Crude World

The price of gas is more familiar than the price of crude oil, but consider this: In the past decade, the price of a barrel went from $12 in 1999 to $147 in 2008, settling in at about $70 today.  The present equilibrium will not last, projects Peter Maass, for we face “an era of scarcity that involves higher prices for oil and fiercer competition for what’s left.”

Among the many baleful books on peak oil, Crude World stands out for its reportage on what was once called “underdevelopment,” or plunder.  In one excruciating example after another, Maass — a New York Times Magazine writer — shows how energy companies impoverish the countries from which they extract oil.

Few reporters have bothered to visit Equatorial Guinea, but Maass does, finding that ExxonMobil, Halliburton, ChevronTexaco, Marathon, and Total have enriched the country’s tiny elite, with dictator Teodoro Obiang siphoning $700 million into his private accounts. Employment has not improved, for the rig workers are imported Indians and Filipinos.  Equatorial Guinea is mired in destitution, malnourishment, and disease, even though the oil payments, if distributed, would bring $25,000 a year to every citizen.

In Nigeria, oil was discovered by geologists working for Shell. There, writes Maass, “nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday” since “80 percent of Nigeria’s oil wealth has gone to 1 percent of the population.”

If we are inured to stories of petrodollar terrorism, global overheating, and the precariousness of a world economy built on oil, the originality of Crude World is to follow the hose backward, from pump to refinery to well, showing us why every time we fill up the tank we are haunted by the spectral wraiths of Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea — or ought to be.