Oil Change International

Exposing the true costs of fossil fuels

Robert Engler: Early Advocate for Oil Accountability

On February 23rd, the community of energy activists lost one of our earliest and clearest voices for change in the oil industry. Robert Engler, whose many books included the seminal and prescient Brotherhood of Oil passed at his home in New York City. He was 84.
What follows is from a Washington Post obituary that appeared yesterday:

Robert Engler, 84, a political scientist whose fascination with the control of institutional power led to authoritative books and essays criticizing the modern oil industry, died Feb. 23 at his home in Manhattan, N.Y. He had a heart ailment.

Dr. Engler wrote from a progressive political bent, one skeptical of the “bottom-line” profit motive of petroleum giants. He wished to substitute a business approach that was “economically just, ecologically sane and politically accountable,” an attractive idea to some after the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the crisis that followed.

His greatest admirers tended to be liberal economists, including Robert Lekachman, who called Dr. Engler’s 1977 book, “The Brotherhood of Oil,” “the best single account of the organization and politics of this industry that I have come across.”

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader said Dr. Engler was an “early bell-ringer” in outlining the oil lobby’s influence in Washington after World War II and showing how the largest companies divided up world markets.

Dr. Engler, a professor emeritus of political science at the City University of New York, first made his name with “The Politics of Oil” (1961). The book arose from articles he wrote for the New Republic about the oil industry and politics, which won the Sidney Hillman Foundation prize honoring writers on social justice and public policy issues.

Combing through government and company records, his work illuminated the special tax, pricing and political requests of oil companies and their effect on national and foreign policy. He was sometimes asked to testify before congressional committees.

Dr. Engler assailed what he called the lack of public accountability among the petroleum giants, which he likened to a “private government.” He said that even ranking government officials — from state attorneys general to the CIA director — had a hard time getting companies to divulge information on oil shipments and reserves at vital times.

On a brief personal note, Robert Engler’s Brotherhood of Oil was one of the first books I ever read on the oil industry, and it made a deep impression. Although I never met Dr. Engler, he will be missed, and hopefully honored, here at Oil Change International.

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