In The Pearl, the 1947 novella by the American novelist John Steinbeck, an impoverished Mexican diver named Kino scoops up an enormous pearl from the bed of a gulf tributary. The raw gem’s unlocked wealth promises to deliver Kino and his family from penury but it also provokes the villagers to scheme for its possession. Like a cancer in its host, Steinbeck writes, the pearl “stirred up something infinitely black and evil….The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it." The story ends with Kino, fearing the pearl will destroy him and his family, returning it to the Gulf’s shimmering folds.
Sadly, the same cannot be done with our hydrocarbon economy. As Peter Maass concedes in his latest book, a first-person account of oil-induced ecocide, geology cannot be reversed. Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, is a forensic tour through the devastation wrought by an energy source that is in some ways as deadly as it is empowering. Like Kino’s blighted pearl, oil subverts the primitive societies where it is so often discovered – the author frequently cites Norway for its exceptional rule-of-law buffer against the oil curse – leaving armed conflict, kleptocracy, and environmental havoc in its wake. In a concise 225 pages, Maass illustrates how oil-rich dictators, usually with the indulgence of Western governments, sack pastoral idylls and plunder delicate ecosystems. Oil, he writes, “not only offers itself as a treasure to be stolen; it can become a political amulet that protects the thieves from abandonment or punishment.”
Though there are no shortage of books about the petroleum industry – the publication of Daniel Yergin’s The Prize in 1991 sired an entire genre – Maass weaves a tale that is distinguished by its scope, wit and verve. Like a gas flare from an oil rig, he illuminates a hydrocarbon landscape that stretches from the killing fields of Equatorial Guinea and Iraq to the environmental disaster zones of the Niger Delta and the Oriente region of Ecuador. The cycle of exploitation in the non-Norway oil world is, by his account, depressingly familiar: a petroleum field is discovered under a far-flung nation; the world’s energy lords converge around the local strongman who has filled a post-colonial void; free of the industrial laws and ethics laws that prevail in their own countries, the oil companies cut a deal with the regime. Drilling rights are exchanged for slush funds, reserves are siphoned away, virgin lands and waters are violated and the people, particularly those caught in the middle, are crushed.
That, in a nutshell, is what has happened to oil-endowed Equatorial Guinea, the tiny West African nation run by Teodoro Obiang, a dictator who has allegedly cannibalized opponents, obliged a U.S. ambassador to flee the country by threatening his life, and managed to parlay a $60,000 salary into a fortune worth $700 million. Obiang, Maass writes, bartered away to oil giants ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil Corp. and Hess Corp. a majority of the profits from his country’s energy reserves in exchange for regular cash deposits with Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. After the size of the payments was revealed in a U.S. Senate report, lawmakers launched a hearing and summoned top officials from Riggs and the oil companies to testify. One of them, Andrew Swiger of Exxon, told legislators that the kickbacks to Obiang were all part of their commercial obligations to “make Equatorial Guinea a better place.”
Amazingly, the theft of Equatorial Guinea’s natural resources continues. (Just last week, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the numerous homes, automobiles, speedboats and private jet maintained and enjoyed in America by Obiang’s son.) “The more that was taken from its people,” Maass writes, “the better [was Obiang’s] relations with Washington. It did not matter that [he] had threatened to kill the American ambassador….One of oil’s darkly magical properties is that it erases inconvenient memories.”
In this relentless account of villainy and scandalous neglect – the chapters are given one-word titles, such as “Plunder,” “Rot,” and “Contamination,” in fitting tribute to the Catholic Church’s Cardinal Sins – Maass apportions blame judiciously. He is tough on industry leaders like Exxon and British Petroleum, which rival Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs and AIG as icons of corporate avarice, but he is equally hard on the state-owned oil companies that surged to power when populist leaders nationalized their energy sectors. Petroecuador of Ecuador, for example, is singled out for doing as much to despoil the environment as its foreign predecessors. While the author salutes Saudi Aramco, the world-class steward of Riyadh’s oil wealth, he details how the Saudi royal family’s impious excesses during the 1970s oil boom invigorated radical Islam. Maass does a superb job explaining how seemingly decent oil executives can persuade themselves and others around them that conniving with dictators and razing whole stretches of the planet is somehow good for the commonweal. He profiles oilman James Giffen, the ex-bagman to Kazak dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who proudly tells the author that he was the inspiration for a particularly unscrupulous character in the movie Syriana.
Charming rogues, man-eating heads of state, Nigerian tribal kings waging low-intensity wars against oil-mad, aggrandizing regimes. Maass lays it all out with the crisp pace of a graphic novel. He remarks how, from one steamy boom town after another, he meets characters worthy of a Graham Greene novel. But Crude World reads more like Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s morality play about the latent savagery in all humans. As his journey takes him deep into some of the world’s most unsavory places – the defiled Oriente, the Niger Delta’s toxic Oru Sangama, Washington’s lobbyist-infested K Street – he places us on intimate terms with the evil that men do purveying the hydrocarbon economy. It an association made all the more unnerving by our patronage of it.