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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil

Are there better ways to meet our energy needs than the ever more frantic search for the world’s rapidly decreasing oil reserves? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is both “yes” and “no” because, while there certainly are cleaner ways to generate the energy that makes the world go around, the transition from oil to those cleaner sources might just bankrupt the planet during the transition process.

In Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, Peter Maass explains the impact of our oil addiction on those supposedly lucky countries having enough oil to export it to the rest of us. Most of the world’s remaining oil reserves will be discovered in, and exported from, third world countries. Unfortunately, the governments of those countries are most often manned by thugs and thieves who claim the oil riches for themselves and their families. These criminals might be quick to loot their country’s oil reserves but they are slow to plow any of the oil proceeds back into the country’s infrastructure in ways that would improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Peter Maass devotes chapters to Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Ecuador, Russia, Iraq and Venezuela. Maass finds that these countries have one thing in common other than their vast supplies of crude oil. Each of them suffers from the “resource curse,” which states that countries whose economies are too closely tied to the exportation of a natural resource, such as oil, are doomed to “lower growth, higher corruption, less freedom and more warfare.” Doubters only need review the list of countries at the beginning of this paragraph to judge the accuracy of this “curse.”

Maass effectively argues that none of the petty dictators, thieves and kings could have looted their countries on their own. Without the enablement of Big Oil, it simply could not have happened. Oil companies have always shown a willingness to work with anyone able to guarantee them the contracts needed to extract oil, turning a blind eye to what happens in the producing country despite the billions of dollars the companies pump into government hands. Seeking an edge, oil companies have been known to bribe government officials with huge amounts of cash, high-paying “consulting” jobs, building rents, and “charities.” “Whatever it takes” seems to be the motto of many who spend their lives in search of the next huge oil field.

But all of this is overshadowed by the brutal wars fought by consuming nations to gain or guarantee access to the steady supply of reasonably priced crude oil so critical to the world’s economy. While Maass admits that the United States invaded Iraq for reasons in addition to oil acquisition, he correctly points out that the protection and control of Iraq’s oil fields quickly became a top priority of America’s occupying forces. Keeping the huge Iraqi oil reserves in friendly hands, even if not directly in the hands of American oil companies, clearly impacts America’s national security. Because the job of America’s military is to protect the country’s national security, and because every other major power feels the same way, fighting over the oil of producing countries is not likely to end before the oil runs dry.

The picture Peter Maass paints might not be pretty, but it is realistic. He knows that the world’s dependence on petroleum is likely to last another several decades but he urges us to make oil’s twilight as “short as possible.” Sadly, until reasonable alternatives to oil are found, we remain “complicit in the forms of violence – physical, environmental and cultural – that are the consequences of its extraction.”

(I write this as someone who has worked in the oil industry, and in several different oil producing countries, for the last 37 years.)

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by Knopf)

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