Monday, October 19, 2009

ARCHIVE: Book Review: Crude: The Story of Oil

by Kellia Ramares
[This review was originally published in Online Journal on April 2, 2007]
Crude: The Story of Oil
By Sonia Shah
Seven Stories Press
ISBN 1-58322-625-7
232 Pages, Hardback
Crude is the tenth book related to oil that I’ve read and reviewed. As you can expect, a certain amount of material in these books is old hat to me by now; the names of some of the experts cited, and indeed the authors themselves, have become quite familiar; I’ve interviewed some of them myself. But each book has a “personality” of its own, so I keep reading.

I’m always hoping to find books that I think will speak in an engaging way to people who would not be drawn to the subject of oil: the people who are not activists, scientists or business people in the energy field, the people who think about oil only when they fill up their cars, pay their heating bills, or happen across a rare reference to oil in the corporate news on Middle East war.
For that audience, Crude is the best of the lot I’ve read. It is comprehensive without being overwhelming. Shah covers the geology of oil, the history, ecology, politics, economics and technology of oil exploration, the implications of peak oil, and alternative energy sources in 191 pages. Despite its relative brevity, Crude is well researched -- the rest of the book’s 232 pages are taken up with notes, bibliography and appendices -- with governments, business, scientific and activist literature and interviews throughout. In addition to familiar sources, Shaw also acknowledges that “[b]ackground” for this book draws heavily on the so-called grey literature -- unpublished reports, reviews, and commentary.” These sources add richness to the information.
Readers will find that Crude is well rounded, with the voices of the oil industry and its commonly-recognized political opponents represented. But there are additional perspectives here that make Crude particularly compelling, such as that of Ken Wiwa, son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni activist whose efforts to gain for his people royalties and compensation for damage to their land from oil exploration got him a hangman’s noose. We also hear from Jake Malloy, who began working in the oil industry as a plumber on North Sea oilrigs, and eventually became the head of an offshore workers’ union.
But what makes Crude eminently readable is Shah’s own writing style, which is alive with her own take on the issues. She calls it like she sees it, using refreshingly frank language:
Right now, the worker-deprived coal companies use giant oil-burning machines to mine coal, lopping the tops off mountains and turning Alpine villages into wastelands. [emphasis mine].
If recent energy initiatives are any indication, the energy future being written today by those leading the most energy-hungry country in the world, from presidents and governors to major automakers and oil companies, will not consist of solar panels and wind farms, but hydrogen fuel cells, coal mines, nuclear power plants, and ethanol. Each, in its way, is promoted with alluring double-speak about its efficiency, cleanliness, and sustainability. Yet each, in its way, will likely ensure continued consumption of oil and growing emissions of carbon dioxide into the air. (emphasis mine).
I point this out because Shah is a journalist. Journalism today, at least in the United States, claims a standard of “objectivity” in which the journalist’s opinions allegedly are not present. Shah did not employ this standard in this book. And it’s just as well that she did not. It is a phony objectivity that pretends to neutrality; true objectivity acknowledges that reality is seldom neutral. Shah is not afraid to call out the shortcomings of oil alternatives. For example, “ . . . even the best of solar panels can’t convert more than 30% of the sunlight that falls on them into electricity.” We need to know these shortcomings to offset the rosy picture some activists would paint of a world run by renewable energies. But Shah is willing to tell us that although Mr. Solar Panel’s clothes are patched and he has holes in his socks, Emperor Oil has no clothes at all. And in reading Crude, one gets a clear sense of which wardrobe Shah prefers.
Copyleft, 2009, Kellia Ramares. Non-commercial distribution with credit is highly encouraged.