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Energy Metropolis

Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast

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    Energy Metropolis
    Book Description:

    Houston's meteoric rise from a bayou trading post to the world's leading oil supplier owes much to its geography, geology, and climate: the large natural port of Galveston Bay, the lush subtropical vegetation, the abundance of natural resources. But the attributes that have made it attractive for industry, energy, and urban development have also made it particularly susceptible to a variety of environmental problems.Energy Metropolispresents a comprehensive history of the development of Houston, examining the factors that have facilitated unprecedented growth-and the environmental cost of that development.

    The landmark Spindletop strike of 1901 made inexpensive high-grade Texas oil the fuel of choice for ships, industry, and the infant automobile industry. Literally overnight, oil wells sprang up around Houston. In 1914, the opening of the Houston Ship Channel connected the city to the Gulf of Mexico and international trade markets. Oil refineries sprouted up and down the channel, and the petroleum products industry exploded. By the 1920s, Houston also became a leading producer of natural gas, and the economic opportunities and ancillary industries created by the new energy trade led to a population boom. By the end of the twentieth century, Houston had become the fourth largest city in America.

    Houston's expansion came at a price, however. Air, water, and land pollution reached hazardous levels as legislators turned a blind eye. Frequent flooding of altered waterways, deforestation, hurricanes, the energy demands of an air-conditioned lifestyle, increased automobile traffic, exponential population growth, and an ever-expanding metropolitan area all escalated the need for massive infrastructure improvements.

    The experts inEnergy Metropolisexamine the steps Houston has taken to overcome laissez-faire politics, indiscriminate expansion, and infrastructural overload. What emerges is a profound analysis of the environmental consequences of large-scale energy production and unchecked growth.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7324-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Cities are by their very nature energy intensive. The concentration of human and material resources for purposes of survival, construction of infrastructure for transportation and communication, and the production and consumption of goods and services are essential characteristics of communal living. As William Cronon and others have demonstrated, the connection of city and hinterland often extends the impact of urban development beyond the city’s political borders while creating interdependence between the built and natural world.¹ The production and use of energy have been potent forces in driving this process of change.

    The historical impact of energy reaches beyond the conversion...

  2. Part 1. Energy and Environment

    • [PART 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 17-19)

      Gigantic oil strikes in the Southwest and California in 1900 and 1901 changed the nation west of the Mississippi. Beginning as a regional phenomenon, the discovery of vast oil fields in Texas, Oklahoma, and California created a new form of wealth in what would become the American Sun Belt, accelerating urbanization in its wake. In explaining Houston’s rise from a small town into a metropolis, it has been common to identify World War II as the great dividing line. After all, three-fourths of the physical city was built in the postwar period, having received a tremendous boost from the influx...

    • CHAPTER 1 A Mixed Blessing: Energy, Economic Growth, and Houston’s Environment
      (pp. 21-51)

      A cartoon in theNew Yorkermagazine shows two well-dressed men sitting and talking in a comfortable home. Yet in the midst of this picture of prosperity and comfortable satisfaction sits a miniature oil derrick spewing oil all over the room. The caption reads simply: “It’s a mixed blessing.” This cartoon captures the dilemma of Houston’s oil-led development. Oil and related industries transformed the city into a major metropolis, but the costs included profound and long-lasting impacts on the regional environment.¹ The region benefited economically from the heavy concentration of many of the nation’s oil-related industries, but it also suffered...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Houston Ship Channel and the Changing Landscape of Industrial Pollution
      (pp. 52-68)

      The Houston Ship Channel, which allows oceangoing vessels to reach Houston from the Gulf of Mexico, is as much a part of the city’s landscape as its skyline, urban core, or sprawling network of commercial and residential developments. Indeed, in aerial photographs, the waterway stands out as a defining feature, snaking in from the east and penetrating toward the heart of the city. The first half of this fifty-mile channel cuts across the shallow waters of Galveston Bay and guides ships into the lower course of the San Jacinto River. Then the channel turns and follows Buffalo Bayou, allowing vessels...

    • CHAPTER 3 “Bad Science”: The Politics of Ozone Air Pollution in Houston
      (pp. 69-87)

      Houston has a serious air pollution problem that compromises its quality of life and promotes an ambiguous image of the city. On the one hand, Houston is a leading center in the world for both energy and health, a primary site for trade and transportation, and home to the most expansive petrochemical industry in the nation. On the other hand, both its image and quality of life are tarnished by the city having some of the worst air pollution in the United States.¹ Often the response to air pollution was to deny its existence and extent and to emphasize that...

    • CHAPTER 4 “The Air-Conditioning Capital of the World”: Houston and Climate Control
      (pp. 88-104)

      Houston is typically a hot and humid place. With summer temperatures often remaining above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and afternoon humidity around 65 percent, the city often seems unbearably uncomfortable. To transmute their city’s climate, as theHouston Post’s longtime editor George Fuermann reported, Houstonians in the early post–World War II years decided to build “the world’s most air-conditioned city.”¹ The ensuing dedication to climate control has convinced contemporary Houstonians and many others that the city could never have grown into a megalopolis without cooling and evaporative technology. Houstonians used climate control to transform the cityscape, as the technology required...

  3. Part 2. Growth of the Metropolitan Region

    • [PART 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 105-108)

      Although founded in 1836, Houston—and this also is true for the surrounding towns and cities—is a product of circumstances much different from urbanization trends east of the Mississippi River. Houston, therefore, is by no means typical of all American cities. It is an archetypal twentieth-century city, which came into its own with the popularization of the automobile. In its modern form, the metropolis is multinodal, decentralized, and expansive, much like Dallas–Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Lying on the southern fringe of the United States in the Southwest, it has been regarded as “the golden...

    • CHAPTER 5 Houston’s Public Sinks: Sanitary Services from Local Concerns to Regional Challenges
      (pp. 109-147)

      Sanitary services—water supply, wastewater, and solid-waste collection and disposal—form the circulatory system of a city. Not only do they transport vital resources in and carry unwanted materials out, but they also play a significant role in preserving health. The timing of and commitment to establishing and maintaining sanitary services in Houston were not particularly unique. In most respects, city authorities followed a pattern of development in line with many cities in nineteenth-century America. These patterns were shaped by population growth, the onset of epidemic diseases, inadequate maintenance of private wells and privy vaults, and newfound municipal authority and...

    • CHAPTER 6 Superhighway Deluxe: Houston’s Gulf Freeway
      (pp. 148-172)

      The construction of the Gulf Freeway represents the culmination of pre World War II planning, federal funding, civic pride, modern engineering, and a deeply held belief that all levels of government could cooperate in order to solve emerging urban problems in postwar America. For the federal government, it marked the start of a golden age of infrastructure building, as the Gulf Freeway was the first freeway constructed in the United States after World War II. For the Texas Highway Department, the Gulf Freeway was an affirmation that its wartime policy of suspending construction in order to save money for postwar...

    • CHAPTER 7 Urban Sprawl and the Piney Woods: Deforestation in the San Jacinto Watershed
      (pp. 173-184)

      In form, Houston is an archetypal postmodern city. Houston’s major expansions in size and population coincided with the redesign of urban environments that emphasize private automobiles and the decentralization of workplaces. Recent renewal inside Houston’s “Inner Loop” cannot counter the reality that Houston can be best described as a sprawling, “edgeless” city with multiple hubs for employment, such as downtown, the Galleria, Greenspoint, NASA/Clear Lake, and the Woodlands.¹ The development in the city of Houston passes seamlessly into neighboring suburbs, whose borders with other suburbs are equally unremarkable. To drive from east to west or north to south through the...

    • CHAPTER 8 A Tale of Two Texas Cities: Houston, the Industrial Metropolis, and Galveston, the Island Getaway
      (pp. 185-204)

      Less than fifty miles separate Houston and Galveston, but the differences between the cities today are striking. Their histories have always been interconnected, and in the nineteenth century the two cities followed fairly similar paths, but in the twentieth century Houston and Galveston took divergent routes. Houston grew into the nation’s fourth-largest urban center—with nearly two million residents in the city proper and about five million in the metropolitan area—and a major center for energy companies and other international corporations. Houston is a leading example of the modern American metropolis, with a complex amalgamation of highways, automobiles, industry,...

  4. Part 3. Environmental Activism at the Grassroots

    • [PART 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 205-206)

      Sweeping issues like economic development and urbanization can obscure what happens to people in a rapidly growing, expansive place like metropolitan Houston. As a city of the South, Southwest, or Sun Belt, superficial assumptions arise about “red state” insensitivity to environmental reform and the possible lack of assertiveness of environmental protest. The overarching and unrelenting commitment to economic growth also obscures the fact that not everyone always benefits from a booming economy, condones ignoring environmental despoliation, or thinks of nothing more than possessing a ranchstyle home and a new car. In some respects, Houston did miss the drama of the...

    • CHAPTER 9 Dumping on Houston’s Black Neighborhoods
      (pp. 207-223)

      Houston’s black population is located in a broad belt that extends from the south-central and southeast portions of the city into northeast and north-central Houston. The city’s black population was originally concentrated in a few areas.¹ In 1950, two-thirds of Houston’s black population were concentrated in three major segregated neighborhoods—namely, the Fourth Ward, Third Ward, and Fifth Ward. Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, Houston’s black population expanded outward, away from the central city, but continued to be concentrated in these outlying areas, generally in the northeast and southeast quadrants of the city (see figure 9.1)....

    • CHAPTER 10 The Gunfighters of Northwood Manor: How History Debunks Myths of the Environmental Justice Movement
      (pp. 224-240)

      On October 26, 1979, residents of Northwood Manor, a primarily African American neighborhood in northeast Houston, filed a lawsuit that alleged civil rights violations in the siting of a nearby landfill.¹ The first legal attack of its kind, the case proved valuable in establishing awareness of the environmental disparities faced by minorities several years before Benjamin Chavis Jr., then executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, coined the term “environmental racism.”² African American women played a pivotal role in this suit, from both the legal and grassroots sides, defining issues and solving problems.

      In the...

    • CHAPTER 11 “To Combine Many and Varied Forces”: The Hope of Houston’s Environmental Activism, 1923–1999
      (pp. 241-259)

      Most environmental activism begins at the local level. John Muir’s Sierra Club formed in 1892 to explore the California wilderness, but he mounted a national campaign to protest construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam in California. Muir’s journalistic talent, connections in Washington, D.C., and shared wilderness outings with President Theodore Roosevelt coalesced to into a powerful national promotion for California’s wilderness and the nation’s natural resources, an effort that added significantly to Sierra Club’s membership rolls. Over time, the Sierra Club formed local chapters and campaigned for wilderness protection and other environmental issues across the country. As the oldest environmental...

    • CHAPTER 12 Voices of Discord: The Effects of a Grassroots Environmental Movement at the Brio Superfund Site
      (pp. 260-274)

      The Brio Superfund site, located in Friendswood, Texas, about eighteen miles southeast of downtown Houston, became a significant case study in environmentalism and the Superfund process. Grassroots environmental movements alter and affect communities, perspectives, and even the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. The grassroots effort at the Brio site changed the way many Texans viewed their neighborhoods and responded to environmental issues while simultaneously influencing the Superfund process designed to protect citizens and clean up the site.

      Congress responded to the public pressure and environmental activism of the late 1970s with the passage of the Superfund law in 1980, which...