Wells of Failure: Oil Exploration, Conspiracy Theory and Power in Turkey

By Zeynep Oguz
Submitted to Session P4940 (Authority in Concrete: State, Space, and Infrastructures in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
Energy Studies; Environment;
LCD Projector without Audio;
What is the “before” of the infrastructure? What comes before the concrete materiality of oil pipelines, hardworking pumps, and deep, fertile wells? In 1930s, motivated by the abundance of oil resources in their neighboring countries, Turkish bureaucrats decided to spend their limited money and resources for oil exploration. Yet, geological assessments have shown that Turkey is not an oil-rich country, as only seven percent of the country’s oil consumption is sourced by national oil reserves today (ETKB 2015). Focusing on failed exploration attempts, abandoned oil wells and lost hopes, this paper examines pivotal moments in national oil exploration projects conducted by geologists and geophysicists at the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Company in the past eighty years. Compared with imaginaries of national progress, energy independence and geopolitical power that energy infrastructure projects often generate in Turkey, such failures reveal a darker side of the generative capacity of infrastructures: conspiracy theories. From assassinated journalists and politicians holding key information about international oil secrets, to deliberately abandoned oil wells that were in fact quite productive, conspiracy theories about the evildoings of malevolent Western powers and their collaborators inside keep occupying the public imaginary in Turkey. Today, the unyielding faith in the “resource potentiality” (Weszkalnys 2015) of Turkish lands goes hand in hand with an even stronger conviction in the obstruction of such ideals by internal traitors and external enemies. In fact, conspiracy talk has been the trademark of the populist and authoritarian AKP government, if not its massive infrastructure and construction projects. However, rather than conceptualizing conspiracy theories within a dichotomy of the rational and the irrational, this paper takes them seriously in order to think about the political-economic “truths” that infrastructure imaginaries work to mask in the first place. Tracing ethnographic encounters in the capital Ankara and Kurdish-populated oil cities Batman and Adiyaman, interviews with politicians, scientists and engineers, bestseller books, corruption scandals, news leaks and rumor, this paper explores the kinds and ways of evidence that different actors use in order to make certain political or scientific claims about how power operates in Turkey and the world today. In doing so, it examines the kinds of knowledge, politics, and future horizons that are enabled by conspiracy theories and by their debunking.