Book review: The Secret World of Oil
The Secret World of Oil, by Ken Silverstein.
Publisher Verso writes: Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization, and the industry that supplies it has been the subject of intense interest and scrutiny, as well as countless books. And yet, almost no attention has been paid to little-known characters vital to the industry--secretive fixers and oil traders, lobbyists and PR agents, gangsters and dictators--allied with competing governments and multinational corporations. Virtually every stage in oil's production process, from discovery to consumption, is greased by secret connections, corruption, and violence, even if little of that is visible to the public. The energy industry, to cite just one measure, violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more often than any other economic sector, even weapons. This book sets out to tell the story of this largely hidden world.
Based on trips to New York, Houston, New Orleans, Paris, Geneva, and Phnom Penh, among other far-flung locales, The Secret World of Oil includes up-close portraits of Louisiana oilmen and their political handlers; an urbane, captivating London fixer; and an oil dictator's playboy son who had to choose among more than three dozen luxury vehicles before heading out to party in Los Angeles. Supported by funding from the prestigious Open Society Foundations, this is both an entertaining global travelogue and a major work of investigative reporting.
The Secret World of Oil. Now that's a catchy title.
Silverstein investigates the murky oil scene through a series of characters that have so far received very little attention. These middle men stand between corrupt governments and the industry. The scope of their dirty operations is global, their influence is often colossal but they manage to remain in the shadow, quietly amassing fortunes and political ties along the way.
Each chapter in the book investigates a particular figure that personifies one of the many reasons why the energy business is even more squalid than it is profitable.
The first chapter looks at oil fixers. Ely Calil is one of them. He opens the list of secret is an oil fixer. He uses his powerful network to open doors for corporate clients in countries ruled by dictators, he makes sure the right palms are greased, and knows how to set up front companies to move money around. (the whole chapter about Calil is online.) Silverstein obtained exclusive information from Calil because over the years they've established a personal relationship (i wonder if it survived the publication of this book. Probably not.)
However, it doesn't seem like Silverstein has ever managed to chat with kleptocrat
The book demonstrates that the higher the U.S.'s economic interests in a country energy resource, the more tolerant it grows towards any gross human rights violation. In fact, it seems that dictators who keep a thigh grip on their country are regarded as bearer of 'stability.' And obviously, as far as multinational energy are concerned, it is easier to strike a deal with a dictator than negotiate with local communities: "As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can't exist," said Ed Chow, a longtime Chevron executive.
Anyway, while the wealth that oil brings to the country directly ends up in the Obiang family's deep pockets, the daily existence of people living in the country has seen little improvement. In fact, many social welfare indicators have gotten worse, not better, since oil money started flowing in (infant mortality rate climbed up, net drop in enrollment for primary education, etc.)
Theodorin, who dedicates his days to extravagant shopping sprees in Miami and dreams of being a hip-hop mogul, is favourite to his father's throne. It is very unlikely that the country's ecological and financial situation will thrive once he gains even more power.
The chapter about traders zooms in on Glencore, the biggest company you've never heard of. The chapter relies on WikiLeaked cables and interviews with traders who speak 'off the record'. And you can see why they are not keen on revealing their names. Traders go where multinationals fear to thread in order to negotiate and purchase output from energy-producing nations, and they often operate at the margins of what is legal. They are responsible for anything that goes from manipulating the price of oil to dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast.
They operate through a maze of offshore accounts, subsidiaries and shell corporations and it's virtually impossible to keep track of their activities.
The next player is Bretton Sciaroni. He is a 'gatekeeper', he provides advice and counsel to foreign investors seeking to do business in Cambodia. Sciaroni seems to be content of his friendly relationship with a government described by Human Rights Watch's Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy." On the one hand, he has brokered deals that are highly detrimental to the public but that benefit government officials and well-connected domestic and foreign insiders. On the other hand, his role also involves orchestrating PR campaign that depict Cambodia as the ideal country to do business in.
You can find the chapter on Sciaroni online as well.
The chapter about Tony Blair (the 'flack' in SIlverstein's book) was particularly staggering. As we know, Blair spends much of his time traveling around the world as a highly paid speaker and senior adviser for governments and corporations. He not only imparts his 'wisdom' onto the privileged audience but he also helps glam up the image of countries with poor human right track records, brushing corruption, political repression, and glaring social inequalities under the carpet.
Blair has been very active, it seems, endorsing internationally the regime and promoting the images of the rulers of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other Caspian states. Not even the accusation that the head of a country is 'boiling alive political opponents' will stop him.
Silverstein wrote about Blair in New Republic.
The sixth part of the book explores the activities of lobbyists in Louisiana. This chapter is particularly grim. The author goes as far as to compare the U.S.'s third energy-producing state with "classic Third World states" because of rampant corruption, glaring social inequalities and little spending on social programs. The situation is so bad that the energy industry has often managed to get its own appointed to top positions at the state's two main environmental agencies (the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment Quality.)
Amusingly, Silverstein obtained much of his information because one of the most active lobbyist he interviewed confused him with a journalist of the same who writes also about energy issue, only that the other Ken Silverstein writes for industry-friendly trade publications.
Neil Bush is the icon of the final chapter that looks at con artists and hangers-on attracted by money. They have little talent but it never prevents them from trying. Bush is the son and brother of US presidents. He relentlessly travels in search of deals to strike in the oil industry but most of his efforts often end in failure. Which doesn't really matter as his name shields him from any unpleasant responsibility or complete financial collapse.
I opened the book already aware that the oil business is one without honour nor conscience but, because the book puts a name on some of the most squalid players involved in the energy racket, i closed it with more despair than ever. Suddenly i encountered the stories of individuals who have families and histories. Not just faceless corporations and far away country.
The content of The Secret World of Oil relies on the author's investigative journalism which means that you can't cross check every single fact in the book but have to rely on Silverstein's professionalism. I'm more used to heavily referenced essays but i've no doubt he is a scrupulous and honest journalist.
This is not a book about the oil industry per se, it merely brings the spotlight on a few players who operate in the dark. For a broader (and really engrossing) picture of the field, i'd recommend another Verso book: The Oil Road: Journeys From The Caspian Sea To The City Of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (on amazon USA and UK.)
Gawker has an interview with the reporter.