I’ve had this book on my TBR since the day it was announced and none of my excitement diminished when I was rejected for the ARC. It only meant I had to wait for the release day and I’m glad I did, because now I got the opportunity to both read the book and listen to the audiobook narrated by Rachel herself, which was an absolutely riveting experience.
If you have read any of my reviews before, particularly the non fiction ones, you know I’m fairly liberal, so it should not come as a surprise that I’m also a fan of Rachel Maddow’s show. And I may have to preface this review by saying that you’ll really enjoy the experience of reading or listening to this book if you like Rachel’s style of narration on her show. She is witty and snarky, but also has this meandering way of storytelling in her show everyday, where you are initially wondering where she’s going with it but ultimately she’ll draw a very full picture for you to understand. And that’s exactly how this book is written.
It’s signature Rachel and I feel that you may not fully appreciate it if you are unfamiliar with her reporting. However meandering the writing may feel, she manages to give excellent historical context to the events that are being explained and the major players who are responsible for them, and even if the timeline is not always linear, I wasn’t really ever confused. The book is also full of information (and I really mean lots of information) and it can feel overwhelming for atleast the first quarter of the book, but once you get the hang of it, you become familiar with what it’s all about and then it unfolds like a very interesting and thrilling story spanning decades. Beginning with the Oil boom in the US in the late 19th century and ending with some conclusions of the Mueller report, this really is the saga of the Oil and Gas industry across the globe (and years) and how it has changed everything.
It’s an undeniable reality that our current way of life depends a lot on the Oil and Gas industry. The use of fossil fuels have changed the way we live, but it has also meant the industry has become a major power player across the world in a way that threatens geopolitical stability but also the daily lives of people living across the US. The events, statements, and consequences that Rachel explains in the book show us an industry that is consumed by its greed for increasing its oil/gas production, it’s lust for money and power at absolutely any cost – as long as their bottom line is served, the rest of the world can go to hell. It is equal parts horrifying and amusing, unbelievable but also kinda obvious, and particularly scary at times because I couldn’t as a reader figure out if there was a way out of all the mess.
And when we are talking about Oil and Gas, it’s impossible to avoid the major power players – the industry giants like ExxonMobil, the oil rich and utterly dependent on it countries like Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea or even similar states in the US like Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota etc. The way the companies permeate every part of the power structure of a country (or state) and then do their business with impunity, while simultaneously not caring at all about the common people’s lives they’ve put at stake is terrifying to read about. Rachel particularly concentrates on the story of Oklahoma, it’s history and it’s dependence on the industry, how the governance of the whole state became essentially a puppet of the fracking industry masters and nothing could be legislated without their approval. It’s also a story of the power of democracy and people and public servants, and their resilience in the face of the brute force attack of money and power from all sides.
And on a larger scale is the story of Russia – how it’s abundance of oil and gas could have propelled it to a global scale on better terms, if not for the infamous Resource curse meeting an authoritarian leader with paranoid tendencies. The story of Putin, ExxonMobil (and Rex Tillerson), the Oil companies and their owners in Russia and the few people who were brave enough to oppose the leader plays out like a gangster thriller, and while I was initially unsure what was the point of it all, by the end I realized that as long as the industry players work hand in hand with dictators and let them interfere in global democracies with impunity, the world is only gonna end up in more chaos.
There are quite a few important figures whom we get to know more about in the book along with their beliefs and methods and motivations, and it was fascinating to see how the common thread across all of them was greed and some kind of narcissism. Whether it is Rex Tillerson; Putin and his right hand, the head of Russia’s biggest oil company Igor Sechin; the eternal President and his son of Equatorial Guinea; Oklahoma’s own business tycoons like Harold Hamm and Aubrey McClendon; one thing they all have is loads of money and power acquired through Oil and Gas, and one thing they all want is the freedom to exploit the nature with impunity and earn boatloads more of money.
But we also get to know some unlikely heroes in the story – someone like Austin Holland, a seismologist working for the Oklahoma Geological Survey who is probably one of the key persons responsible for bringing the damage done by fracking to light; journalists like Ken Silverstein and Peter Maass who brought forth the atrocities of the leader of Equatorial Guinea and his son’s profligate tendencies; and also someone like Boris Nemtsov, who had the gall to make public the extent of Putin’s corruption and had to pay with his life. There are many more, and the “Sources” section of the book is full of information about them and their work.
I probably have a lot more to say but I I’ll conclude my review by saying that it’s an important book which talks about one of the most influential industries of our times, and I highly recommend it. Rachel is neutral for the most part, giving us all the information so that we can form our own opinions, but her sarcasm does come out at times which I enjoyed. I also think the best way to enjoy this book is reading while simultaneously listening to the audio, because her narration brings a lot of life to what can feel like a very long story. I had fun listening to it, I also felt shocked and terrified and hopeless. But Rachel ends with a slightly hopeful note, remarking that it’s always possible to course correct but we (which includes people and government) need to have the courage and conviction to standup for democratic principles and the importance of transparency.
Special tax favors for oil and gas producers have been in force since Woodrow Wilson’s first year in office and still stand today, seventeen presidential administrations later, as the longest-running welfare program in the nation’s history.
It’s not an inescapable curse; countries with oil do okay if they’ve got strong small-d democratic institutions that won’t buckle under pressure and are capable of responding to citizens’ needs and desires.
“Oil is where you find it. Oil companies cannot always invest in democratically governed countries. It would be ideal if it could be guaranteed that the head of an African country where a U.S. oil company invested was, in fact, an advocate of democracy and always respected human rights. Unfortunately, that is not a realistic expectation.”
“Oil,” after all, “is where you find it.” Sometimes American corporations had to make deals with unsavory sorts to get at it, sure, but remember, even with domestic energy production on the rise in 2010 (thank you, fracking), the United States still needed to import about half of the crude oil it consumed. The oil companies could always make the claim, with that actual fact as evidence, that they were doing it…for us.
Countries may come and go, but oil and gas companies need to think bigger than that: they make big expensive investments that cost a ton up front, and they need to be assured they’ll be able to collect the promised payoff after all that work and expense. So, the longer the relevant foreign ruler is in power, the better. And if the local autocrat is happily on the payroll, no one’s going to bother anyone about cleaning up any mess that oil production might cause in his country. And if any of the citizens of that country do step out of line and make a fuss, the ruling family (and its well-paid paramilitary forces and its expensive PR firms) will take care of that, too. And everyone else will look the other way.
The Resource Curse, Lugar noted, “affects us as well as producing countries. It exacerbates global poverty which can be a seedbed for terrorism, it dulls the effect of our foreign assistance, it empowers autocrats and dictators, and it can crimp world petroleum supplies by breeding instability.”
The submission of government officials has kept the cost of complying with health and safety regulations comfortably low. Very little has been asked of the oil and gas industry, and very little expected. It’s no great wonder that BP’s feckless attempt at controlling and cleaning up the largest oil spill in the history of mankind depended largely on paper towels. Why would it be better prepared? These were “best practices,” according to the industry.
“Was there any country in the world whose record of civil rights was so horrible, or whose conduct was so directly a threat to global security or U.S. national security interests, that Exxon wouldn’t do business with it?” Rex was asked during an official U.S. Senate investigation. “The standard that is applied is, first, ‘Is it legal?’ ” he replied. “Does it violate any of the laws of the United States to conduct business with that particular country? Then, beyond that, it goes to the question of the country itself. Do they honor contract sanctity?” Contract sanctity, that’s the top. Below that, it’s all negotiable.
They found the most ragged faults and fissures in our democracy: immigration, race, religion, economic injustice, mass shootings. Then they poured infectious waste into them. They used traditional media, social media, and disinformation to try to make citizens of differing experiences and viewpoints hate and distrust each other as much as possible; made public discourse and discussion as evil and mean-spirited and alienating as possible; created miserable expectations for coarseness and cruelty and blatant dishonesty in politics and civic life.
The agents of the Kremlin just have to tell the lies often enough and loud enough to sow doubt and dissension, to prove that leaders and governments and institutions in the United States are just as crappy as Russia’s. And if Putin learned anything observing the winning-is-all oil and gas executives at ExxonMobil and BP and Chevron, or enablers at Morgan Stanley, or Davis Manafort Partners International, or Skadden, he learned that there are plenty of folks in the West who are happy to be part of it, happy to pitch in. Useful idiots can be found.
Oil and gas are valuable everywhere in the world, but with only a few exceptions the industry that produces them has shaped nations and states in ways that serve itself while screwing pretty much everybody else.
This is an industry that has demanded and received special treatment for more than a century and regards this private right as its due.
Even if “energy independence” is our international relations insurance policy and the safety of our energy supply is a core national security issue, why are oil and gas the only energy sources to which those imperatives redound? Why are oil and gas the only energy sources seen as appropriate tools to reach these two national goals? Heaven forbid the government instead offers breaks and incentives to, say, renewable energy. Then suddenly the industry becomes the champion of the free market. Government should not be in the business of picking winners!