Oil Cities as the Present Sites for Escaping the Past

By Stephan J. Hauser, Postdoctoral Researcher, Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science, University of Helsinki

“Through negative loops, such as accepting the normalization of unsustainability as sustainability and taking path-dependency as inescapable, the narration of the inability to change becomes reality” – Salovaara, J. J., & Hagolani-Albov, S


Port cities have always been important nodes where wealth flows and people gather. However, since the Second World War (WWII), one flow has become more dominant than others in determining the development of a modern, industrial port city—the oil flow. Stemming from the strategic importance that WWII gave oil, port cities became central in connecting production sites to the hinterlands. Yet, before becoming privileged areas for the development of the unsustainable oil industry, port cities were often homes to sustainable natural environments and communities. With the development of industrial activities—and the oil industry in particular—ports became heavily polluted in addition to hosting a cluster of other risks to human and environmental health and safety. While this path dependence (a situation wherein past decisions seemed locked in unsustainable patterns for the present and the future) seems inescapable, solutions can emerge when barriers are identified.

Decentralised Catastrophes

There are many port cities illustrating the tight relationship between the settlement of oil facilities and the development of coastal environments. This relationship can be demonstrated by Rotterdam in the Netherlands, with a deep dependence on the oil industry felt by the city, its economy, and the people. Since the early 1860s, Rotterdam grew alongside oil investments. It became greatly dependent on the wealth provided by the oil industry. Cities like Philadelphia in the United States have had similar experiences. Such oil-dependent port cities usually find themselves in difficult situations when disasters occur or facilities close. Yet, these port city evolution patterns have far-reaching consequences, which are often ignored in contemporary discussions related to energy transition. Cities receive some attention, as does oil, but not oil cities, with all their complexities and peculiarities.

When discussing Rotterdam, people tend to think first about the port of Rotterdam, as it is the biggest in Europe and has great economic importance to Western Europe. This approach to thinking about the port city strongly illustrates the priority that public and private stakeholders give to the sustainable development of the industrial activity. From a small port at the beginning of the 1860s, the port of Rotterdam is now a 40-kilometer-long industrial area, which is constantly reclaiming more land from the sea. This has dire and direct consequences for carbon and harmful gas emissions. However, unlike the United States, the Netherlands does not directly produce crude oil in-country, rather it is a place of transformation and transit.

Such urban sites for the diffusion of fossil fuels must deal with longstanding and widespread pollution issues, but energy transition discussion tends to omit rural enclaves where oil is produced. Pushed by national governments and spurred on by their own zeal to expand profit and control, Western oil companies are constantly looking to secure oil fields around the world. Thus, these oil companies, commonly called “Big Oil Companies”, have not hesitated to discover and exploit oil fields in distant countries. Their tremendous financial, political, and technological power gave them enough influence to insert themselves in oil-rich countries. Often outside of Europe and the United States, companies are faced with less stringent rules and regulations regarding the protection of natural environments and the rights of the people in place. Exploiting this to the fullest, oil transnational corporations have developed oil fields in natural and preserved areas with a complete disregard for the consequences of their activities. For example, in Africa, critics of the oil industry often use Nigeria—an oil-rich country—as an illustration of the detrimental effects of the exploitative activities of Western oil companies, as Nnimmo Bassey’s talk on Global South Encounters shows.

Bleak landscape with a pipeline and water in the foreground with a clouded, gray sky and two tall burning gas flares reaching from the ground into the sky.
Figure 1: Gas-Flares in the Niger Delta (2013). Picture by Chebyshev1983, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ecological Imperialism

‘Ecological imperialism’ takes various forms, but it is always detrimental to the Global South. In 1951, the Anglo-Dutch Big Oil company Shell started its operations in Nigeria. However, the search for oil started as early as 1908, especially around Port Harcourt. If the story of Rotterdam and other oil intensive ports in Europe is one of ‘decentralised catastrophes’, that of the Global South is even more complicated. Often ‘underdeveloped’ the story of exploitation or transformation is not simply a centuries old tale of environmental pollution. Rather not only are oil companies often not even headquartered in the country, they are also not held accountable for the ecocide they inflict on nature and communities. The processes of ‘oiling the urban economy’ might have similarities, but cycles of ‘rent theft’ arising from absentee land ownership and ecological imperialism can be quite distinct, even if linked to a wider global system. The experiences of Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, Luanda in Angola, and Ras Gharib in Egypt illustrate the point.

The barrier that preserved this apparent immunity of oil companies was and is the protection of national governments, that enact rules to make lawsuits on pollution committed in other countries practically impossible. The careful selection of headquarter countries for polluting companies has always been driven by this type of legal and financial protection. Nevertheless, the situation is slowly changing with the increasing environmental awareness of local populations and crucial civil servants within national systems, like judges.

Local communities affected by decades, if not over a century, of disastrous oil activities by Western oil companies, have in some instances finally been given the opportunity to bring their cases to oil companies’ home countries. This is made possible by the cross-border collaboration of activist groups as well as the discovery and advertisement of secret oil company documents about the effects of its products on the environment. Now that these documents have come to light, they have triggered a series of lawsuits by people and environmental groups intending to hold the oil companies responsible for the climate and pollution-related disasters they have created.

Although the Nigerian case, along with a few others around the world, demonstrates that there is now at least a possibility to sue and punish the seemingly all-powerful oil companies; this newly found power does not solve the environmental disasters created by decades-long oil activities. Even in areas where oil companies are not currently active, the effect(s) of the pollution remain a cumulative problem. Entire ecosystems that once sustainably supported local communities have disappeared. While some measure of environmental recovery is possible, it is a long and difficult process.

Going back to the initial quote from Salovaara and Hagolani-Albov, path-dependency is not inescapable. Decisions of the past still have grave consequences on contemporary environments and populations, but the absolute inability to change paths is a myth. The foundations of this deadly normalcy—which seems to keep us locked in—are crumbling thanks to better informed and supported citizens. Their activism could give much more attention to oil cities around the world.


Many thanks to Franklin Obeng-Odoom and Sophia Hagolani-Albov for their valuable comments and improvements.