Why is Rotterdam the largest oil port of Western Europe? The case of the Trans-European pipeline plan, 1956-1958.



Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Western Europe became a net importer of energy as it abandoned reliance on domestic coal supplies and became dependent on foreign oil. Demand for oil in Western Europe started rising rapidly from the mid-1950s onwards, requiring oil companies to dramatically increase European refining capacity. Increasing demand for oil in Western Europe required both maritime and overland transportation capacities to increase, i.e. larger tankers and the introduction of pipelines. The maritime ports of Western Europe were challenged to adapt to this growing scale of oil transportation. Ports that could muster the resources to adapt their port infrastructure and hinterland access networks – and disposed of favourable geographical conditions – could benefit hugely. The Rotterdam port was no exception and it has done so in an impressive manner. Of all the oil moving through ports in the Hamburg-Le Havre range in 2011, Rotterdam moves no less than 50 per cent; it’s nearest rival, Le Havre, just 12 per cent. Rotterdam owes its dominant position to the port’s physical attributes (deep water) and its excellent connections (Rhine, pipelines) to industries and consumers in the hinterland. But why did Rotterdam gain these competitive advantages over other European ports?

Part of the answer to that question can be found in a relatively short period in the late 1950s when Western Europe’s crude oil pipeline network was developed. The development of the pipeline network threatened to severe the Rotterdam port from its traditional Rhine-Ruhr hinterland. In 1955 and 1956, two pipeline plans emerged that both aimed to take over the position of the Rotterdam port as the principal oil port for the Rhine-Ruhr area. A particularly bold approach was taken in the shape of the Trans-European Pipeline plan, which aimed to supply all of Western Europe’s crude oil through an integrated Trans-European pipeline network originating in the French port of Marseille. A more modest but equally threatening venture was a pipeline from the German port of Wilhelmshaven to the Rhine-Ruhr area. In 1956, therefore, Rotterdam seemed destined to become anything but Europe’s leading oil port. Nonetheless, in 1957 Rotterdam did succeed in obtaining its prized pipeline to the Rhine-Ruhr area and by the early 1960s, Rotterdam had outpaced all its competitors in terms of oil throughput. This raises the questions: How and why did Rotterdam succeed in obtaining a crude oil pipeline to the Rhine-Ruhr hinterland? Why was the Wilhelmshaven pipeline not the end of Rotterdam’s ambitions? Why did not the Trans-European network prevail? And what were the long-term effects of the contest for pipelines for the port-hinterland relationship of the Rotterdam port? Based on the case of the Trans-European pipeline plan, this paper addresses these questions.

The Business History Seminar is organised by the Business History Centre and has been made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication