Shrill, Baby, Shrill

By Steve LeVine,
who covers foreign affairs for Business Week. He is the author of "The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea."
Tuesday, November 11, 2008


The World's Most Powerful Industry -- and What We Must Do to Stop It

By Antonia Juhasz

Morrow. 468 pp. $26.95

Big Oil -- the half-dozen biggest publicly traded energy producers on Earth -- has spent more than a century ravaging the planet. War, pollution and human rights abuses have followed where ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP have gone. The companies are all-powerful when they choose to be, and with the aim of remaining so, are working to block technology that would benefit all of mankind: clean energy. Lest their abominable behavior go on, a "people's movement" must arise to end their reign.

So argues Antonia Juhasz in her new book, "The Tyranny of Oil," a well-written but critically flawed account of gigantic oil companies. Its problems include a theme of oil company omnipotence that is at least two decades out of date. This full-throated denunciation is so often inaccurate that, even if the companies are as powerfully diabolic as Juhasz claims, she ends up gravely undermining her point. Ultimately, the book is unfair: Juhasz quotes no one from the industry in its defense, claiming unconvincingly that no one would speak with her; meanwhile, those harboring grievances are provided a hearing throughout the book. The result is a cartoonish work resembling a partisan blog.

It's a pity, because given the political climate, a fact-driven investigative account of how the world got into its current energy predicament, and how we can extricate ourselves, would be extremely welcome. And if one puts stock in polls, it would probably bother few Americans if that account happened to skewer one or more of the big oil companies.

That is the goal that Juhasz sets for herself. In her acknowledgments, she says she was inspired by Ida Tarbell, author of the classic "History of the Standard Oil Co.," a 1904 investigative takedown of John D. Rockefeller and his company. An unabashed activist, Tarbell was also a superlatively meticulous researcher who quoted Standard insiders at length. By contrast, Juhasz bases almost the entirety of this 400-page text on the work of others. For example, she lifts colorful descriptions of the trading floor, the pipeline hub of Cushing, Okla., and anti-Big Oil demonstrations from newspaper articles, a method that appears lazy in a book on contemporary events.

Juhasz introduces reason after reason for being angry about Big Oil, before dismissing almost all in turn. She raises the specter of Big Oil's dominance, targeting it as a primary villain in our lives, the theme of countless books over the decades. The trouble, as she correctly notes after setting up this theme, is that Big Oil now "faces the greatest threat to its existence" because the countries possessing most of the world's oil -- Venezuela, Russia, Persian Gulf nations -- are shutting themselves off to foreign oil companies. She documents Big Oil's influence on crude oil prices, only to note that the primary impact now comes from commodity traders (she does not point out that hedge and investment funds, not Big Oil's own traders, have been largely behind the speculative run-up to $147-a-barrel oil and its more recent plunge below $70 a barrel). Juhasz finally switches targets again, and blames Big Oil's refining and marketing divisions for gasoline prices. She is also unhappy with Big Oil's big spending for political influence.

Her conclusion? "Big Oil is deeply committed to remaining Big Oil and is putting all its considerable resources behind this effort." You don't say.

Juhasz needs a fact-checker. To point out just three errors: Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV is from West Virginia, not Virginia; World War I was not an "oil war" any more than was World War II or the Vietnam War, except in the obvious sense that you need oil to win a war; and the Nobel brothers and Shell did not increase Soviet oil production in the 1920s, since the oil properties of both companies had been appropriated by then.

Then there are the whoppers. In one melodramatic passage, Juhasz describes the 1991 film "Terminator 2" -- the scene where a cyborg is blown to bits but reconstitutes itself like droplets of mercury -- to illustrate her overall contention that Big Oil is a restoration of Standard Oil, and so like its predecessor must be broken up. This is a mighty stretch. ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are children of Standard. But Shell merely bought the motor oil department of Pennzoil after Pennzoil spun off its production and exploration divisions to Devon Energy. And refiner Valero simply bought an Exxon refinery and retail distribution chain. This is not Rockefeller's Standard Oil, nor have the "spawn" of Standard, as Juhasz irritatingly and repeatedly refers to the companies, reconstituted anything resembling the monopoly power enjoyed by him or by Big Oil as it was until two decades ago.

The book has its merits. Finished before the current financial meltdown, Juhasz's book presciently criticizes the weak oversight of the oil futures market. In the end, however, the book is looking desperately for a villain. One hopes that in her next book, Juhasz collects the facts to find one.

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