“Sabin … writes in the tradition of legal historian James Willard Hurst. He argues that the price of oil is not simply the result of supply and demand curves alone. Rather, the market for oil resulted from the combined effects of political, legal, and economic history. No truly free market in oil ever existed. Instead, Sabin focuses on the visible hand of the government—the various public decisions regarding property, regulation, and taxation—that created the market structure for this all-important resource.”


Ted Steinberg, American Historical Review

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“There is a subtle muckraking quality to this book . . . It has corrupt politicians, partisan judges, conflicts of interest, irate voters, beach defenders, and, of course, Big Oil.  Sabin demonstrates that the underbelly of environmental history is, in fact, hardball politics, the site where groups of humans compete fiercely to protect their interests and impose their vision of the good life.”

Myrna Santiago, Environmental History

“Effectively hammers home the point that there is no such thing as a “free” market. . . . To oppose a current policy choice, such as one related to energy or transportation, on the grounds that people should let the market decide is evidence of historical ignorance, ideological blindness, or some combination of both.”

Hugh S. Gorman, Business History Review

“Crude Politics establishes the crucial importance of state-level political forces in directing the development of California oil. It stands as an exemplary work of business, legal, and environmental history.”

Tyler Priest, Enterprise and Society

“Getting energy prices right is key to addressing our global climate crisis. With graceful prose and forceful argument, Paul Sabin shows how petroleum prices today are a product of more than a century of fierce political struggle over oil supply and demand. Anyone who wants to understand the political and economic factors that have created our present dependence on cheap oil should read this book.”

James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

“Paul Sabin has written a brilliant case study of how legal and political choices construct ‘free markets’. He shows how battles over property rights, regulation, taxes, and highway and environmental policy shaped the oil market and with it the future of California’s cities, roads, coastline and public finance. Clear-headed, meticulous, and filled with the drama of momentous conflicts between public and private interests, Crude Politics is legal-economic history at its best.”

Robert W. Gordon, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale University

“To a much greater degree than most Americans usually appreciate, the central story of the past century was the story of oil. Paul Sabin’s Crude Politics is a pioneering effort to trace for a single key state — California — the evolving web of relationships needed to sustain the production, distribution, and consumption of a critical resource on which virtually every aspect of modern life now depends. As we contemplate the waning future of that resource in the twenty-first century, we would do well to heed the insights about its twentieth-century past offered by this important book.”

William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

“A model of systematic, data-rich analysis with much to say to both historians and policy makers. . . .  Sabin’s work offers far-reaching insights into the political economy of oil in the twentieth century. The analytical framework constructed by Sabin from legal, political, and economic history should prove flexible enough to apply to events both earlier and later in history, as well as events in other parts of the world.”

Joseph A. Pratt, Reviews in American History

Joseph A. Pratt, Reviews in American History

“Sabin presents readers with an intensely researched narrative that reveals the evolution of oil politics in California over the first forty years of the twentieth century. In addition to telling a new story in great detail and emphasizing the federalist and state influences in the politics of oil, Sabin contributes a new and enlightening analysis of the effects of the gasoline tax on policymaking.”

William Childs, Pacific Historical Review

Crude Politics

The California Oil Market, 1900 - 1940

How did Americans grow so dependent on petroleum, and what can we learn from our history that will help us craft successful policies for the future? In this timely and absorbing book, Paul Sabin challenges us to see politics and law as crucial forces behind the dramatic growth of the U.S. oil market during the twentieth century. Using pre-World War II California as a case study of oil production and consumption, Sabin demonstrates how struggles in the legislature and courts over property rights, regulatory law, and public investment determined the shape of the state’s petroleum landscape.

Crude Politics shatters the enduring myth of “free markets” by demonstrating how political decisions affected the institutions that underlie California’s oil economy and how today’s oil market and price structure depend significantly on the ways in which policy questions were answered before World War II. Sabin’s concise and probing analysis casts fresh light on the historical relationship between business and government and on the origins of contemporary problems such as climate change and urban sprawl. Incisive, engaging, and meticulously researched, Crude Politicsilluminates an important chapter in U.S. environmental, legal, business, and political history and the history of the American West.

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