Crude World: An Interview with Peter Maass

In Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (Knopf, $27) author and journalist Peter Maass embarks on an eight-year investigation into the economics and politics of oil production, surveying the true costs of oil beyond carbon emissions and high prices at the pump. Maass, a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine, travels to countries where oil has been discovered to get a first-hand understanding of the consequences -- war, poverty, corruption and dictatorship. It's an essential, fascinating read that, through anecdotal evidence of the destruction caused, infuriates the reader. But there's still hope. We already have the technologies and policies to cure the addiction, Maass writes, and it's now up to us to take those solutions and act on them.

Q. How did your curiosity about the reasons for global conflict and poverty develop into an obsession with oil and subsequent journey into the "violent twilight of oil"?

A. Much of my writing life involved wars that I covered from the Balkans to Africa and the Middle East, and oil was often mentioned. "It's all about oil," I was told. Or, "It's not about oil at all." Oil is central to our world but what role does it play in violent conflicts and the divide between rich and poor? I wanted to answer those questions. My initial work began before 9/11 and when I searched for books on oil, the proffered list included more tomes on salad dressing and aromatherapy than on the liquid that was the oxygen of the global economy. Some excellent books had been published, of course, but mainly for academic or expert readers. I had found my subject -- a book that would explain in compelling ways what we do for oil and what oil does to us. I wasn't aware that the subject would consume eight years of my life and take me from Texas to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria and beyond. But I'm glad it did.

Q. How can increased transparency in divulging both production data and the details of oil and gas deals assist in curbing the true costs of crude that you detail in the book?

A. One of the oilmen I write about is J. Bryan Williams, who worked for Mobil and spent two years in American jails on tax-evasion charges related to deals he negotiated in corruption-plagued countries like Kazakhstan. "What are oil companies supposed to do?" Williams told me. "We don't create these places. Do we only develop oil in London or Paris? If so, we'll all be out there walking and stepping over piles of manure." He had an intriguing point -- that if we want oil, we have to get it from countries where corruption is rampant, as is secrecy around oil deals (which of course contributes to corruption). It will be hard to turn oil into a blessing for every dysfunctional country that has it, but the downsides can be reduced by transparency. That means publishing contracts and payments so that it is harder for corrupt officials to steal and harder for corrupt companies to, well, corrupt. Several movements are afoot to do this. One is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is government-led, and the other is Publish What You Pay, which is non-governmental and backs mandatory disclosures rather than voluntary ones. A bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate last month that would require all companies registered with the SEC to publish any payments above $100,000 that they make to foreign countries for oil or other minerals.

It's also important to track revenues once they're in the system -- are oil funds spent on military goods and phony contracts that enrich a president's cousin? Watchdog groups are beginning to do this in some countries; this is happening and we, in the west, can support it in so many ways. By contacting legislators to get their support on transparency legislation; by donating to anti-corruption NGOs or providing other forms of support (networking, technical assistance and so on). These things will help but let's be honest -- corruption is an ancient vice, and the fostering of good governance is an uphill endeavor in any country, whether it exports oil or peanuts. We also need to also establish a baseline of sorts -- utter kleptocrats and beyond-the-pale dictators should be opposed rather than tolerated for the oil they control.

Q. Is there a world in which Iraq, Nigeria, Ecuador, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea and other countries that have been undermined by their oil reserves can continue to produce oil while suppressing the conflict caused by it, as Norway and Abu Dhabi have?

A. Norway is a wonderful example of a country that has truly benefited from its mineral wealth, but it had the advantage of finding democracy before it found oil. Its civic institutions were extremely strong when hydrocarbons were found in its North Sea waters, so the temptations of oil -- the corruption and bad policies that it can encourage -- were avoided. Democracy ensured open discussions and, in the end, good decisions. For instance, most [oil] revenues are put into a giant reserve fund (a national savings account, in effect) so that future generations will benefit from today's revenues. This sort of discipline is hard for poorer countries to adhere to; either their leadership is fragile, corrupt or unable to resist the temptation of spending everything now, or their social problems are so deep (like Nigeria's) that not spending the money -- even though much of the money is stolen or wasted on unwise projects and policies -- is impossible. As for Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Brunei -- these are very small territories with massive reserves on a per-capita basis. There's almost no way for them to squander everything through corruption or waste. The only lesson that can be learned from them is that it's useful to discover large amounts of oil and have only a small population to spend the revenues on.

I don't think it's hopeless, however. In the countries for which oil has been a curse, better policies on the part of consuming countries like the United States can make a difference. Not only transparency efforts, but also the obligation for our companies to adhere to the same environmental and legal standards overseas that they (generally) hold to in the United States. And we must not assist in what amounts to laundering money that corrupt leaders take or hide from their people. Not long ago, Riggs Bank accepted suitcases of cash from Teodoro Obiang's terrible regime in Equatorial Guinea. This sort of behavior can be stopped by our government; increased oversight and regulation of the banking sector, which is happening as a result of the 2008 economic crash, will certainly make a difference. Additionally, if we can accelerate our transition into a post-oil society, the countries that have been made dysfunctional by oil will have a chance to reset themselves. It will be difficult for them, but with our help they can suffer less, perhaps in the interim benefit more from their oil than they have in the past, and be encouraged into a post-oil age along with the rest of the world.

Q. Of all the shocking examples of the devastation caused by oil in lesser-developed countries that you write about in the book, which were you most surprised to uncover?

A. Nigeria. It's a country that in the 1960s was promising -- it had a strong agricultural sector, small-scale manufacturing and a well-educated elite. Of course the country also had some inherent problems that were not related to oil. Nigeria was a creation of British map-makers, it had hundreds of tribal groups and different religious traditions (a major source of conflict, unfortunately). Oil, which began to be exported in large quantities in the late 1960s, helped turn all of these things into disasters. I traveled into the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria's oil comes from, and it was horrifying to a surreal degree. I saw open and massive flares in the creeks (flaring on a scale that is not allowed in America), wells that were dripping oil into the creeks (if a match had been lit on my canoe, we could have started a fire on the water) and villages that had been destroyed in fighting between militias and government soldiers fighting for control of the oil. I stayed in a village that was the epitome of destitution -- no running water, no electricity, no healthcare, no school -- and just 50 yards across the creek was a multi-billion dollar Shell facility that had well-tended lawns, buildings with electricity, air-conditioning and high-tech computers. Of course it was ringed by security fences and government troops; a fortress of oil and modernity in a region of squalor and violence. A local leader invited me onto his canoe for a tour of the area. "You see how we live," he said. After several decades of oil extraction and at least $400 billion of revenues, Nigeria is poorer today and more violent than it was at the time the first oil flowed.

Q. In the chapter titled "Plunder" you discuss your inevitable expulsion from Equatorial Guinea, which is one of the most censored countries in the world behind only North Korea, Burma and Turkmenistan. Does your approach to reporting differ when faced with a situation such as this?

A. Yes and no. It's always the same thing; get into the country and ask questions and listen and watch. I knew that Equatorial Guinea would be difficult -- several foreign journalists had been expelled in the year that preceded my visit. I lasted for about eight days. The information minister began calling me and texting me, demanding to meet. I agreed to see him at an outdoor cafe. He arrived with an aide and said I was being expelled. The president, Teodoro Obiang, was upset with my presence and activities, he explained. At the time, the minister was angry but controlled. I was driven to the airport and then the minister became truly enraged and shouted that I was a spy and would be taken downtown for an interrogation. This is something you don't want to undergo in a country that has one of the worst human rights records in the world. So I was in a tight spot, made especially so when the minister began slapping my arms because I wasn't opening my backpack quickly enough (he wanted to inspect my belongings again). I decided to make a threat that I had never made in my life. I told him that if he continued to harass me the American government would be upset and Obiang, who had visited Washington many times and owned real estate there, would never be allowed to return. This was a bluff -- I had no idea how the American government would react to my incarceration. But I knew Obiang depended on American investment and American friendship (a shameful relationship for our government, of course) and that he wouldn't want to jeopardize it. I sensed that the minister, who could not know whether I was bluffing, would not want to be held responsible for ruining Obiang's relationship with America. So the minister backed off. Oil had saved me. I wish it could do that for the people of Equatorial Guinea.

Q. You have identified a number of solutions in the conclusion of the book -- compliance with Publish What You Pay, developing renewable energy sources, adopting diets that consist of locally sourced food and less meat, and the enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other prevailing laws, among others. One remedy you suggest that was particularly interesting is complementing the enforcement of laws with "social pressure that opposes unethical and exploitative profiteering". Could you elaborate on this and talk about how it can be attained?

A. In the conclusion of my book I quote Ida Tarbell, the great reporter who a century ago uncovered the manipulations of John D. Rockefeller. Tarbell wrote that to prevent the excesses of people like Rockefeller, "There is no cure but in an increasing scorn of unfair play -- an increasing sense that a thing won by breaking the rules of the game is not worth the winning." The question you ask is perfect -- how do we do this? Like Tarbell, I'm sure of the need for greater social responsibility on individual and corporate levels. But I'm just a writer, skilled perhaps at writing about the things that need to be done, or identifying what needs to be done, but not necessarily skilled at figuring out how to get those things done. I can only point out the obvious -- parents, teachers, journalists and politicians need to do a better job of emphasizing non-monetary richness; the richness of community friendships and networks, of environmentally-responsible lifestyles and the like. We need to recalibrate our notions of success and happiness, and we need to do a better job of disseminating those notions and their intrinsic value. But that doesn't answer your question -- how do we do this? I'm not sure, but I think some of it is beginning to happen. There are lots of organizations devoted to these things -- is one -- that did not exist five or ten years ago. Maybe we're beginning to do the right things.

Q. What do you hope readers will take away from Crude World?

A. Two things.

First, an understanding that the price of oil is more than what we pay at the pump or even the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Paradoxically, many of the people and countries that supply us with oil are suffering because of it. They suffer wars and poverty and dictatorship because of oil that we, in the consuming world, think they must be lucky to possess.

Second, I think it is very hard to write in a compelling way about natural resources and the ways they affect our lives and the lives of others. I've tried in "Crude World" to engage readers in a subject, oil, that can be dry even though it is so important. Writers and aspiring writers need to know it's possible to write smart and engaging books about issues that defy easy story-telling. I hope some readers will finish my book and say to themselves, "I can do that too." And I wouldn't mind at all if they also said, "I can do it better!"


Peter Maass will discuss Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 pm. Reservations here. More information on his book tour here.

Originally appeared on TakePart.