This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

From wars fought over the shape of subterranean geological formations to new technologies for boosting the amount of recoverable oil and gas, and from the wildcatter’s fantasies of wealth from the depths to the petrostate’s modernizing megaprojects, few volumetric calculations have been as consequential for the modern imagination as the estimation of the earth’s oil and gas reserves. “Reservoir” and “reserve” indicate not just a three-dimensional space, but a space of potential, always relative to a temporal horizon. How much is left in the ground? How much is being used? Is it being replenished or replaced? The volumetric politics of oil and gas reservoirs might be divided into two general, if often overlapping, categories: the calculative and the kinetic. The first relies on economic, geological, and/or technological calculations to forecast reservoir size, shape, and lifespan, while the second attempts to physically transform the subsoil to increase the volume of oil or gas that can be extracted from a reservoir. Both categories are tied not just to volumetric politics in broad terms, but to sovereignty as well.

Reserve estimates have been a prime arena of politics from the days of the very first oil gushers. On the one hand, optimistic volumetric calculations can spur booms in extraction and project state and/or corporate wealth or power far into the future. The volume of an oil reserve, expressed in projected output—and resulting state income—is often a key source of a state’s claim to sovereign power over land and people. This is more than a matter of wealth in monetary terms. In the Perm region of Russia, for instance, the state and corporate actors involved in oil production often likened the depth of the region’s oil deposits to the historical depth of its peoples’ culture. Culture, like oil, could be talked about as a deposit, a reserve of sovereign power that state and company drew on to shape the present, enable the future, and legitimate their work in the eyes of a sometimes skeptical population (Rogers 2009). Pessimistic volumetric calculations, on the other hand, can inflate prices over fears of upcoming shortage. Although rising prices might result in short-term economic gains, projected declines in hydrocarbon volume have frequently augured shifts in the politics of sovereignty. In the early 2000s, the declining output of some of Mexico’s once productive oilfields led, for example, not just to the demodernization of local economies that had relied heavily on oil money, but to President Calderon’s assertions that PEMEX, the Mexican parastatal oil company, should be taken out of the hands of the state—and therefore its close ties to notions of Mexican nationhood—and privatized (Breglia 2013). In order to stave off the threats of a lower-volume future, petrostates often embark on efforts to diversify their streams of income away from the hydrocarbon sector, attempting to delink both the finances and the optics of state sovereignty from the potential of shrinking oil reserves.

Neither direction of calculative fudging exists outside the global political economy of oil and capitalism. Indeed, calculations of reserve size, usually rendered in the volumetric measurement of barrels (one barrel of oil is equal to 158.99 liters), have often varied with the strategies of capital accumulation pursued by oil companies. This dynamic has been particularly evident in debates about peak oil. Former Shell scientist M. King Hubbert introduced the idea that the volume of global oil reserves would peak—that is, reach a point at which the discovery of new reserves would not outpace the speed at which known reserves were being depleted—in the mid-1950s. Although largely reflective of an industry consensus when they were first published, Hubbert’s calculations came to be roundly rejected in the 1960s, as oil reserve estimates skyrocketed. It was not until the mid-1970s that industry consensus moved back to embrace Hubbert’s methods and findings. As Gary Bowden (1985) has shown, what changed between the 1950s and 1970s was not so much the science of reservoir estimation or oil industry technology, but the political economy of the global oil industry—especially in the wake of the OPEC embargo. The embargo-driven price spike of the early 1970s sent oil company profits soaring and raised the possibility that oil companies would be subjected to a windfall profits tax. The industry lobbied hard against new taxes, pointing out that their rising profits would be reinvested in developing synthetic fuels for a post-oil future. This argument, Bowden suggests, did not jibe well with the cornucopian forecasts of the 1960s. It relied instead on a projected scarcity of oil. And, indeed, industry scientists and engineers gradually returned to agreeing with Hubbert, whose estimates had not changed in the intervening decades.

If the calculative politics of reservoirs often play out in laboratories, scientific papers, corporate strategies, or secretive estimates about competitors, the kinetic politics of oil and gas reservoirs take place far underground. These days, they are perhaps most evident in the increasingly widespread practices of hydrofracking—pumping enormous amount of water, sand, and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure to create capillary fractures that free up oil or gas to bring to the surface. Some of hydrofracking’s kinetic antecedents were not so capillary. During the heyday of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented extensively with strategically placed underground nuclear explosions designed to reshape hydrocarbon reservoirs. These experiments, part of “Project Plowshare” in the United States and the “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” initiative in the USSR, were attempts to demonstrate that nuclear explosions could be used for non-military purposes, from canal-building to resource extraction (Kirsch 2005, Kaufman 2013). In most cases, it turned out, these explosions did not result in significant changes to the volumes of extractable oil or gas. But, just as today’s hydrofracking has bled quickly into other domains of volumetric politics—the potential for chemical seepage into the water supply, the depletion of sand reserves, or the disposal of fracking wastewater—these Cold War-era experiments quickly raised concerns about the leakage of nuclear radiation into the atmosphere, into abutting geological formations, and even into the recovered oil and gas supply itself.

We might say, in fact, that the Project Plowshare and Peaceful Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy tests convincingly demonstrated that attempts to change a single volumetric structure—an oil or gas reservoir—are inseparable from other volumetric structures and their associated politics. It follows, then, that the ways in which the kinetic politics of oil and gas reservoirs refuse to be contained poses some pointed questions for notions of volumetric sovereignty that rely on rigid boundaries and associated notions of autonomy or independence. The kinds of sovereignty that emerge in these contexts seem more appropriately captured, for instance, in the resolutely relational “sovereign interdependency” that Jessica Cattelino (2008) describes among Florida Seminoles engaged in the sovereignty politics of the casino era. The ways in which the casino economy has drawn Seminoles into broader sets of material relationships, Cattelino shows, has not eroded their sovereignty, but offered—to both Seminoles and theorists—ways to reimagine political sovereignty as intrinsically and materially relational.

As alternative sources of energy increasingly occupy humankind’s imagination, it is worth pondering: What kinds of volumetric politics—calculative, kinetic, and otherwise—attend wind, solar, biofuel, geothermal, and other energies of the future, given that none of them come in reservoirs of the sort familiar to the hydrocarbon economy? To what kinds of sovereignty will they be linked?


Bowden, G. 1985. “The Social Construction of Validity in Estimates of US Crude Oil Reserves,” Social Studies of Science, 15 (2), 207-240.
Breglia, Lisa. 2013. Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks, and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Cattelino, Jessica. 2008. High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kaufman, Scott. 2013. Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Kirsch, Scott. 2005. Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Rogers, Douglas. 2015. The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture after Socialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.