Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Oleaginous Rex

The center cannot hold in an epic account of the global oil trade

Ken Silverstein


A July blog post at Washingtonian magazine dissected what it calls the “Washington Read”—the process “by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere.” The central irony here is that a best-selling book that becomes a Washington Read—typically after some Sunday-morning talking head raves about its insights and brilliance or the Post runs a prominent review—doesn’t yield many actual Washington readers. Rather, busy and self-important DC residents elect simply to buy a copy and skim the table of contents and introduction (as well as the index, to see if they’re mentioned) so they can discuss the book at Georgetown dinner parties and give the impression that they’ve read it.

While the Washingtonian didn’t single it out as such, Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, a history of the global oil industry, is a classic entry in the Washington Read genre. The book turned Yergin into one of the country’s most oft-cited energy experts and a fixture on cable TV; he also, not incidentally, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1992. The legacy of The Prize—or, taking the Pulitzer into account, the prizes—has also generated vast fees for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the consulting firm Yergin heads, almost all courtesy of the oil companies that he frequently writes and opines about. None of which is to say that Yergin’s book was without merit. In addition to its exceptional timing—The Prize was published soon after the first US-led invasion of Iraq—the book spelled out the central role that the quest for oil has played throughout the twentieth century. The narrative also homed in on a cast of colorful characters, such as Calouste Gulbenkian, the original oil middleman from the days of the Ottoman Empire, who was known as “Mr. Five Percent,” owing to his alleged cut on the deals he fixed. Yet The Prize also drifted into a fair amount of energy esoterica, and it’s a safe bet—especially at its publishing birth weight of 3 pounds (912 pages)—that many readers didn’t get through it.

Now the Penguin Press is publishing Yergin’s long-awaited sequel, The Quest. The new book picks up where The Prize ended, starting with Gulf War I and the collapse of communism and running up through Gulf War II and the American invasion of Afghanistan. There are even a few hastily assembled pages on the Arab Spring (which Yergin, like so many observers, foolishly attributes to the popular appeal of Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail in the Arab world). Yergin also discusses the rise of China and India, global warming, and the search for sources of renewable energy.

It goes without saying that The Quest will sell well. Steve Levine, who writes Foreign Policy’s excellent blog The Oil and the Glory, has described its publication as a “literary event.” But even though it comes in at a relatively slim 816 pages, The Quest is far less compelling than its predecessor, and only die-hard energy wonks are likely to finish it. In other words, it is virtually guaranteed to be an unread best seller and essential Washington Read.

Which is unfortunate, since oil and energy policy are, if anything, more vital forces in global affairs today than they were two decades ago. Because of its financial weight and political significance, energy is the world’s most important commodity, and it underpins the global economy. It currently represents a $6 trillion annual market, and because of soaring demand, mostly from China, India, and other rising economic powers, the value of the energy economy could increase by as much as 40 percent over the next twenty years, Yergin estimates. Hence, the broad questions raised in The Quest are crucial: Is the world running out of fossil fuels? Where will future supplies come from? How will the interplay of energy and environmental issues impact foreign and domestic policies?

Yergin refutes “peak oil” theorists, who argue that the world is quickly running out of oil, and further maintain that, as a result, the whole global economy faces an imminent crunch. He acknowledges that global oil supplies face serious risks, but describes them as “above ground,” i.e., economic, political, and military hazards. But Yergin believes that there is plenty of oil belowground to meet global needs for years to come, especially when one factors in “unconventional” sources such as Canadian oil sands. “The peak oil theory embodies an ‘end of technology/end of opportunity’ perspective, that there will be no more significant innovation in oil production, nor significant new resources that can be developed,” he writes. It’s more accurate, Yergin says, to conceptualize the state of global oil production as a plateau rather than a peak. What’s more, he predicts that the plateau won’t be reached until around midcentury, at which point “a more gradual decline will begin” and energy alternatives will have matured and dropped in price. He might be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet against Yergin on this point.

Let’s face it, though: Peak oil, global warming, and alternative energy may be critically important topics, but they don’t always make for the most riveting extended forays into policy debate. (Exhibit A: Al Gore.) “Although some scientists had begun to worry seriously in the 1970s about the impact on the atmosphere and temperatures of burning carbon, it has only been in the last few years that climate change has truly come to the top of the political agenda around the world,” Yergin writes in one typically flat-footed passage. “This shift has turned greenhouse gases into a potent argument for rolling back the supremacy of hydrocarbons and for expanding the role of renewables.”

And that’s on page 6 of the introduction, 810 pages from the goal line. Yergin tries to spice things up with scenes and anecdotes, not always successfully. Consider this snippet from a 1995 phone conversation between John Browne of BP and H. Laurance Fuller, the CEO of Amoco:

Fuller: What’s new?

Browne: Strategically, [a merger is] something we ought to do.

Fuller: Well, it’s not on my agenda. But why don’t we talk?

Browne: When would be convenient?

Fuller: How about the day after tomorrow?

Readers may make it through the first third of The Quest, which covers major geopolitical events of the past few decades through the lens of energy. The real struggle begins afterward, with chapters such as “Alternating Currents,” “Mystery of Wind,” “Closing the Gap: Buildings and the Smart Grid,” and “The Great Electric Car Experiment.”

A broader problem is that while The Prize had the sweeping sense of history, The Quest covers relatively recent events, and tends to do so in pedestrian fashion. Its stories don’t feel so much ripped from today’s headlines as hastily rewritten by an overworked copy editor at a wire-service foreign desk. “On the night of December 25, 1991, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev went on national television to make a startling announcement,” Yergin writes in his nutshell account of the fall of the Soviet Union. In short order—less than one page—Gorbachev has concluded his speech and “faded out into the ether and uncertainty of night,” and “communism was finished in the land in which it had been born.” (Of course, modern communism was in fact birthed in England, not Russia, in a reading room of the British Library.)

If Yergin’s chronology of recent history can read at times like a dry yet urgent telegram, his characteristic rehashes of conventional wisdom take on an epic scale. The Prize was certainly not radical history, but The Quest reads like an endless series of bland samplings by the hacks gathered at the Washington Post editorial board.

Examples abound, but perhaps the clearest comes in Yergin’s version of recent Venezuelan history. He is clearly a big admirer of Carlos Andrés Pérez, the former president who nationalized the country’s oil industry during his first term, in the 1970s, but became a strong US ally during his second, which began in 1989. Correspondingly, Yergin loathes Hugo Chávez, who as a lieutenant colonel led an unsuccessful military uprising against Pérez in 1992, and who six years later was elected president himself (after he’d served a stretch in prison for his role in the attempted coup).

In Yergin’s telling, CAP, as Pérez was known, launched his second term with “a program of reform, which included reducing controls on the economy, cutting back on spending, and strengthening the social safety net for the poor.” His program certainly cut spending and deregulated the economy, to the great applause of the US government and the International Monetary Fund (even though Pérez had attacked the IMF, while campaigning for popular support among Venezuelans suspicious of both the United States and the global economic elite, as “a neutron bomb that killed people but left buildings standing”).

But it’s a considerable stretch to say that the Pérez economic plan did much of anything to strengthen the safety net for the poor. In fact, massive riots broke out after Pérez’s program prompted a huge increase in gasoline prices and the cost of public transportation. Pérez crushed the protests with the National Guard, leading to the deaths of at least five hundred people (some estimates range as high as several thousand) and his declaration of a state of emergency.

Yergin downplays the popular outrage that arose in response and similarly minimizes allegations of corruption against Pérez, which led the Venezuelan congress to impeach him in 1993. Yergin says that Pérez’s opponents hated him because of his “economic reforms and decentralization of political power”—and that his removal from office “was proof anew of the old maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Like so many Latin scoundrels, CAP died in exile in Miami, where he and his longtime mistress resided in luxury. A more accurate portrayal of his legacy came in a December 2010 obituary in The Independent, which drily noted that even during his first term “his name began rising fast in business magazine lists of the wealthiest Latin Americans” and that he “increasingly aroused suspicion as to where the money had come from.” On the economic front, the Pérez years were marked by “glitzy consumption” by the rich and huge increases in foreign debt and capital flight.

You can’t understand the rise of Chávez without understanding the widespread loathing on the part of Venezuelans toward CAP and the country’s political elite. Yet Yergin is as robotically hostile to Chávez as he is blindly reverential toward Pérez. “‘As far as anyone knows,’ his biographers have written, ‘Hugo Chávez began to lead a double life when he was around twenty-three,’” Yergin writes in one passage. He doesn’t identify the biographers in question, but one suspects they were not favorably predisposed toward their subject.

Say what you will about Chávez—and God knows there are ample grounds for criticizing him—he was immensely popular for a long time because he spent heavily on social programs and empowered the poor. That’s what earned him the hatred of the country’s old oligarchy—not, as Yergin would have readers believe, the fantastical threat he allegedly posed to Venezuela’s flaccid democracy.

But analytical rigor has of course never been the calling card of the Washington Read. No matter how turgid the pace or dubious the politics on display in The Quest, it is sure to sell briskly—especially in Washington, where it is arriving just in time for this fall’s Georgetown social season.

Ken Silverstein is a fellow at the Open Society Foundations, concentrating on the global oil trade.

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