I picked up Blowout (Crown, October 2019) by Rachel Maddow to read because I was intrigued by its subtitle: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. It suggests that there’s a common thread that connects the three components. Indeed, there is: oil and gas.
Maddow is known as the host of the Emmy Award–winning Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. She has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford University and earned her doctorate in political science at Oxford University. Blowout is her second book.
It would be hard to imagine the world we live in without oil and gas. They are the stuff that power cars, aeroplanes, trains, power plants, ocean liners, factories and all kinds of machinery, as well as the economies of countries around the world.
Today, the USA leads the pack of nearly a hundred oil and gas producing countries around the world. In 2019 the total oil production averaged 80.6 million barrels per day and in 2018, global natural gas production hit a new record of 3 937 billion cubic metres (bcm). These are monumental numbers, which translates into a staggering pile of cash.
In her own inimitable style, Rachel Maddow provides a fascinating insight of the tremendous impact that the global oil and gas industry has on the global economy, politics and social fabric of society. It is replete with juicy but often alarming stories of the wheeling and dealing of big oil and gas corporations in the USA, Russia and countries with corrupt regimes.
Maddow deftly reveals the greed, power and hypocrisy of the key industry players, such as Chevron, British Petroleum and ExxonMobil, in their relentless drive to expand their territory and make huge profits, often at the expense of ignoring human rights abuses and safety standards in countries they operate. In short, the oil and gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers, caused earthquakes, and propped up authoritarian rulers, such as Putin, thieves and killers.
There’s so much ground covered in this book. The early chapters chronicle the history of the industry beginning with the discovery of first oil in the USA in 1895. Maddow then continues her story up to today’s inventions – hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling – innovations that have revolutionized extraction and helped launch America on its road to “energy independence.” Along the way you would meet colourful but ambitious major players of the industry such as Rockefeller who founded Standard Oil and Aubrey McClendon who revolutionized hydraulic fracking in Oklahoma.
Several chapters are devoted to Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to power and the ruthlessness with which he forced his political adversaries to sell their lucrative oil and gas assets to the state at a huge discount. A number of them ended up losing all and spent time in prison regretting for having stood up to Putin. Maddow boldly claims that Western capitalists – bankers and oilmen – abetted Putin in his ruthless endeavours and partnered with him no matter what he was doing to Russia’s democratic and capitalist experiment. Chief among them was Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson who was so cooperative that in 2013 Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest honours bestowed on a foreigner. Tillerson later became the Secretary of State in President Trump’s administration.
Maddow also documents the extreme harm that the oil and gas industry has done to the environment and climate. One striking example is the findings by Austin Holland, a University of Oklahoma researcher, that fracking activities by energy companies were causing earthquakes. This led to him being pressured by the industry and his university to suppress his findings. But eventually the truth prevailed. Another example was the explosion that happened on Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig, in April 2010 caused by a blowout in its drilling operations, resulting in a massive oil spill. US government findings put the blame squarely on the field and rig operators, who it claimed had cut corners to save both time and money.
Here’s my quick take on the book:
Maddow’s story-telling style makes it readable. In dealing with a highly technical subject, she’s done remarkably well to explain technical concepts with clarity and simplicity. Perhaps it’s a skill she’s honed over the years hosting her own show.
Maddow has done her research well in documenting the events and stories told in this book and connecting the dots between them.
Having spent most part of my working life in the oil and gas industry, I’m cognizant of the high bar in health, safety and environment standards that oil and gas companies set in their operations. They would expect all parties working for them to abide strictly by these standards. In reality, as the damaging fracking activities and the oil spills showed, these companies don’t always walk their talk. For me, this book exposes the industry’s double standards.