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Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass | The Nation

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Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass

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GEORGE OSODI/APAn Ijaw militant drives past a Soku oil well in the Niger Delta, 2004.

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Mark Sorkin
Mark Sorkin is a writer living in Chicago.

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The first thing Peter Maass encountered when he arrived at Oru Sangama was the stench of raw sewage. The trip from Port Harcourt had not been long, even in a leaky canoe, but the tiny slum seemed a world apart from the sprawling, oil-rich hub of the Niger Delta. Sangama's villagers, housed in a cluster of mud-brick huts, had no access to clean water or electricity. Their toilet was a filmy creek through which ran a network of pipes feeding oil to nearby processing stations. They slept in the glow of the Soku natural gas plant, which lit the night sky with carcinogenic flares. Acid rain was slowly boring holes in their metal roofs.

Across the creek, ample tap water and modern amenities were available to the hundreds of workers living at the Soku facility--one of many plants Shell operates in the region. Shell, which has been doing business in Nigeria since the 1930s, enjoyed exclusive exploration rights during the colonial era. Since Nigeria's independence, however, it has been the dominant player competing with other international oil companies for government contracts. Hundreds of millions of barrels of oil have been extracted from Nigeria in the past fifty years, but the country's 150 million residents have not benefited from the profits. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Nigeria's vast oil wealth is distributed among 1 percent of the population, while the overwhelming majority of citizens languish on less than $2 a day.

Such gross economic disparities have understandably exacerbated ethnic tensions and helped to fuel a string of rebellions against the state--most notably the Biafran war of 1967-70, a failed Igbo-led secession effort in which as many as 2 million people died. Nigerians have been spared such widescale violence since the Biafran disaster, but a low rumble of discord continually pits the military and its corporate allies against the people. By the time Maass arrived in the Niger Delta, in the fall of 2004, an Ijaw warlord named Dokubou Asari had established himself as the region's new "alpha rebel," having amassed a small army and adequate means (acquired through bribes, ransoms and oil illegally siphoned from the pipelines) to fund his uprising. It was Asari, not the Nigerian government or Shell, who granted Maass permission to travel and secured arrangements to take him upriver to Sangama.

A month before Maass visited Sangama, the Nigerian army had decimated the village. Maass didn't accept his guide's explanation that the assault was unprompted. He knew Asari was using Sangama as a stronghold and suspected that Asari or a subordinate was being punished for failing to share the profits from stolen oil. But he was equally dismissive of the Potemkin village Shell had erected in the area to tout its commitment to corporate responsibility (the water tower was dry, the health clinic padlocked, market stalls empty). And at the company's main office in Lagos, he confronted Chris Finlayson, director of operations in Nigeria, with the claim that Shell had provided the soldiers room and board at the Soku facility, and that helicopters had evacuated workers from the site a few hours before the raid--suggesting complicity or at least foreknowledge of an attack that left several civilians dead. Finlayson deftly denied all this, of course. But after investigating the incident for himself, Maass was well equipped to sniff out corporate dissembling, a far more subtle stench than sewage.

There is much in Maass's new book, Crude World, a global tour of the "violent twilight of oil," that stinks of corruption. There is also, to cite a few chapter titles, no shortage of plunder, rot, contamination, fear or greed. On the other hand, as Maass illustrates in a chapter on Saudi Arabia, there is very likely a serious and fast-approaching shortage of oil in the world. The global economy has relied for decades on cheap and abundant crude, with far too little regard for the political, economic and environmental consequences of such heavy reliance--not to mention the sustainability crisis that looms ever larger as demand continues to grow.

For activists and politicians seeking to alter our domestic approach to energy, the metaphor of choice is addiction. In order to strengthen our security and ensure a prosperous future, we are repeatedly told, our dependence on foreign oil must be curbed. This familiar trope, lifted from self-help shelves and talk-show television, is paternalistic and misleading. America is sick, it's true, but never fear: your elected leaders have diagnosed the problem and are working on the cure. Take two of these carbon permits and call me in the morning. Maass, though, seems less concerned with soothing readers or pricking their conscience than understanding the sources of the world's most intractable conflicts. Consequently, Crude World employs a different set of metaphors. For Maass, oil is not a drug so much as a Pandora's box. Tap the well, and out spews the basest of human instincts.

The problem with the petroleum business, as with other extractive industries, is not the stuff per se but the convoluted and destabilizing process by which desirous governments collaborate with multinational companies and exporting nations to siphon it out of the ground, filter out impurities and transport it abroad. Factor in the geological fluke that determined which reservoirs got situated under which regimes, plus uniquely high stakes in terms of demand and profit margins, and a near-total lack of transparency and regulation, and you wind up with an industry that's perilously prone to volatility and foul play. OPEC's 1973 embargo of shipments to the United States quadrupled global prices and revealed the world's vulnerability to disruptions in supply. In 2008 a speculative frenzy took the world on another wild ride, as prices shot up to nearly $150 per barrel before plummeting to just over $30, a disconcerting harbinger of instability in the years to come. Once oil "peaks"--that is, once the world passes the high point on a theoretical bell curve measuring production, after which output can only decline (experts disagree about when this will, or did, happen)--price swings will likely intensify along with the mad scramble for dwindling reserves. Costly, low-yield efforts to prospect for new reservoirs deep beneath the ocean floor, and to squeeze salable crude from adulterated tar sands and "heavy" (high-density) oil, reveal the increasing lengths to which today's oil conglomerates and their political enablers will go to keep the pipelines pumping. The International Energy Agency expects a relatively slow rise in the production of conventional liquid fuels over the next generation, coupled with a surge in the development of unconventional sources. This shift may buy some time, but it can't prevent the coming clash between rising demand and declining supply. The specter of a sustainability crisis, experts argue, is reflected in IEA projections of global oil production, which have been dropping steadily in recent years.

Needless to say, climate change and wide-scale suffering are and will likely remain byproducts of oil extraction. As Maass explains, resource-rich exporters are paradoxically "cursed" by oil wealth. Leaders whose treasuries are flush with foreign cash tend to consider themselves less accountable to their citizens, more prone to shady deals and autocratic rule. Development in other sectors of oil-based economies tends to be stifled: the inflow of petroleum revenues strengthens the local currency, breeding dependence on cheap imports; and labor opportunities in the one thriving sector are minimal. Safety and environmental standards are ignored. In some cases, local residents eventually organize to protect their land and demand their fair share, at which point casualties begin to mount. In other cases (Chávez's Venezuela and Qaddafi's Libya come to mind), nationalization curtails corporate and foreign influence and promotes state investment in social programs, but at the risk of bolstering autocracy and exacerbating regional tensions.

Recognizing that each country's struggle is unique, Maass--a seasoned journalist who is now a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine--visited more than a dozen oil-cursed nations in search of repeating patterns, root causes and common solutions. "Across the world, oil is invoked as a machine of destiny," he writes. "If the inner workings of this machine are understood, perhaps an order will be revealed in the world's disorder." His "journey into oil" began in Iraq. In the spring of 2003, he embedded with the Marines' Third Battalion and got a view from the front lines of the fall of Baghdad. At the time, the twin symbols of the looted National Museum and the heavily guarded Oil Ministry seemed to crystallize the conflict for many observers, including Maass. Upon closer inspection, though, he found the simple determinism of "blood for oil" unsatisfactory. If the Bush administration was singularly concerned with controlling a steady flow of Middle East oil, why had it unleashed a regional whirlwind? And if securing the Ministry of Oil was an immediate priority, why, weeks later, was the director of Baghdad's only refinery struggling to persuade US military officers to protect the facility from looters? Maass does not adequately answer such questions in "Desire," his chapter on Iraq's oil conflicts--perhaps because US motives were so abstruse, contradictory and complicated by obscene ineptitude. But his inchoate understanding of the extent to which oil shapes and distorts geopolitics piqued his curiosity. The investigation that ensued would span the globe and keep him occupied for the next several years. Its insights are keen and timely, confirmed with each new oil-related scandal. To take one of the most recent and egregious cases in point: Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador and top adviser to the Kurds, admitted in October that he had a significant financial stake in Kurdish oil and was negotiating deals while at the same time helping to craft the Iraqi constitution--which just so happened to grant Kurdistan autonomy over its oilfields. "While I may have had interests, I see no conflict," he told the New York Times. Others saw it dripping from the corner of his wallet.

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