Environment vs. Oil: `Battle of the Decade'

THE 400,000 United States troops who will be on duty in Saudi Arabia by the new year are, surprisingly, not what Daniel Yergin is referring to when he writes: ``The stage has been set for one of the great and intractable clashes of the 1990s....'' Certainly, the drama unfolding in the Middle East and Operation Desert Shield dovetails with the themes of ``The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power,'' Dr. Yergin's account of the oil industry's tumultuous life and times.

Lust for oil has more to do with our face-off with Iraq than international law does, some Americans believe. In a remarkably short time, and before shots have been exchanged, the US has witnessed the mushrooming of an antiwar movement whose rallies frequently generate double the turnout their organizers predict.

One facet, possibly the dominant one, of antiwar rationale is environmental. If the US had weaned itself from dependence on the pollution-causing fuel during the energy crises of 1973 or 1979, the reasoning goes, our servicemen and women wouldn't need to spend this Christmas staring across the sand at Saddam Hussein's chemical arsenal.

Environment vs. oil: This is what Yergin expects to be ``the battle of the decade.'' That oil should be in one corner of the ring seems more inevitable with each page turned in his book. He traces the course of a century that has seen men, corporations, and governments rise and fall, depending on their control of oil. The author, a highly respected energy industry consultant who invested seven years in his topic, reveals oil as being ``central to security, prosperity, and the very nature of civilization.''

Yergin recounts this history with admirable clarity, vividness, and succinctness, whether going over such familiar ground as ``Colonel'' Edwin Drake's historic discovery of oil 69 feet below Titusville, Pa., in 1859, or showing how the Japanese fleet's shortage of fuel saved General MacArthur's skin during the battle for the Philippines.

The author has a deft touch with material that enlivens the story: a 4,000-year-old poem lamenting the devastation caused by a Middle East war, a snide US Embassy report on the Italian oil industry, or this poignant bit of personal correspondence, describing the Shah in 1958: ``We have a man in a sensitive, delicate mood, a lonely man with scarcely one really intimate friend and few relationships....''

The reader needn't fear that the saga will run aground on dry details about cents per barrel or oil viscosity. Yergin necessarily includes a cast of hundreds as his story moves around the globe and through the decades. But he never fails to include a few intriguing details about each of his actors so that they all sparkle, no matter how briefly they appear.

Take his vignette of Mexican Finance Minister Jes'us Silva Herzog Flores in 1982. Mexico had been one of the oil producers coincidentally enriched by the price rises dictated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 1970s. But when the market turned soft, the country was left owing the world $84 billion and unable to pay.

Mr. Silva Herzog spent a weekend in Washington secretly negotiating nonstop over a rescue package, only to back off angrily over US insistence on a $100 million fee. Yergin shows him glumly eating a hamburger at his embassy as he contemplates returning to Mexico, defaulting on its debts, and likely toppling the international banking system. At the last minute, Washington backs down and the bailout proceeds.

Journalists, too, have a place in the history of oil. Most notable are Ida Tarbell, who penned the famous expos'e of Standard Oil, and Wanda Jablonski, the Czechoslovakian-born geologist's daughter who served as the ``marriage broker'' for OPEC.

Ms. Jablonski identified Abdullah Tariki, the nationalistic-minded first oil minister of Saudi Arabia, as ``a young man with a mission.'' She told him about Venezuela's Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, ``another guy who's just as nuts as you.''

The journalist introduced the two oil ministers at the 1959 Arab Oil Congress in Cairo. Those two, and officials of Kuwait, Iran, and Iraq, retreated to a private spot to negotiate the ``Gentlemen's Agreement'' that formed the basis for the oil cartel.

OPEC wasn't actually founded by the five countries until 1960, when they were informed that their revenues would be cut 7 percent because of a unilateral decision made by the oil companies. The producing countries, which accounted for 80 percent of world oil exports, were incensed. One oil company executive, in Baghdad when the news broke, later said he was ``glad to get out alive.''

Getting out of Baghdad alive and with our oil supply intact are all-too-current concerns, and they underscore Yergin's point about energy reliance.

``Hydrocarbon Man,'' as Yergin labels us, ``shows little inclination to give up his cars, his suburban home, and what he takes to be not only the conveniences but the essentials of his way of life. The peoples of the developing world give no indication that they want to deny themselves the benefits of an oil-powered economy, whatever the environmental questions.''

Like the forces being assembled in the Gulf, the advocates of oil and those of developing environmentally benign alternatives are only beginning to square off. The battle looms ahead. ``With the fate of the planet itself seeming to be in question,'' Yergin concludes, ``the hydrocarbon civilization that oil built could be shaken to its foundations.''

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