October 06, 2009

5 Questions with Someone Interesting: Peter Maass

Yesterday I had a great phone conversation with Peter Maass. I reviewed his new book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil for the blog last week, and he was kind enough to elaborate for us on some of the natural security-esque points his book raised. Here are my 5 questions with him:

CP:  First, I was thinking that it might be interesting to hear about reactions to your book – probably one of the biggest books about oil in a while. Are there any interesting observations you have on how your readers and reviewers are responding? Are there differences among sectors or fields of study, or between those who work on the issue and just general readers?

Maass: The most surprising and welcome reaction I’ve gotten is from people in the oil industry. The book is not just about the oil industry, but the oil world, and how it affects the destinies of the countries that in particular have it. I’m pretty critical of what oil’s effects should be, and sometimes I’m critical of the role that is played by oil companies and oil negotiators. And I write about a number of these people in the book, so it’s just very interesting to hear from some people in the industry who say that “I think it’s a really good book,” and “you write about what it’s like in some of these places fairly, and it’s useful for people to really understand.” And I like that reaction, because I didn’t when I was writing about the oil industry and the oil companies write to condemn, because they basically have a really hard job. They work in extremely hard conditions, and provide a substance that is – whether we like it or not – is necessary for the world economy or the lifestyle that we have.

But I am critical of lots of the ways they operate and their shortcomings, but I try to be somewhat balanced and say that although these people cut corners and laws are shaved, there are reasons for this. These are difficult places to operate, and governments are more or less behind them encouraging them to operate this way. So I tried to provide some context to say, even if it an Apple salesman had to got to Baku in the 1990s to negotiate a deal for selling Ipods, he or she would probably be caught up in the same contracts, deals, and law shaving situations that oil executives find themselves in. So it was gratifying to hear oil executives say, “You did describe what it’s like and that’s useful.”

CP:  In your conclusion, you write that “getting off oil would be better not only for the atmosphere but also, as I’ve seen, for the people who live in Nigeria, Iraq, Equatorial Guinea, Russia, Iran, and other resource-rich nations.” This runs counter to the point often argued that moving to other energy sources will dramatically destabilize some producing countries. Can you expand on your argument a bit, based on your experiences in these countries?

Maass: Sure. It’s a fascinating issue, because the countries that supply us with oil are addicted to it in ways that are not dissimilar to how we’re addicted it. We need the substance they sell; they need the money that it supplies to their regimes and puts into their economies – even at the price of distorting their regimes and distorting their economies and perhaps harming their environments. Even in the Niger Delta, which is the worst afflicted area in the world – there is a war going on there over oil. It’s a place where you’ve got these incredible reserves of oil and these incredible reserves of poverty as well as violence. Even in the Niger Delta, where there were these destitute villages that were right across from these oil facilities where the people were fighting the oil companies and the government. Even these people were not saying “We want this shut off tomorrow” or “We want the benefits from it. If we’re not seeing the benefits from it, we want it shut off because it’s not fair. It’s making our lives worse.”

Now, when I say the world in which we’re all getting off oil as better, I don’t see – and nobody sees – the possibility of an abrupt transition where all of a sudden one day we wake up one day we don’t need oil, and all these facilities are shut down and all these economies that sell oil all of a sudden have nothing at all. I think it’s a transition that we need to get into, and we’re already beginning it. And yes, transitional times are and can be destabilizing. And to say that immediately if we reduce our demand for oil and if prices go down and if we stop invading countries as much as we have in the past, that things are immediately going to be better – that’s not what I’m trying to suggest. I think that it could get worse in the short term. For some of these countries, with less oil money, fewer spoils to fight over, the fighting can become more intense. That is possible. You can’t rule that out.  But to grasp on to the current situation, where in many countries is very dysfunctional, and say “It can only get worse?” That I don’t buy. 

I do see that if we work in the right way, this transition can be one where, despite setbacks here and there, when we come out of it, Americans and humanity can be in a much better place. Oil, as wonderful as it is and as much as it’s done for us, can cause negative outcomes that are just increasingly obvious and that seem to be a greater part of what oil is today. We also today have a greater possibility to get other forms of energy and other lifestyles that make it less essential to our forms of existence.

CP:  Focusing on Iraq, you focused a lot at the political-strategic level, specifically the Iraq Ministry of Defense and the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. You wrote on page 159 that “The question is not whether war is about oil but how it is about oil.” My question is: How is the level of stability in Iraq as American troops draw down also about oil?

Maass: I think there are at least 2 ways that oil plays into stability. One is this employment issue. Iraq, which has an industry that unfortunately  has been kind of ground down over time by sanctions and war, does need and can benefit a lot from technology that other countries – particularly Western companies, which have the better technology, but that Chinese and even Russian companies can provide. The problem or the caveat is that indeed these companies will bring their own engineers in. And they might even bring the lower level, kind of mid-level workers that local Iraqis will think, “Wait a minute. We can do that job.”

I went to Equatorial Guinea, and visited a multimillion dollar natural gas facility that Marathon was building. And it was an amazing site. You of course had the managers who were from Texas and Oklahoma, but then virtually all of the workers – the guys who were pounding nails and doing the welding and whatever – were not from Equatorial Guinea, because that country has not a terribly skilled workforce. They were from India and the Philippines and flown in, and were living on the worksite and working 7 days a week. It was the most efficient way to operate to get this facility built. And it’s a great problem in the oil industry that a lot of the jobs – it’s not labor intensive. They get people from outside the country, and we’re already seeing that in Iraq, that Iraqis are not getting some of the jobs that the foreign companies are running contracts for. Crude World

But the greater kind of problem of political stability that oil can play – you know, sometimes oil can be a glue, because it does provide money and it makes people realize that if we fight too much we’ll ruin the goose that lays the golden egg. But it’s a great, great problem in these countries always of who controls it. Is it the local population? Or is it the regional government? Is it the federal government? This has been the problem in Nigeria, and now we’re seeing this – it’s just been kind of held off for the longest time with the oil fields in Kirkuk. That’s what kind of the whole – not in its entirety but to a great degree the standoff between the Kurds and the Iraqi government is about who controls Kirkuk? Who controls particularly the vast oil fields? That question hasn’t been solved, and because it hasn’t been solved it is one that could and may lead to violence. It already has sparked some.

The sharing of oil revenues and the ownership of the oil itself is a contentious issue in whatever country possesses the oil. And in some countries – Norway, Great Britain, the United States of course – managed that question incredibly well. For a country like Iraq, it’s a real devilish issue, and it really hasn’t been answered yet. The question of Kirkuk is essential to the stability of Iraq.

CP:   I’ve heard a lot of people in Washington saying lately that “water is the new oil.” Any thoughts on that comparison, or are there any ways in which you’ve seen the two issues intersecting?

Maass: One of the strange ways it comes together is in extracting the tar sands in Canada and the heavy oil in Venezuela, as well as some of the Bakken oil shale in America. You need a lot of water. It requires a lot of energy to kind of burn the earth, as it were, but also a lot of water to wash out the oil. And so that brings water into the water equation in a very direct way in those places. But that’s not the main kind of connection.

In a sense, water was “the world’s oil” before oil became the world’s oil. People were fighting over water and water rights long before the first commercial oil well was struck in the United States in 1859. So there’s nothing new happening now in the sense of countries, regions, and people coming into conflict over water. That’s been going on for quite a long time. But particularly now as global warming changes the weather patterns and countries and regions enter droughts and there’s a greater need for water, and particularly as populations expand, there’s a lot more contentiousness about it and a lot more potential for violence. Fortunately we seem to have a lot more in the way of negotiating skills, and regions understand that fighting over water is a game that nobody ends up winning, so perhaps we can avoid the worst of it, but that doesn’t mean that tension will be avoided.

I should add one other thing, and this is fascinating. One of the reasons that oil has become such a problem is because it has such inherent value, monetary value. There is a price that oil can get in the international marketplace - $60-some-odd per barrel now. The commodification of oil – and I’m not saying that that was wrong – has certainly brought wealth to some countries, and was inevitable. But it also creates problems when you assign a price tag, whether it’s oil or it’s water. Then you also increase incentives for people to own it, to jockey for ownership of it. Increasingly, water is being commodified. There is a price put on it. It is not free; rights are not free, and they never have been. But increasingly rights are being put on it in some areas of the world, it is being commodified. And the more that happens, and it is a profit-making opportunity for the people and institutions involved, that’s good for them. But it is a good way to manage the world’s water resources? Is it a good way to avoid conflict? Perhaps not. We need to be very careful about how we treat water in terms of whether it is a public resource or a private resource that people can make money off of.

CP:  You also describe getting a sense of hope for the future, if you will, from the sight of wind turbines operating in southern California, and note that learning more about oil made you more concerned about climate change. Any concluding thoughts on climate change legislation, Copenhagen, private sector activities, or anything else on climate change?

One of the things that has frustrated me about the climate change debate is that it’s one in which you have scientists virtually unanimously agreeing that we’re facing a real disaster unless we act. But then you have governments which mostly are dragging their feet, and populations that might be concerned about climate change but have more immediate concerns. So the result is that nothing much is happening at the level that it should be even given the gravity of what’s in front of us. So what’s frustrating to me is this disconnect from the threat and our reaction to it.

What I as a writer have tried to do is write a book about oil which makes people care. Elizabeth Kolbert has written a wonderful book about climate change called Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which I think has done a great job of – not breaking ground scientifically; she isn’t trying to do that – what she tries to do is just tell the story of climate change in a very human, compelling way, so that people who are phased into senselessness by the data are actually woken up by the personal telling of the story and the narrative craft.

And so I tried to do that with oil. We know oil is a problem, but we think of it mainly in terms of, perhaps sometimes we invade a country because of it, or greenhouse gas emissions, carbon emissions. But there’s also this kind of political, economic, and environmental side of oil for some of the countries, so I just try to tell the stories to make people care. What my job is as a writer is not to do science, not to even write the science. My job is to write human stories that bring the science alive, and that bring the stress alive – and that give us reason, maybe emotional investment in moving to the solutions we need to, whether it’s moving on climate change, or moving on oil, which is so inextricable linked. Oil is so obviously part of the climate change equation that it’s all kind of wrapped into one. But we’re all soldiers with different missions, and mine is to write as compellingly as possible about these threats so that they seem real.


And in that, Maass was successful. He’s touring around talking about Crude World through the fall, if you have your own questions for him.