‘We definitely need to curtail our appetite for oil’


Author Peter Maass tells Shantanu Guha Ray why he thinks oil, across the world, is invoked as a machine of destiny

How does crude cause tensions across the world?
That’s a great and complicated question that’s hard to provide a short answer to, but here you go: Oil is power, concentrated power. In most of the countries that possess large amounts of oil, it belongs to the government or ruling family, which puts power and a nation’s wealth not in the hands of millions of businessmen or farmers — democratising economic and political power, as it were — but in the hands of a relatively small number of people who control the levers of governance. This is not good for the cause of democracy. And of course oil is a temptation for neighboring or faraway nations that might want to possess or control another country’s reserves. For countries without strong institutions and without other economic sectors that can provide vital balance to oil, the substance can become a curse.

According to you, what role did oil play in pushing the US in Iraq?
Donald Rumsfeld is not known as a stand-up comic but he said the invasion of Iraq had literally nothing to do with oil. That was a good one. I travelled to Iraq several times (I happened to be at Firdos Square when the now-infamous statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down by the Marines) and realised that the question isn’t whether a particular war is about oil, but how it is about oil. A few days after American forces arrived in Baghdad, I visited the oil ministry and talked with a senior Iraqi there who waved aside the is-it-about-oil debate. “We have oil and you need it,” he told me. The whole world is built around oil, so let’s talk about it honestly. Rumsfeld wasn’t being honest but the opposite view — Iraq invaded only for its oil — wasn’t correct, either. The decision to invade involved a number of concerns — weapons of mass destruction being one — as well as a number of decision-makers who each had different priorities. But the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was about oil and nothing else. So it’s important to avoid dogma when looking at oil and war; don’t ask whether, ask how.

Our dependence on oil has actually warped countries that provide us with the substance

Peter Maass
Alfred A. Knopf
225 pp; Rs 1,200

Why miss China and its quest for oil? What about India and its struggle to reduce its burgeoning import bill? 
Oil is so important, so omnipresent in our lives that a book about every aspect of it would become an encyclopaedia of our times. Although I write about China’s appetite for oil and its newfound presence in, particularly, Africa — my hotel in Equatorial Guinea was owned by Chinese and I paid my bill into a bank account in Shanghai — the totality of China’s emergence as an energy consumer (and emitter of carbon) would require another book entirely. But you’re right, I pass by India, partly because its consumption of oil is not as great as America’s and China’s.

Why do you call Shell as a saddened bystander to the social collapse in the Niger Delta?
Shell is both a saddened bystander to tragedy and a perpetrator of the tragedy. I interviewed the head of Shell’s operations in Nigeria (the ringtone on his spokesman’s cellphone was a song by the rapper 50 Cent) and I’m sure he would be delighted if the delta war would cease and if Shell could carry out its operations (as well as its social programmes) without the obstacles of violence and corruption. But the firm played a key role in creating the conditions that it now bemoans, and it continues to play a role. For decades the company pumped oil from communities that failed to derive any benefit from the resources taken from their territory. Environmental damage was compensated at miserly levels. As I journeyed through the Niger Delta, where the oil facilities run by Shell are akin to isolated forts protected by abusive government forces, I was confronted with a surreal combination of Mad Max and Waterworld.

Our dependence on oil has actually warped countries that provide us with the substance

Worldwide, mass drilling for oil at the cost of environment is becoming a serious issue. If Ecuador wins the suit against Chevron, what would this mean for operations worldwide?
First, it will put American companies on notice that they can’t use sloppy extraction methods in far-off countries. I think most first-order companies are more attentive to these concerns than they used to be, but a verdict against Chevron would be an emphatic reminder. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to sue an oil company, but the Ecuador case might serve as an inspiration for other suits.


Oil power An Iraqi soldier guards an oil refinery on the outskirts of Baghdad
Photo: AFP

A reviewer said ‘the true wealth of nations is not discovered but created by the ingenuity and sweat of citizens’. Is that actually happening?
I lived for three years in South Korea, a country that, like Japan, has little oil. Yet these countries are among the great economic miracles of the 20th century. Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime leader of Singapore, which is one of the Asian “tigers”, once said that it was a blessing his (tiny) nation did not possess oil, because it made his people work hard to develop an economy that has a diversified and sustainable base. Despite many decades of oil receipts, countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and even Russia do not have truly diversified economies. In some ways, Russia and Venezuela are the saddest oil countries of all. They are not afflicted with kleptocracies or civil wars yet they nonetheless are failing to turn their resource endowments into true prosperity. They haven’t figured out how to create sustainable economies. Hugo Chavez is pouring oil money into social programmes, and some of that is certainly well-spent and long overdue. Don’t get me wrong — social spending is good. But the most important task is to foster non-oil industries that will provide jobs and incomes long after the oil money dries up. Russia is a great study in the nexus between oil and power.

Finally, should the world curtail its oil appetite?
Yes, we definitely need to curtail our appetite for oil. We already know that the burning of fossil fuels harms the atmosphere. We need to understand — and I hope my book provides some help on this — that our dependence on oil has warped countries that provide us with the substance. If we become less reliant on oil — which means becoming more conservation-minded and efficient, as well as developing renewable energy on a broader scale than is already underway — we will not feel a need to go to war for oil’s sake, or to support a dictator for oil’s sake. And if prices go down because the stuff is no longer so valuable to its consumers, perhaps the countries that have been harmed by oil will begin to recover. For all of us, consumers and suppliers, it will be a long and painful process. But it can be done.

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