Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Troubled Water - book review

Crude World. By Peter Maass.
The delta of the River Niger is an enormous wetland, once a flourishing ecosystem with a wide range of life forms. But now it is not a wildlife sanctuary: rather it is a horrendous landscape of ruined villages, devastated populations and roving armies. The reason for this is simply the delta’s vast oil reserves and the prospects for wealth and power that these entail.

This is but one clear example of the ‘resource curse’, which states that countries dependent on the export of resources such as oil are susceptible to more corruption and warfare but less freedom or economic growth. In this enlightening book, Peter Maass surveys a number of cases and shows how oil rarely produces benefits for those who live in the places where it is found.

In Equatorial Guinea, for instance, the discovery of offshore oil led to enormous riches for the dictator-president Teodoro Obiang. Few local workers were employed in the exploring and drilling work, and massive profits were made by American companies like Exxon. The US government, and various lobbying groups, played their part in supporting Obiang and keeping him friendly to American business. This is particularly important as Chinese companies start flexing their own oil-producing muscles.

In Ecuador Texaco was able to do more or less as it wished, since the officials of the newly-formed state oil company knew next to nothing about oil. The natural gas that came to the surface with the oil was just burned off, which can be deadly for both people and environment. Rivers and land have been contaminated and the government left with massive debts.

The profits, of course, go to the oil companies and their owners. Lee Raymond received $686 million for his thirteen years as chief executive of Exxon-Mobil, while billions went to share-holders. As Maass points out, oil companies in fact do not ‘produce’ oil, they simply take it from the ground. Extracting, purifying and transporting oil are complex tasks (performed by skilled workers), but selling oil to realise the profits is not difficult. What is needed in the first place is a licence from the local government to explore and extract oil, which is why the oil industry is usually rife with corruption and works closely with diplomats and generals to ensure this kind of access.

So a substance used to provide fuel and warmth also causes wars and destroys the environment. Inevitable consequences of a world that belongs to a privileged few and is driven by profit.


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