Events in different areas, even opposite sides of the planet, can sometimes collide in the most unexpected of ways. When we heard back in May that the Ambassador from Azerbaijan wanted to visit the Oil Heritage Region, we were delighted, but also somewhat confused. Azerbaijan is a small country on the Caspian Sea, tucked in between Russia and Iran, with only Georgia and Armenia separating it from the Black Sea and Turkey. It’s a land with a complicated history tied to the ebbs and flows of power in the Near East, so what did it have in common with the Oil Heritage Region?
Quite a lot, it turns out! While we are proud of our region’s own unique history – we are the “Valley that Changed the World,” after all – most of us were unaware of just how closely it mirrored a significant chunk of Azerbaijan’s past. According to historians, the world’s very first mechanically drilled oil well was dug just outside of the capital of Baku in the summer of 1848, more than a decade before Drake’s Well made history here in the US. Oil had been a regular part of the economy and daily life of the Azerbaijani people for centuries, although it wasn’t until the 1800s that technology progressed to the point of allowing rapid extraction and transportation, and the discovery of entirely new uses. Here in northwestern PA, the stars (and financial powerhouses) aligned in just the right way to allow for the oil coming out of our region to kick off a global revolution, changing life as we knew it forever. In Azerbaijan, the industry began to pick up steam around the same time that Drake’s team made the headlines, and even famous names like the Nobel brothers were involved in the industry in and around Baku. Azerbaijan was under the control of Russia at the time, and a shift in geopolitical pressures around 1970 allowed more private individuals, as well as foreign entities, to enter the industry, creating a regional renaissance of oil-funded growth and prosperity. By the turn of the century, Azerbaijan was actually supplying more oil to the world than the US – roughly half of the global production.
The early 20th century saw a revolution in Russia, then two World Wars. Today, communities around the world are dealing with the environmental and social ravages of those oil boomtimes, and the wars that followed, including here in the Oil Heritage Region and over in Azerbaijan. We are all working to find new, more efficient, and effective ways of using our resources while cleaning up and maintaining the integrity of our natural environment, and we are working to create equitable opportunities for socio-economic growth. Azerbaijan is particularly interested in utilizing their oil resources - and the money earned from them - to nurture cleaner, greener energy technologies, just as many are here in the US.
It is now this shared goal of a better, brighter future, built on the best of our past and the promise of tomorrow that brings us together. We look forward to welcoming the Ambassador on his next visit to our area and continuing the conversation!
Photo of Nobel Brother’s oil wells in Balakhani, a suburb of Baku, from the 1880s. Photo Credit: Asbrink Collection.