Book Review: 'Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil' by Peter Maass

By Steven Mufson
Sunday, October 11, 2009


The Violent Twilight of Oil

By Peter Maass

Knopf. 276 pp. $27

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 catalogue 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 five remained malnourished. Few households had running water or electricity. Instead, about $700 million was deposited in Riggs Bank accounts in Washington that were controlled by Equatorial Guinea's dictator Teodoro Obiang, his family and his associates.

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