"Old refineries rarely die": Port city refineries as key nodes in the global petroleumscape

Carola Hein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Petroleum and its refined products are globally traded commodities; they are also key elements in our energy landscape and have shaped the built environment in multiple, interconnected ways over the last century. Petroleum flows encompass the entire world. Constellations of oil actors - including corporations and nations - shape seemingly disconnected and geographically distant physical spaces over time. Together, they function as a global palimpsestic petroleumscape. Among the diverse industrial, administrative, retail and ancillary spaces that are part of this petroleumscape, this article argues, refineries have the most important "staying power." It investigates exemplary cases in four select periods of the petroleum industry: the lighting age (1860s to 1910s), the car age (1910s to 1950s), the plastic age (1950s to 1980s), and the period since the 1980s with its early attempts to go beyond oil. In the first three periods, it explores the relationship between major refineries and nearby (port) cities of Philadelphia, Dunkirk, Suez, Abadan, Rotterdam, and Tehran. It proposes that refineries due to the global networks of petroleum have managed to overcome periods of war and nationalization, of destruction and re-appropriation, while redirecting petroleum flows over time. The article then examines the current state of the refineries discussed in this article, exploring their entanglement with global events and national strategies, and their often detrimental current spatial and environmental impact. The article concludes with a reflection on the necessity to design transition strategies for cities that are based on understanding of the role that refineries have played through time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)450-479
Number of pages30
JournalCanadian Journal of History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Abadan
  • Downstream sector
  • Dunkirk
  • Flows and networks
  • Global petroleumscape
  • Philadelphia
  • Port cities
  • Refineries
  • Rotterdam
  • Shipping
  • Spatial planning
  • Suez
  • Tehran


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