the underwater work. They would swim down and secure platforms on the bottom or cut away debris. They would weld underwater, staying down for hours at a time at depths of several hundred feet—sometimes as far as 1,000.
Divers who did “saturation diving” would stay at pressure-depth for many days, living in a pressurized chamber at the surface, and descending and ascending through a diving bell without having to undergo decompression each time. They might live like this up to an entire month.
“These are fearless guys,” Priest said. “They make the most money, and there’s a reason they make the most money.”
Priest believes public history projects like this have a vital role to play in society and says there is a growing commitment to public history in his department.
“We should be trying to convey the importance of historical knowledge and historical perspectives in every walk of life,” Priest said. “An appreciation of history makes us better citizens.”
His own research into the long history of the oil industry and its most pressing issues today have led him to believe there must be a way to move beyond polarized arguments, which he describes as between “righteous denunciations of ‘Big Oil’ as an existential threat and reflexive pro-oil boosterism captured by the slogan ‘Drill, Baby, Drill.’”
“I think the issues are much more complicated than that,” Priest said. “The industry is populated by many different kinds of people. They’re all doing their best to develop an essential resource for society.”
While Priests acknowledges that oil use needs to be cut down to address the looming concerns of climate change, he also knows it’s not a habit that’s easily broken.
“We need a deeper and more nuanced historical understanding of oil to inform the vital decisions about energy that we face as a society,” Priest writes on his website. “Fossil fuels, especially hydrocarbons, have generated unprecedented wealth and prosperity for a large plurality, if not the majority, of people around the world. But the benefits also came with social, political, and environmental costs. The job of the oil historian is to weigh and analyze these trade-offs.”