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Polluted by oil

Here’s a disturbing look at the underside of the international industry

By STEVEN MUFSON The Washington Post

October 25, 2009 – 12:00 am

We tend to take for granted the comforts of modern life. Few of us think of underpaid migrant workers when we buy inexpensive imported clothes from China, or of disfigured Appalachian mountain tops when we turn on our coal-powered kitchen lights, or of fouled oil-rich frontiers when we hop in our cars.

In his new book, Crude World, journalist Peter Maass takes readers on a vivid tour of troubled oil frontiers, voyaging to places like Nigeria’s polluted delta, Equatorial Guinea’s dusty capital, Ecuador’s scarred rain forest and Russia’s corporate boardrooms, where corruption is rife and environmental neglect all too common. It is a disturbing catalog of the underside of the international oil industry.

“Though oil provides fuel for our cars and warmth for our homes, it undermines most countries that possess it and, along with natural gas and coal, poisons the climate,” Maass writes.

There are few revelations in this book. From the muckraking Ida Tarbell a century ago to the late British journalist Anthony Sampson in The Seven Sisters, writers have exposed the dark side and the huge financial stakes of the oil business. Many of the contemporary examples in Crude World have been explored elsewhere.

Yet the telling and retelling of Big Oil’s quest for new reserves has a cumulative effect designed to leave readers wondering whether there are better ways to meet our energy needs. And while oil companies routinely assert that they follow best practices, reading about one dismal place after another raises the question of whether such incidents constitute a pattern of behavior rather than exceptions.

In the Niger Delta, a region of Nigeria the size of England where much of the country’s oil reserves lie, Maass is paddled through a network of rivers to impoverished towns that lie alongside big Royal Dutch Shell installations. The flaring of natural gas lights the sky and spreads noxious fumes. The towns share virtually none of the wealth springing from the ground – though that may be due to corrupt officials.

In Ecuador, Maass profiles an American lawyer who is waging a legal battle to make Texaco, now part of Chevron, pay to clean up the toxic byproducts of drilling from years ago.

In Equatorial Guinea, Maass describes a nation of a half million people and several billion barrels of crude oil that has been flooded with international oilmen. Yet a decade after oil was discovered, half the children under 5 remained malnourished. Few households had running water or electricity. Instead, about $700 million was deposited in Riggs Bank accounts in Washington, D.C., that were controlled by Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang, his family and his associates.

This is not a dispassionate exploration of sticky business issues; it’s an indictment and a conviction wrapped in one. “It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the rain forest was Texaco’s rubbish bin,” Maass writes. “But that is not the worst part of the story.” He says companies’ underpayment of royalties, environmental neglect and disregard for workers’ safety in the United States is part of a “carnival of sin.”

Often he sounds more like he’s describing Dante’s Inferno than unsightly industrial developments. “We saw pits of burning oil and we saw flames roaring from flares on the ground; the earth was hissing fire,” he writes from the Niger Delta. In Ecuador, he says, “I passed through a fifty-mile stretch of apocalypse – a mutant panorama of oil fields and gas flares in which crude oozed and burned around me.”

In his eagerness to portray big oil companies as evil, Maass uses some florid descriptions. In Equatorial Guinea, he writes that “the substance not only offers itself as a treasure to be stolen; it can become a political amulet that protects the thieves from abandonment or punishment.” But other times his analogies seem on target. He compares Shell’s donation of a generator to a Nigerian village to “a donor giving crutches to a man who is paralyzed.” And he captures the plodding yet self-righteous public speaking style of ExxonMobil’s former chief executive Lee Raymond, who, he says, was “part Tony Robbins, part Billy Graham, with a whiff of a mumbling Leonid Brezhnev.”

Maass also raises the right broader issues. Oil seems as much a curse as a blessing for developing countries. It often exacerbates existing internal strife in places such as Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, oil wealth enjoyed by the royal family leaves many ordinary citizens alienated. And efforts to stop corruption have failed in many places.

Yet his conclusion fails to provide any convincing solutions. He suggests better law enforcement, changes in social values, and greater transparency for oil contracts through a nongovernmental group called Publish What You Pay, but these seem unlikely to make much difference. He endorses renewable energy sources such as wind to reduce dependence on oil without taking into account that it would take massive expansion of wind and the widespread adoption of electric cars for these resources to significantly shrink the size of the oil industry and its footprint around the world.

Maass has subtitled his book “the violent twilight of oil,” but it feels like a long day’s journey to a post-oil world. The oil industry – and all its customers – will not go gentle into that post-petroleum night.

(Steven Mufson covers energy for The Washington Post.)

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