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"Oil Kings" and "Barbarians of Oil"

Two recent books examine America's addiction to crude oil, blaming it on the oil "kings" and "barbarians" of the Middle East.

By Brian Black / August 17, 2011

The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, by Andrew Scott Cooper, Simon & Schuster, 544 pp.

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Facilitators are not responsible for an addict’s problems, but they often share guilt by ensuring his or her supply. By doing so, they make it easier for the addict to sink deeper into a deadly quagmire.

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“Americans are addicted to oil,” said President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. His presidency, of course, will never be confused with an attempt to end our national addiction. Instead, a sputtering energy transition surrounds us and promises to drag on for decades.

Two recent books seek to connect the dots of America’s crude addiction by assigning blame. Who and what caused Americans to become addicted to crude? The authors root the problem far from home and lay the blame at the feet of “kings” and “barbarians,” respectively.

Much like journalists Peter Maas and Paul Roberts, Andrew Scott Cooper and co-authors Sandy Frank and Sara Nunnally start from the conviction that the end of oil is undeniably upon us. In very different ways, Cooper’s Oil Kings and Frank/Nunnally’s Barbarians of Oil grow from the belief that to move forward we must understand the past – our addiction to crude. Cooper writes that America’s chronic economic addiction to oil is well known, but, “Less well known is the story of when that addiction began and why the United States became so reliant in particular on Saudi Arabia for its continued goodwill and cooperation.”

Although their different accounts are very worthwhile, the authors’ level of expertise with this topic varies considerably. Cooper – albeit with slight documentation – creates a record that adds significant insight to one of the most important periods in the American relationship with petroleum. In fact, Cooper’s tour inside the oil crisis of the 1970s adds depth and nuance to the event that defined the end of the 20th century and very likely the start of the 21st. It's an event that we have only just begun to fully comprehend. Franks/Nunnally’s effort is much more general and fails to add new insight to our current energy conundrum.

But if knowledge of the past will better compel our shift to new sources of energy, "Barbarians of Oil" might provide more ammunition than any other book on the subject of crude. Cast in the formulaic organization of Franks/Nunnally’s "Barbarians of Wealth," "Barbarians of Oil" throws loads of information at the reader – in the form of brief, encyclopedia-like entries – with little effort at synthesis or analysis. After five sections chock-full of historic and industry detail, "Barbarians" then becomes more of an investment manual. “Part Six: Where to Invest Now and Why” likely captures the overall goal of Franks/Nunnally, and, very possibly, many readers will appreciate their advice about where to find new investment opportunities (alternative energy, etc.). Gleaned from secondary sources, 200-plus pages of history becomes context for a paean to owning rentals for college students (as gasoline prices make commuting impossible).

My biggest problem with "Barbarians of Oil" is its organizing principle. “Most often money is the oil industry’s only allegiance,” Franks/Nunnally write in the preface. Used in this context, “barbarians” is a caustic term applying to anyone seeking to profit from petroleum. “The truth is,” write Franks/Nunnally, “for the past century, oil has ruled the world…. Our quest for oil has led us on a path of destruction with barbarians leading the charge.” Such massive over-simplification does little to forward the dialogue on future energy possibilities; instead, the authors' paradigm is very clearly an “us versus them” model that places little or no blame on consumers.

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