Books: dark side of a crude world

Peter Maass warns that decades of wanton consumption have created the seeds of the economic, environmental and moral destruction caused by the oil industry, writes Michael Peel.

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil
Peter Maass
Allen Lane, 2009

There’s a polemical directness to Crude World, Peter Maass’s tour of big oil and its myriad vices. Each of the 10 chapter headings comprises a single word. They begin with “Scarcity” and end in “Mirage”, taking in “Plunder”, “Rot” and “Alienation” on the way. The industry in the United States is a “carnival of sin”, he says. Maass quotes approvingly former US White House official Harold Ickes, who, in the 1930s wrote in his diary that “an honest and scrupulous man in the oil business” was “so rare as to rank as a museum piece”.

This is the spirit that informs a short, sharp book that saw Maass visit 11 countries, building on previous articles from half a dozen other “oilcentric nations”. It’s a lot to pack in to a work of 200-plus pages. The pace is sometimes breathless. But Maass – a journalist and author of a book on the former Yugoslavia – succeeds in portraying an energy crisis mostly ignored or misunderstood in the developed world.

Crude World
serves as a warning to middle America – or indeed middle Britain, middle China or middle India – that decades of wanton consumption have created the seeds of the economic, environmental and moral destruction caused by the oil industry. “The end of the suburban lifestyle, hinged to two-car families and commutes to work, school and Walmart, will be just the first casualty,” Maass writes. There is more than a hint of glee when he argues that a decline in crude production looms in the medium-term, and “Big Oil is getting the reward it deserves: after more than a century of power and indecency, it is shrinking”.

Each chapter highlights a dark facet of the oil world, whether that’s militant uprisings in Nigeria, pollution in Ecuador, corruption in Azerbaijan or the fetid embrace between leading US companies and the dictatorial government of Equatorial Guinea. A recent British court case about oil trader Trafigura spilling toxic waste in Ivory Coast was another reminder of the price the industry has at times exacted on poorer nations.

Maass is sceptical that producer nations will continue fuelling the west, China and India. He argues that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer, is a source of uncertainty because it isn’t transparent about its oil resources, for example. And his visit to an Iraqi refinery reveals how unprepared the United States was, post-invasion, to protect the oil infrastructure it was said to so desire.

In Russia, he finds a country where “crude oil and political power are umbilically connected”. He quotes two experts who fear it could become, at worst, a dictatorial rentier state along the lines of Angola.

The price of this broad scope is that the narrative is sometimes hurried and avenues are left unexplored. In Equatorial Guinea, he notes, “the ruling family, the government and the business elite are one and the same”. Though of course, even the United States has seen father and son presidencies and former oil executives at the top of government.

A chapter on the industry’s leaders flirts with glibness when it observes that one executive was “not averse to becoming rich” or that oil managers as a class had a moral compass that “did not always point in a moral direction”.

The author ends on a semi-hopeful note, with a visit to a Californian wind farm, which he sees as part of a better future after “the violent twilight of oil”. Three decades ago, he recalls, US president Jimmy Carter demanded the “moral equivalent of war” in the realm of energy, but this plea “went nowhere”. After this helter-skelter tour of an industry that is at once frighteningly powerful and strangely vulnerable, Maass has no doubts about the harshness of the age awaiting us if we continue to look away from the dark side of our crude world.

Michael Peel is author of
A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier (IB Tauris).

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009