The Story of Oil
By Sonia Shah
Seven Stories Press
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
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so-called grey literature -- unpublished reports, reviews, and commentary.�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
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.
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.Journalist K�llia Ramares has been following the peak
oil story since 2001. Her website is Radio Internet Story Exchange.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.