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On the barrel

Book>> The Squeeze, Oil, Money and Greed in the 20th Century • by Tom Bower, Harper • Rs 450

By Hrishikesh Mattoo
Published: Wednesday 31 March 2010

imagePublishing houses have thrived on the wickedness of oilmen and their mucky trade.

About a hundred years ago Ida Tarbell’s 1904 trailblazing dissection of the business methods of John D Rockefeller led directly to the US government breaking up the Standard Oil monopoly. In recent times Lisa Margonelli took us to the people, pipelines and the politics that bring us fossil fuel.

When Tom Bower turns to the driving force of our economies, the book is always worth a look.
Bower is the great destroyer of reputations. Richard Branson, Gordon Brown and the British football industry have been targets of his investigative reports. But here he does not attempt a hatchet job.

Instead, he chooses to chronicle the last two decades, taking us from when oil rose from US $10 a barrel to a record $147, to when it fell in mid-2009. Links between politics and oil run through the book. British Petroleum’s chief John Browne could get Tony Blair to call Putin when negotiations got tough, US president Bill Clinton apparently checked his popularity every week against the oil prices, and Dick Cheney, former US vice-president and former chairman of Halliburton, declined invitations to parties in Washington on the night of president Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 and flew to New York for dinner with Exxon’s chief executive Lee Raymond.

imageBower does not examine the current scramble for resources—or geopolitical potents. There is hardly any mention, for instance, of the new resources, which could be extracted from the Arctic. But the book is rich in other details. It shows over the past two years Shell and BP have given up their green posturing: Shell has sold its solar business and its stake in a planned giant wind farm, BP has closed “renewable headquarters” at County Hall.

Bower also takes note of peak oil theories but with scepticism. Ever since the modern oil business began, geologists have consistently underestimated the true extent of the planet’s hydrocarbon resources—and man’s astonishing capacity for engineering innovation.

Read Squeeze for the details Bower brings to a much-repeated subject.

Hrishikesh Mattoo is a PhD candidate at York University, UK

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