The Oil Road – book review

January 10, 2013
by phil
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My review of The Oil Road has been finally printed in today’s Independent, but has been heavily cut due to space restrictions. Here’s the original 600 word version that I submitted:

The Oil Road by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (Verso Books, £16.99)

In the same way our culture has become largely ignorant of the journey our food takes to get to our table, we are also ignorant of the route fossil fuels take to power our high-consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles. It’s the way both agribusiness and the energy companies like it – the less we know about the far-flung impacts of their enterprises the better.

Marriott and Minio-Paluello are two campaigners with the London-based oil watchdog Platform – an organisation that has bred a kind of activism that, while based in hard research, experiments with creative ways of communicating its findings. In The Oil Road the pair take one continuous trip along the route by which oil from the Caspian Sea arrives at the rate of a million barrels a day at the refineries of Western Europe.

The project is reminiscent of last year’s Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Barrier for Fun by comedian-activist Mark Thomas, but comes after 12 years of visits along the route as part of an ongoing exploration of the impacts of BP’s controversial $25 billion investment in drilling platforms and pipelines. Here too we get to meet vicariously the people shaping and shaped by the route in question and reconstruct a more accurate picture of what is otherwise a hotly politicised, and therefore deliberately obfuscated, reality.

The journey starts at the Caspian oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan where the familiar rusting landscapes of Soviet era ‘nodding donkey’ oil derricks are being overshadowed by the shiny steel and glass of a corrupt construction boom. The authors meet Sabit Bagirov, who led the state oil company during the negotiations that culminated in the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’ in 1994, with a consortium of oil companies headed by BP.

Bagirov argues that the oil companies used the backdrop of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory (1988-1994) to argue for a greater share because they would be operating in an environment of high-risk. Indeed over the course of the negotiations from 1989 to 1993, the proposed Azeri share dropped from 50% to 20%. Bagirov shows them the unpublished contract that includes a $90 million sweetener payment to the Azeri government, $30 million of which was delivered personally by Baroness Thatcher.

Once on the road we meet refugees from the now “frozen” conflict as well as householders under whose properties the pipeline runs and farmers still awaiting compensation for loss of income during the laying of the pipe. The ubiquitous BP public relations representatives are generally diverting and evasive but occasionally unwittingly frank. “The ultimate goal of community investment is to have good relations with communities – ultimately to secure BP’s assets,” says one about the corporation’s token social projects.

“We closed it down to the media,” says another when asked about the Russian bombing of the pipeline that BP had dismissed as “fanciful”. Our narrators had been able to confirm the reports of the attack by locating the site and standing in the surviving craters which ran up to four metres deep.

It’s a personable and lovingly-crafted narrative, a rich tapestry of first-hand anecdote and historical reconstruction with a political and social excavation of the geography that weaves in the region’s changing fortunes, from the Tsarist through the Soviet to the current pro-western repressive regimes.

Along the way there are important lessons for investors about how oil companies manage and disguise risk; for policy makers about the real meaning of “energy security” in the 21st century; and for activists thinking about where and when to intervene in a complex system.

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