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The Tyranny of Oil

By Brian BlackA critical look at the state of the US oil industry. / October 23, 2008



The infamy of petroleum’s corporate lineage is legend. In most US history courses or textbooks, the measuring stick for corporate greed and unethical largess is the Standard Oil Trust, created by the business genius John D. Rockefeller.

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Its unprecedented success was taken on by Progressive reformers in the first decade of the 20th century in an effort to smash its monopoly. Its subsequent breakup by a Supreme Court ruling in 1911 is toted as marking the end of an era and a distant moment in corporate management. Right?

Wrong, answers Antonia Juhasz in her new book The Tyranny of Oil. “[T]he political tyranny exercised by the masters of the oil industry,” she writes, “corrupts democracy and destroys our ability to choose how much we will sacrifice in oil’s name.”

In her stark account of the dominance of “Big Oil,” Juhasz shows the industry’s graduation from the corporate bullying of Rockefeller’s era to its present political and diplomatic dominance.

If you do not wish to read that the current war in Iraq was over oil, steer clear of Juhasz’s book. She is masterly at connecting the political and corporate dots to create a clear progression that has, indeed, resulted in a nation willing to wage war over the commodity of petroleum.

Historical patterns
Throughout most of the book’s chapters, Juhasz uses history to explain the patterns she has identified. Policy and economic historians are likely to quibble with her oversimplifications. For instance, her account emphasizes deregulation (which is swiftly becoming a buzzword for all that ails the nation) and the megamergers that occurred in the last decades of the 20th century.

Throughout, she heaps further blame on the mountain already massed against Big Oil.

And yet, by accessing corporate records and federal documents and lending to them her considerable skills as a policy analyst, Juhasz offers new credibility to most of her general arguments.

For instance, she proves with real figures that petroleum companies of the 21st century are guilty of “greenwashing”: depicting themselves as extensively involved in alternative energies while, in fact, they invest an average of less than 1 percent of their gross capital (BP was the high at 4 percent). The “Tyranny of Oil” is at its strongest in chapters that emphasize policy and rely on contemporary journalistic research.

The role of consumers
Juhasz’s work is a brave, groundbreaking case study of how national security can be compromised by the lifestyle we lead. But the “Tyranny of Oil” has less to offer in its analysis of the consumer side of the energy conundrum.

Its political chronology simply assumes that Americans, like lemmings, wished to consume oil and that leaders and corporations provided it.

In fact, the need to consume petroleum was sold to Americans in the form of disposable goods; energy-intensive, processed foods; and urban sprawl. Consumers must accept some of the blame.

Unfortunately, Juhasz’s concluding effort to give readers a recipe for attacking the dominance of Big Oil is superficial and unspecific. For the reader, however, the narrative itself does offer a very useful general perspective.

Juhasz writes: “Yet for all its enduring power, Big Oil finds itself in a precarious position today. While it is at its financial and political pinnacle, it faces the greatest threat to its existence in its one-hundred-and-fifty-plus-year history: oil, the resource on which it depends, is growing far more difficult to come by.”

What compels Juhasz to write “Tyranny of Oil” is her faith that Big Oil is committed to remaining Big Oil at all costs – even to the point of deceiving consumers.

It is impossible to read Juhasz’s carefully researched, 50-page account of the lead-up to the current war in Iraq without hearing echoes of the recent chant, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Through careful research and access to White House documents, Juhasz attacks a culture of oil that has allowed the nation’s future to be co-opted by allowing our own economy as well as our place in the world to become increasingly dominated by access to petroleum.

As consumers and as voters we can help follow Juhasz’s lead to lessen this threat to our nation’s security and potential. A good first step toward true energy independence is to read this insightful book.

Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of “Petrolia.”

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