At the Well blog


Tracing tensions in the history of oil: Oil research in spotlight during the 10th Tensions of Europe Conference

Neste Oil refinery, January 1970. Source: O. Lehtonen, The Finnish Railway Museum.

At a time when there is a wide consensus on the risks associated with oil dependence, historical research can increase our understanding of how oil dependence has been constructed and maintained in different contexts, writes doctoral researcher Tanja Riekkinen.

Traditionally oil history has focused on large oil producing countries, but recently scholars have expanded the scope of research to smaller oil consuming countries such as Finland, Sweden, Turkey, and Greece.

During the 10th Tensions of Europe Conference, oil historians gathered to discuss this new trend.


Since February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore new tensions and created challenges such as the energy crisis. The war has caused several countries to rethink their dependence on energy imports from Russia.

In the centuries-long history of oil, tensions are not a new phenomenon. We delved into these topics in the double panel Tensions of Oil: Technology, State Power, and Environment organized by Saara Matala (Chalmers University of Technology) and Anna Åberg (Chalmers University of Technology) on 1 July 2022. In this blog post, I will make some summarizing remarks based on the panel discussions.

Tensions in nationalizing oil

My work and the research of Jens Millkrantz (Chalmers University of Technology) and Duygu Dilek Kesen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) point to similarities and differences between the decisions taken by Finland, Sweden, and Romania regarding the nationalization of oil, the actors who influenced the decision making and the logics behind these choices in the 20th century.

In Sweden and Finland, contradictions between multinational oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell and the efforts by the state leadership to nationalize oil emerged around the mid-20th century. Whereas Sweden sought to align the policies of the multinational oil companies with the state’s objectives, Finland decided to invest in a national oil refining industry despite criticism as to whether the project ought to be undertaken or not. In Sweden, nationalization efforts were ultimately unsuccessful due to widespread opposition.

Saara Matala drew our attention to the transnational nature of the Finnish national oil industry in terms of the origins of its oil resources. As Finland lacks its own oil reserves, oil to be refined by the national oil refining company Neste was imported. Thus, although Neste did present itself as a domestic industry, its crude oil was in fact imported from the Soviet Union from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s. Cold War tensions played a significant role in the choice to import of Soviet oil.

Further to the south, Romania also chose to nationalize its oil industry. British Petroleum’s response to this development, which was unwanted from the company’s point of view, was to move operations to Turkey.

Shell oil port in Fredriksskans in 1946. Source: Carl Larssons Fotografiska Ateljé AB, Länsmuseet Gävleborg, Digitalt Museum.

Tensions between the economic and environmental aspects of oil

In the 20th and 21st century, tensions also emerged in Sweden regarding the economic and environmental aspects of oil, the focal point of Anna Åberg’s talk. Since the emergence of energy politics and environmental politics in the 1960s and 1970s, energy and environmental policy have generally been treated as two separate political arenas.

This ‘siloing’ of energy and environmental concerns has made it harder to respond effectively to complex problems like climate change. The role of oil in energy and environmental policy can help us understand this ‘siloing’, since it has had different roles in different debates.

Oil experts and the geopolitics of oil

The emergence of Greek petroculture dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Christos Karampatsos (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens) maintained that from very early on, it involved geologists who tried to translate the idea of ‘national interest’ into their own expert language. They took into account Greece’s almost constant war engagements, tangled foreign relations, and the fact that the oil deposits discovered in the country invariably proved impossible to exploit. Their principal contribution was a sophisticated mix of public rhetoric and geological science, one that consolidated an ‘eternal potentiality’ of the Greek oil deposits. This potentiality remains commonplace today.

Karampatsos also pointed out that since oil experts are often aware of the geopolitical significance of their research, tracing their contribution to the public discourse in different contexts could shed light on interrelations between oil, geopolitics and science that have previously gone unnoticed.


I would like to express my gratitude to Saara Matala, Anna Åberg, Jens Millkrantz, Christos Karampatsos and Duygu Dilek Kesen for their input and suggestions. I would also like to thank Andrew Pattison for proofreading this blog post.