Timeline Events


Nantucket whalers kill the first sperm whale, effectively starting American deep water whaling.


American whalers move into the Pacific Ocean (1790-1820).


Boston Manufacturing Company establishes the first fully integrated water-powered textile mill on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts.


After the end of the War of 1812, American whaling expands.


The opening of Lehigh Canal in Pennsylvania allows for the first mass transport of anthracite coal in the United States.


“Boston Associates” expand production by moving to the 32-foot Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford (later Lowell), Massachusetts. The industrialists turned the Pawtucket Canal, built in 1793 for transportation around the falls, into a power canal.


Charles River Bridge vs. Warren Bridge ruling allowing for a competing bridge to be built give judicial support for technological advances and economic change over entrenched property rights.


Anthracite coal used for smelting iron, which enables iron industry to expand dramatically (1839-1840).


New England whalers arrive in the Pacific Arctic.

Essex Company completes a waterpower dam on the Merrimack River in Lawrence, at the time the largest dam in the world.


Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, affirms corporate riparian rights “in consideration of the advantage to the public to be derived from the establishment and maintenance of mills.”


First successful oil well drilled in Pennsylvania.

Discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania.

Conflict at Lake Village over dam regulating the water outflow of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee for the benefit of mill owners and industrialists downstream in Massachusetts.


Transcontinental railroad completed, making it easier to move whale oil and other whale products from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic.

Massachusetts creates first state board of health, chaired by radical Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. The Board’s inaugural annual report declares “all citizens have an inherent right to the enjoyment of pure and uncontaminated air, and water, and soil.”


Standard Oil Company incorporated in Ohio, created out of a partnership established in 1863.


Massachusetts passes “An Act Relative to the Pollution of Rivers,” prohibiting industrial and municipal waste in waterways, with the exception of the Connecticut River, Merrimack River, and the industrialized Concord River in Lowell.


Edison introduces his incandescent light bulb.


Edison establishes the Edison Illuminating Company to provide electric service using direct (DC) current.


Chicago and Cincinnati establish first smoke ordinances in the United States to respond to air pollution from the burning of coal.


Standard Oil Trust established to coordinate disparate companies operating across dozens of states.


28 Chinese coal miners murdered by whites in Rock Springs, Wyoming, three years after the passage of the Chinese exclusion act. Most white rioters were members of the Knights of Labor, which had fomented anti-Chinese sentiment.


Electric streetcar lines created in Montgomery, Alabama and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Westinghouse offers electric service using alternating (AC) current, allowing for longer distances and varying voltage.

Massachusetts legislature selects Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to serve on the MIT faculty, to study water pollution throughout the state, the basis for pioneering water purity tables.


Interstate Commerce Act requires that railroad rates be reasonable and just, and that railroads not discriminate unfairly between customers. The law establishes the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroads and other interstate industries.


Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits anticompetitive agreements and efforts to monopolize markets.

Standard Oil Trust controls around 90% of refined oil in the United States.

United Mine Workers Union forms out of a merger of earlier labor groups.


Inventor Clarence Kemp patents the first commercial solar water heater.

The Coal Creek War erupts in Tennessee in 1891-1892. Dozens are killed (on both sides), and more than 500 miners are arrested.


Edison forced out of company, General Electric established.


Spindletop oil field discovered in Texas, beginning period of mass consumption of petroleum for transportation and industry.


Between 1902-1904, Ida Tarbell publishes a nineteen-part investigative series on Standard Oil’s business practices in McClure’s magazine.

Willis Carrier installs first air conditioning system in a printing plant in Brooklyn, New York. Control over temperature and humidity allowed for improved print quality and machinery operation.

A major strike breaks out in the anthracite coal fields for higher wages, an eight-hour workday, and recognition of the union. President Roosevelt attempted to broker a truce, and when that failed, set up the landmark 1902 Anthracite Coal Commission.


Elkins Act bars the railroad rebates that contributed to Standard Oil’s dominance of the petroleum industry.


National Child Labor Committee


The Hepburn Act empowers the federal Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum railroad rates that were “just and reasonable,” and extends the Commission’s regulatory jurisdiction to oil pipelines and other interstate transportation methods.


Ford introduces the Model T automobile.


Taft Administration withdraws public oil lands from private claims, setting up a decade-long debate and litigation over whether the land would remain publicly owned.


In Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court orders dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust. The Standard Oil Trust is broken into three dozen different companies, including the predecessors of Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Marathon, Amoco, Phillips, and others.


Paint and Cabin Creek Strike. Miners demand union recognition, rights to free speech and assembly, participation in coal-weighing process, ending of company store’s monopoly. More than 50 people killed, mostly miners; governor declares martial law.


Colorado Coal Strike begins, culminating in the “Ludlow Massacre” in April 1914.


Clayton Act tightens and clarifies federal antitrust regulation, including the review of mergers that might restrict market competition.


In Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. and Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Co., the US Supreme Court rules that noxious fumes can be regulated.


Child Labor Act passed, but later ruled unconstitutional.


The new Mexican constitution asserts government ownership of subsoil resources, including oil.


Soviet Union nationalizes the oil industry.


Ed Whitfield and Earl Whitney, two Black miners employed by the Island Creek Colliery Company in West Virginia, are lynched in December 1919 for supposedly killing a white foreman.


Discoveries of oil at Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, and Santa Fe Springs in the Los Angeles area prompt oil boom along the southern California coast in the early 1920s.

Mineral Leasing Act provides for the retention of public oil lands and their leasing to private companies in exchange for royalty payments.

A gun battle in Matewan, West Virginia in May 1920 leaves ten dead, mostly Baldwin-Felts detectives. Violence continues throughout the summer as miners fight to organize.


Southern West Virginia is in a state of near civil war, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in September, one of the largest insurrections in the United States since the Civil War.


John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, calls a strike on April 1, which mostly impacts the “central” fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

In June, three miners and twenty strikebreakers and guards are killed in Herrin, Illinois.

Faced with a coal shortage and the threat of more violence, President Harding successfully presses to settle the strike in August. Harding creates the US Federal Coal Commission to study working conditions in the coal fields.


Federal Oil Conservation Board established out of concerns about scarcity and the wasting of petroleum resources.


Carrier persuades Paramount Pictures to install an air conditioning system in the new Rivoli Theater in Times Square, helping to lay the groundwork for the summer blockbuster movie market.


Governor Gifford Pinchot proposes “Giant Power” plan for Pennsylvania.

Oil Depletion Allowance provides for a significant federal tax deduction to encourage oil extraction.


Red Line Agreement.

Standard Oil of California obtains concession in Bahrain, followed by 1933 concession in Saudi Arabia.

US Public Health Service begins monitoring air pollution in cities.


Successful wells in the East Texas oil field cause oil prices to plummet and spur calls to restrict oil production.

Texas Railroad Commission imposes state controls on oil production.


Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt establishes Power Authority of State of New York.

Violence breaks out in Harlan County, Kentucky and the governor calls in the National Guard. The violence is mostly over by 1932, but the conflict continues until 1939.


National Industrial Recovery Act passed to regulate industrial prices and wages in the interest of economic recovery, and to promote development of public works. NIRA declared unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court in 1935.

Tennessee Valley Act.


National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act) establishes NLRB and provides for right to organize into trade unions, collective bargaining, and worker strikes.

Fearing the growth of monopolistic power by utility companies, Congress passes the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA). The Act limited utility companies to operations in one state under the supervision of state utility commissions, forced companies to divest certain interrelated businesses, and prohibited regulated utilities from engaging in certain unregulated activities.

Connally Hot Oil Act lends federal support to state production controls.

Hoover (Boulder) Dam completed on the Colorado River on the border of Nevada and Arizona. At the time, Hoover Dam was the time the largest dam in the world.

Public Utility Holding Company Act empowered the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate utility holding companies, including by limiting each company to ownership of one integrated electrical system subject to state oversight. The measure also forced holding companies to separate regulated and unregulated businesses.


Rural Electrification Act


Fair Labor Standards Act establishes minimum wage and overtime pay, and regulates child labor.

Concerned about the market power of utility companies. Congress passes the Natural Gas Act to give the Federal Power Commission the authority to regulate interstate natural gas sales. The Natural Gas Act begins a period of federal price controls for natural gas.


West Virginia passes legislation governing surface mining, the first state in the country to do so.


By 1940, motor vehicles used around forty percent of each barrel of oil in the United States.

“Ceremony of Tears” held in Washington State, marking the closure of Grand Coulee Dam and disappearance of the Indigenous salmon fishery at Kettle Falls.


The UMW calls several wartime strikes between 1941 and 1945, seeking to take advantage of the industry’s strategic importance.


Grand Coulee Dam completed.


Hydrocarbons Law in Venezuela establishes 50:50 profit split between government and oil companies.


Trinity test in New Mexico explodes first nuclear bomb, inaugurating the nuclear age.

United States drops nuclear bombs on Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Atomic Energy Act creates Atomic Energy Commission.

During a major postwar wave of strikes, a UMW strike yields not only a contract, but also a new company-paid, union-administered UMWA American Welfare and Retirement Fund. The victory brings relative peace to the coalfields for more than two decades.


Aramco signs 50:50 agreement with Saudi Arabia, followed by Iraq and Kuwait.


Iranian oil nationalization


First hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb detonated, greatly increasing the destructive power of atomic weapons.


Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who favored oil sovereignty, is overthrown in a coup supported by the British and U.S. governments.

President Eisenhower gives “Atoms for Peace” speech calling for international information sharing and cooperation on peaceful uses of atomic power, coupled with nuclear nonproliferation agreements to restrain weapons development.


In Phillips Petroleum Co. vs. Wisconsin, the U.S. Supreme Court extends federal regulation of natural gas prices to the wellhead, meaning that interstate gas producers, and not just gas pipeline transporters, were subject to federal rate regulation.

Atomic Energy Act increases government support for civilian nuclear power industry.

Godzilla and Them! released, part of a series of 1950s films about monsters created by nuclear radiation.


Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal, a major conduit of oil to Europe. Israel, the United Kingdom, and France invade Egypt in a failed attempt to regain control of the canal and overthrow the Egyptian government.

Royal Dutch Shell discovers commercial oil in the Niger Delta.


Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act relieves private companies of insurance liability greater than $60 million for incidents involving radiation or radioactive releases.

Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Western Pennsylvania becomes first commercial nuclear power plant.


Nuclear submarine makes underwater transit of the North Pole.


Oil import quotas imposed by President Eisenhower to limit imports and boost prices, protecting domestic oil producers.


Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) created.


Cuban Missile Crisis raises threat of nuclear conflict between U.S. and Soviet Union.


Partial Test-ban treaty bars nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space and under water.

Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique, which laments the isolation of the suburban housewife whose world was shaped by the automobile and labor-saving electrical devices.


Kentucky surpasses West Virginia as the leading coal producing state in the Appalachian market.


Texaco/Gulf Consortium strikes oil in northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon.

Project Gasbuggy experiments with using a nuclear explosion to stimulate natural gas production in northern New Mexico.


Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act passed, providing for tougher federal standards and oversight of coal mining industry.

Joseph Yablonski, leader of reform movement in the United Mine Workers of America, and his wife and daughter murdered at the order of incumbent union president Tony Boyle.

Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest recorded U.S. oil spill at that time.

Debris and oil on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH catches on fire in June, becoming a symbol of the nation’s polluted waterways.


Libya renegotiates its oil contracts, part of a wave of oil nationalizations and renegotiations during the 1970s.

Clean Air Act signed into law.

National Environmental Policy Act signed into law.


Occupational Safety and Health Act expands federal authority to set and enforce standards to protect workers from dangers posed by toxins, noise, machinery, poor sanitation, and other hazards.

Surface mining surpasses underground mining as the primary means of coal extraction in the US.

Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. Atomic Energy Commission forces Atomic Energy Commission to consider the environmental impact of a nuclear power plant, including the discharge of heated water into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. More broadly, the case establishes that federal agencies must affirmatively comply with the National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact statement requirements.

Two Standard Oil tankers collide in San Francisco Bay, drawing attention to the problem of oil spills and pollution in coastal waters.

President Richard Nixon imposes price controls on oil.


Oil pipeline constructed from Ecuadorian Amazon to the Pacific Ocean.

Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments and the Ports and Waterways Safety Act passed by Congress.


Secretary of the Interior creates the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, an agency separate from the Bureau of Mines.

In October, Arab state members of OPEC announce a 5% cut in oil production as a political response to U.S. support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli War.

President Nixon institutes price and allocation controls on petroleum.


United Mine Workers union signs an agreement with Eastover Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Duke Power Company, to end the thirteen month “Brookside Strike.”

Federal government prohibits highway speeds over 55mph to conserve gasoline. Modified in 1987 and repealed in 1995.


President Ford signs the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), establishing a domestic petroleum reserve and boosting federal energy efficiency programs, including for automobiles and consumer products.


Ecuadorian government becomes majority owner in consortium, with Texaco continuing as the operator.

Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County USA released, covering Brookside strike and history of labor conflict in Kentucky coal mines.


President Jimmy Carter proposes canceling 17 federal water projects, declaring them wasteful and environmentally destructive. Carter’s “hit list” sparks a fierce and protracted clash with Congress. While many of the projects were ultimately reinstated, the expansionary period of federal reclamation projects had ended.

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act establishes federal regulations for coal mining, including the reclamation of abandoned mine lands.

Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 creates Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Jimmy Carter describes combatting the threat of energy scarcity the “moral equivalent of war” and urges policies to encourage energy conservation and boost domestic energy production.


In TVA v. Hill (the snail darter case), Supreme Court declared that TVA’s proposed Tellico Dam violated the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Congress subsequently over-rode the court decision with amendments to the ESA and a special appropriations rider that allowed Tellico Dam to be completed.

President Jimmy Carter invokes the Taft-Hartley Act in an attempt to end a 91-day UMWA strike in which 160,000 coal workers walked off the job.

Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control act provided for the stabilization, control, and clean up of contaminated uranium mining sites.


Iranian Revolution topples the U.S.-backed Shah and establishes the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Partial meltdown of nuclear reactor occurs at the Three Mile Island station in Pennsylvania in March 1979.


President Jimmy Carter articulates the “Carter Doctrine,” declaring that efforts to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be considered “an assault on the vital interests of the United States,” and repelled by “any means necessary, including military force.”


Warren County, North Carolina march against a hazardous waste facility proposed for a predominantly African American community.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act established federal responsibility for creating a permanent repository. Generators of radioactive waste were responsible for the cost of its disposal.


U.S. Government Accountability Office publishes “Siting of Hazardous Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities,” showing that hazardous waste facilities were located disproportionately in African American communities.


French secret service agents bomb the Rainbow Warrior ship during Greenpeace’s campaign against French nuclear tests in the Pacific.


Chernobyl nuclear incident in Ukraine.


United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice publishes Toxic Wastes and Race, introducing the concept of “environmental racism.”

Wyoming becomes the leading coal-producing state in the US.


Founding of West Harlem Environmental Action, an environmental justice group focused on clean air, land use, and transportation justice. Indigenous Environmental Network and Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice founded in 1990.


Robert Bullard publishes Dumping in Dixie, a pioneering study of racial inequalities in exposure to environmental hazards.

Southwest Organizing Project organizes letter to major environmental organizations, criticizing them for their practices in low income and minority communities and the lack of racial diversity in their organizational staff.

Iraq invades and occupies Kuwait in a dispute over oil pricing and oil resources. The United States leads an international military coalition that expels Iraq from Kuwait.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) present the Ogoni Bill of Rights to the Nigerian government.


First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit releases “Principles of Environmental Justice.”


Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act of 1992 provides for eventual removal of Glines Canyon Dam and Elwha Dam to restore river ecosystem.

Texaco leaves Ecuador and Petroecuador becomes the owner and operator of Texaco’s former operations.


Class action lawsuit against Texaco begins, demanding cleanup and compensation.


President Bill Clinton issues executive order on environmental justice, directing federal agencies to consider environmental inequalities in planning and decision-making.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and other MOSOP leaders are executed by the Nigerian government.


Lawsuits are brought against Shell in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act and other laws, accusing the company of complicity in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, including the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and others.


Exxon and Mobil merge, re-uniting major parts of the original Standard Oil Company.


Louisiana Bucket Brigade founded to empower communities to document pollution from oil refineries and chemical plants using an inexpensive EPA-approved air sampling device.


United States court dismisses lawsuit, sending the case to the Ecuadorian courts.


Shell settles with the Saro-Wiwa family for $15.5 million, without conceding any responsibility for his death.


Elwha River Dams removed by National Park Service on Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Ecuadorian court rules on behalf of plaintiffs, awarding them $8 billion. Chevron refuses to pay.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident occurs after an earthquake and tsunami hits the coast of Japan.


U.S. court decision finds that the Ecuadorian verdict was contaminated by “coercion, bribery, money laundering and other misconduct.” 2016 Appellate Court decision sided with Chevron and upheld verdict against the original plaintiffs.


Hague Court of Arbitration declares that Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron was obtained “through fraud, bribery and corruption.” Steven Donziger’s law license suspended.