Peter MaassMaassPhoto courtesy Erinn Hartman/KnopfNew York Times Magazine contributing writer Peter Maass spent eight years following the flow of oil around the world, from fields in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Azerbaijan to corporate boardrooms. His new book, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, uses stories from these locales to show why the lucrative resource tends to be very bad for the people who live above it.

We spoke recently about his reporting on this resource curse, and about a strategy he proposes for environmental activists—sourcing gasoline to show buyers the violence their gas money supports.

Q. You call oil “black oxygen.” Unpack that phrase a little.

A.Oil makes our cars move. It makes the planes fly. It’s in our clothes. It’s in our food because it’s in fertilizers. It’s in chemicals. It is just absolutely everywhere in modern existence. It also is everywhere in terms of politics. It’s a major preoccupation of the governments that need it, and it’s the major preoccupation of the governments that have it.

Beyond that, it is a major factor in terms of pollution that occurs in the world today. Even when oil and natural gas are operating the way they are supposed to be, they still cause a lot of damage to the earth. Burning them puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. We all know where that’s leading us.

In my book I describe oil not only as black oxygen but also as like gravity, because it’s invisible in a way. From the moment it comes out of the ground until the moment it goes into our gas tank, we do not see it. Yet, like gravity, it influences everything we do.

Q. What makes the oil industry so much more harmful than others?

A.It’s an extractive industry. As with all extractive industries, the word itself tells you quite a lot: you’re gouging into the earth to get something, and that’s never a gentle process.

Second, unlike many other natural resources, oil is really concentrated and really valuable. Whoever owns a certain oilfield–and it usually ends up being a government or a royal family–has an extraordinary amount of concentrated money at their disposal. It’s not a resource like fertile land that is spread over many, many thousands of acres owned by many, many people. It’s not like manufacturing industries where there a lot of workers and a lot of owners and there are products that come out. This is really, really concentrated power. The cliché is that absolute power corrupts and corrupts absolutely. Oil can have a very similar effect because the possessor of oil possesses a country’s destiny.

Crude World coverQ. Does it matter where I buy my gas, or are all oil companies equally harmful? And what about state-owned oil companies like Brazil’s Petrobas?

A.I’ve looked at that question a lot. The more you look at it, there’s something objectionable about pretty much all the oil we consume. If the oil comes from Nigeria, there’s a war being fought over oil in Nigeria. If the oil comes from Ecuador, there’s a tremendous amount of environmental damage that’s coming from that oil. Ironically, most of Ecuador’s oil that goes to the United States goes to California, one of the most environmentally conscious states in the country. If the oil comes from Saudi Arabia, the income from it has gone to feed a lot of Islamic extremism.

Even if the oil is from Canada–which is actually the largest supplier of oil to the United States–a fair amount of Canadian oil comes from tar sands. There you have to cook the earth by using other forms of energy–natural gas, for example–and a lot of water. Canada is a great country politically, and there’s no corruption really associated with the Canadian oil. But there is an environmental toll.

Q. Your book focuses social and human-rights costs of oil extraction. How did climate change play into your reporting with political leaders, executives, and workers?

A.The climate argument has been made really well and continues to be made really well. But I was most interested in writing about the social costs of oil, meaning human rights, violence, and poverty.
So when I went to Nigeria, Iraq, Russia, Venezuela, etc., I focused on how people’s lives been affected by the oil that they export.

And honestly, the environmental issues for them are not the same ones they are for us. When I went to the Niger Delta I had to get permission and an aide from the warlord, because if I didn’t have his protection I’d be kidnapped in an instant. We took a canoe up the creeks and it was a terrible situation with wells dripping oil into the water, with flares all over the place, with fighting going on. I spent the night in one totally destitute village. It has no running water or electricity, it has no healthcare, nothing.

Right across from the creek is a multi-billion dollar Shell natural gas processing facility, with massive flares. In the west, flaring is very tightly regulated. In Nigeria, it’s supposed to be but it’s not. At this particular Soku facility, which is actually shut down at the moment due to fighting, there are massive flares going off 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Huge, huge flares. This is consistent throughout the Niger Delta.

One of the reasons flaring is restricted in the United States and elsewhere is not simply because it emits a lot of greenhouse gases, but because it’s incredibly harmful to human health. The toxins and the chemicals that are emitted in flaring are tremendous. So for these villagers in the Niger Delta, the climate issue for them wasn’t that in 20 or 30 years the world temperatures will have increased by another degree and weather patterns will have changed slightly. The climate issue for them is that they were breathing toxic chemicals as a result of this flare that was 40 yards across the creek.

Q. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune published an impressive piece of reporting (Paul Salopek’s “A tank of gas, a world of trouble”) in which a reporter traced gasoline from a suburban gas station back into all the places it came from. What did you make of that?

A. What he did was fantastic. There’s myth that’s perpetrated by the oil industry, and accepted by pretty much everyone, that it’s impossible to trace the oil that you put into your tank. Shell or Exxon say their oil comes from a lot of different sources, it’s mixed together, and it’s just not tracked down to the local level. They say it’s impossible to do. Paul Salopek said, “Let me check into that.” He found out that it is possible to source gasoline that you put into your tank and find out where it actually comes from. He really blew the lid off this myth.

This knowledge needs to get out. When you don’t know the origin of the product you’re buying, you can’t possibly care about the human-rights abuses or the pollution at the point of origin. That goes for tennis shoes as well as oil. By sourcing it, there is a lever that environmental activist groups can use to make people aware on a very local level of what is in their gas tank and what the price is beyond the $2.50 or $3.00 that they are forking over per gallon. It’s a lever that I don’t think environmental activist groups are fully aware of. Who knows where it will get them, but it could be useful.

Q. Is sourcing gasoline still really difficult to do?

A. Salopek had to get some proprietary data in order to get the information. But he’s just one reporter. If he can do it then an environmental group could too, I would think.

Q. What about solutions to the oil problem—do you have any?

A. I do, but none that are original. There are lots of plans and a lot technology that make a lot of sense. The real problem for us isn’t solutions–the problem is embracing the solutions. The political leadership of this country, perhaps spurred on by the citizenry, needs to actually take the steps of investing in conservation, in efficiency, in renewable energy … the list goes on.

The main problem is motivating people, and motivating political leadership. Not just the White House, which seems quite motivated, but all of the interest groups that it has to deal with. All of the regional interest groups it has to deal with. That’s the problem area.

I don’t have an answer for getting from here to there. In writing the book I hoped to make people understand oil more, and therefore support the kinds of changes necessary to get us to a post-oil future.

Who has the oil?

The size of each country on this map reflects the relative size of its oil reserves. The colors reflect different level of oil consumption (per country, not per capita).

Click to enlarge.

Who has the oil?Courtesy Aaron Pava of CivicActions