Q&A with Peter Maass

Q: You write about BP’s problematic safety record in Crude World. Were you surprised by the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

A: Unfortunately not. Within the past decade, BP has been responsible for disasters in other locations, such as an explosion at a Texas refinery that took 15 lives, as well as major spills from its pipelines in Alaska. Taking risks and cutting corners appear to be the norm. But BP succeeded in the domain that counts the most in any industry–it was highly profitable. Tony Hayward, the firm’s chief executive, and John Browne, his predecessor, were highly regarded by their peers and their shareholders.

Q: What do you think of BP’s response so far?

It has been miserable, and predictably so. Due to its cost-cutting and its hubris, BP did not have an adequate response plan. Whether from mendacity or ineptitude, it underestimated the spill in the early days and refused to make public the video feeds it had of the underwater gusher (the government eventually forced it to share the video). But it’s important to understand that BP is not a tremendous exception; blowouts and spills and secrecy are consistent features of oil extraction. Although a handful of companies are better-run than BP, a larger number are far worse.

Q: In Crude World you discuss major spills in Ecuador and Nigeria. How do you think the Deepwater Horizon spill will compare?

It’s unlikely the amount leaking into the Gulf of Mexico will come close to what’s happened in Nigeria. For Nigeria, a drip-drip scenario over the course of decades has all but destroyed the Niger Delta wetlands. In Ecuador, spilled oil isn’t the only problem because billions of gallons of toxic wastewater have been poured into rivers. We need to understand that oil extraction poses a range of hazards–including the burning of natural gas–and spills are just one.

Q: In Nigeria (the “Rot” chapter), you detail the suffering that oil has brought to the Niger Delta region, and you describe Shell’s reaction as being that of “a saddened bystander to social collapse.” But their presence there is undoubtedly fueling the conflict–how?

Shell is both a saddened bystander to tragedy and a perpetrator of the tragedy. I interviewed the head of Shell’s operations in Nigeria (the ringtone on his spokesman’s cellphone was a song by the rapper 50 Cent) and I’m sure he would be delighted if the delta war would cease and if Shell could carry out its operations (as well as its social programs) without the obstacles of violence and corruption. But the firm played a key role in creating the conditions that it now bemoans, and it continues to play a role. For decades the company pumped oil from communities that failed to derive any benefit from the resources taken from their territory. Environmental damage was compensated at miserly levels. Faced with complex power structures, Shell encouraged corruption and violence by providing “contracts” to tribal leaders as well as youth groups that were informal militias. This was the easy way to do things–pay off some people while backing a government that suppressed others who couldn’t be bought off (like Ken Saro-Wiwa, the pro-democracy campaigner executed by the government in 1995). As I journeyed through the Niger Delta, where the oil facilities run by Shell are akin to isolated forts protected by abusive government forces, I was confronted with a surreal combination of Mad Max and Waterworld.

Q: What initially got you interested in the story of oil?

Much of my writing life involved wars, and oil was often mentioned. “It’s all about oil,” I was told. Or, “It’s not about oil at all.” Oil is central to our world, but what role does it play in violent conflicts and the divide between rich and poor? Some excellent books had been published, of course, but mainly for academic or expert readers. I had found my subject–a book that would explain in compelling ways what we do for oil and what oil does to us.

Q: What surprised you most as you were reporting the story?

Oil, as the topic of a book, defied the norms of interrogation. It doesn’t have a voice, body, army or dogma of its own. How do you coax secrets from a liquid? I had to travel around the world and talk to all sorts of people–oilmen, warlords, politicians, economists, geologists, environmentalists, sheikhs, lobbyists, and roughnecks. The subjects we discussed ranged from history to law, corruption, engineering, culture, psychology, and justice. I was journeying through an intellectual as much as a physical world.

Q: The chapter “Desire” is a fascinating exploration of the United States’ involvement in Iraq over the past few decades and its relationship to oil. What role did oil play in motivating our involvement there?

Donald Rumsfeld is not known as a standup comic but he said the invasion of Iraq had “literally nothing to do with oil.” That was a good one. I traveled to Iraq several times (I happened to be at Firdos Square when the now-infamous statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down by Marines) and realized that the question isn’t whether a particular war is about oil, but how it is about oil. A few days after American forces arrived in Baghdad, I visited the Oil Ministry and talked with a senior Iraqi there who waved aside the is-it-about-oil debate. “We have oil and you need it,” he told me. “The whole world is built around oil, so let’s talk about it honestly.” Rumsfeld wasn’t being honest but the opposite view–Iraq invaded only for its oil–wasn’t correct, either. The decision to invade involved a number of concerns–weapons of mass destruction being one–as well as a number of decision-makers who each had different priorities. As we know, Iraq did not possess WMD and the “evidence” was concocted or massaged, but that doesn’t mean our decision-makers knew the threat was false; I think they believed it to some extent. On the other hand, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, when an American-led coalition pushed Iraqi troops out of Kuwait–that was about oil and nothing else. So it’s important to avoid dogma when looking at oil and war; don’t ask whether, ask how.

Q: There’s an essential conflict here, which J. Bryan Williams highlights in your interview with him: “What are oil companies supposed to do? We don’t create these places. Do we only develop oil in London or Paris? If so, we’ll all be out there walking and stepping over piles of manure.” How can we move to balance the need/desire for oil against the corrupt regimes that seem to control it? Is oil production inevitably cursed, or is there a happy medium to be found where extraordinary pollution and/or human rights violations aren’t at hand?

It will be hard to turn oil into a blessing for every dysfunctional country that has it, but the downsides can be reduced. Transparency is key–publishing contracts and payments so that it is harder for corrupt officials to steal. Several movements are afoot to do this–one is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is government-led, and the other is Publish What You Pay, which is non-governmental and backs mandatory disclosures rather than voluntary ones. It’s also important to track revenues once they’re in the system–are oil funds spent on military goods and phony contracts that enrich a president’s cousin? Watchdog groups are beginning to do this in some countries. These things will help but let’s be honest–corruption is an ancient vice, and the fostering of good governance is an uphill endeavor in any country, whether it exports oil or peanuts. But we need to establish a baseline of sorts–utter kleptocrats and beyond-the-pale dictators should be opposed rather than tolerated for the oil they control.

Q: What do you see as the most necessary change that needs to be made to begin to curtail the problems associated with oil?

We need to curtail our appetite for oil. We need to understand–and I hope my book provides some help on this–that our dependence on oil harms the countries that produce it. Violence, poverty, corruption, pollution—these are linked to oil. The Deepwater Horizon disaster reminds us of what has been happening. We need to become more conservation-minded and efficient, and we need to develop renewable energy on a broad scale. For all of us, consumers and suppliers, it will be a long and painful process. But it can be done.