‘Blowout’: In her new book, Rachel Maddow takes a hard look at the fossil fuel industry

  • MSNBC host and part-time Valley resident Rachel Maddow offers a scathing look at the oil and gas industry in her new book, “Blowout.” Photo by NBCUniversal Media, LLC

  • Maddow says one of the founders of OPEC, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, once called oil “the excrement of the devil.” Maddow says one of the founders of OPEC, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, once called oil “the excrement of the devil.”

  • “Blowout” revisits one of the worst oil spills in history, following the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon platfrom in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Photo by Tom Atkeson/Gazette file photo

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is a corrupt autocrat, Maddow writes, who has used his country’s oil and gas wealth primarily to enrich himself and his cronies. Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko?AP

  • Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil and former U.S. secretary of state, has been an unapologetic advocate of drilling for oil and gas anywhere a profit can be made, Maddow writes. Photo by Olivier Dauliery/Abaca Press/TNS

  • A Pennsylvania gas drilling site in 2012.  Photo by Keith Srakocic/Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2019 5:09:22 PM

Some call it “black gold.” Another term is “Texas Tea.”

And a co-founder of OPEC, Venezuelan diplomat Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, reportedly once called oil “the excrement of the devil.”

In her new book, “Blowout,” MSNBC host and part-time Valley resident Rachel Maddow observes that oil and natural gas are necessary evils that underpin the basic framework of the modern world. “I like driving a pickup and heating my house as much as the next person,” she writes, “and the through-line between energy and economic growth and development is as clear to me as an electric streetlight piercing the black night.”

But Maddow, who divides her time between New York City and Cummington, also calls the fossil fuel industry “the most consequential, the most lucrative … and the least-well-governed major industry in the history of mankind,” which makes it a “key ingredient in the global chaos and democratic downturn we’re now living through.”

Indeed, the subtitle of her new book is “Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth,” and the book’s cover depicts the Statue of Liberty covered in gooey tar, like the muck that coated coastlines following the 2010 blowout of BP’s Deep Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Blowout” is a tale of greed, deceit, and political and economic intrigue, with much of the narrative centered on the U.S. and Russia over the past three decades and the shakers and movers in both countries that make the fossil fuel industry go — and how the pursuit and sale of oil and gas affects international relations. It’s a serious book, like “Drift,” Maddow’s 2013 analysis of American military power, but it’s also buttressed by lots of biting humor and, at its heart, a plea for a saner, more equitable world.

Maddow, who will read from her new book on Sunday at Mount Holyoke College, offers an unsparing portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a corrupt and ruthless autocrat who for two decades has attempted to use Russia’s enormous oil and gas reserves as leverage to make his country a renewed world power. That effort has largely failed, she says, leaving Russia instead to push its geopolitical agenda through Internet trolling, attacks on Ukraine, and other forms of disruption and aggression.

In the U.S., meantime, the hydraulic fracking revolution — horizontal drilling for natural gas through multiple layers of rock  — of the past two-plus decades has witnessed the installation of hundreds of thousands of drilling rigs across the country, many in residential areas, leading in some places to poisoned water supplies, air pollution, dead livestock and damage to houses and other structures. In Oklahoma, a central part of that revolution, a slew of major earthquakes ripped through the state, especially in 2010.

One of the few heroes in Maddow’s narrative might be Austin Holland, at that time the lead seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Though under great pressure from the industry to stop or downplay his research, Holland established a link between the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations and the dramatic increase in the state’s earthquakes. 

Less heroic is Rex Tillerson, the former U.S. secretary of state who thrilled the anti-Trump crowd when he reportedly called the president a “moron” before he left office in early 2018. But previously, as the CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was a smooth and unapologetic voice for his company doing business with any country, no matter how unsavory, Maddow writes. ExxonMobil signed a major deal with Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, in 2012 to jointly develop oil and gas fields in the Russian arctic, and Tillerson told a U.S. Senate committee examining overseas American oil contracts that one of his few major concerns was “Do they [the foreign country] honor contract sanctity?” 

“Contract sanctity, that’s the top,” writes Maddow. “Below that, it’s all negotiable.”

A complicated tale

Maddow includes some basic history on the oil industry, such as a portrait of John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil baron who established the template for cutthroat competition in the business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s also a fascinating — if almost unbelievable — chapter on efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to tap natural gas deposits deep underground in Colorado by setting off subterranean atomic bombs. (Nuclear fracking was not a success.)

Maddow’s book has some similarities to the work of journalist and popular historian Rick Perlstein, author of a series of books on the political history and presidential races of the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Perlstein, Maddow bases much of her research on a wide range of period and contemporary journalism, as well as original documents and reports, in this case on the oil and gas industry.

In doing so, she’s able to tie the different parts of the story together in an engaging narrative that highlights some of the more lurid and horrifying instances of corruption surrounding oil and gas money, the kinds of figures that can get lost in the shuffle of daily journalism.

Consider, for example, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, the playboy son of the longtime president of Equatorial Guinea. Dad, son and other family members, Maddow writes, had long fattened themselves on Guinea’s share of the money from the country’s oil drilling contracts with western companies like ExxonMobil. Meantime, the vast majority of the country’s population lived in abject poverty.

But Teodorin really knew how to live large, she notes: luxury homes in California, France, South Africa and a few other places; a fleet of sports cars worth $10 million; a $38.5 million private jet; and, among other expensive toys and possessions, a private art collection valued at $22 million.

In fact, Guinea’s gross domestic product increased by 8,400 percent between 1993 and 2007 — from $2.1 million to $3.9 billion — due to oil revenues, but almost all that money was gobbled up by the ruling caste. As Maddow puts it, “Oil doesn’t happily coexist with other industries upon which you might build a reasonably stable national economy…. It creates such large, up-front, sweat-free gains for collected elites that no one wants to do anything else but chase the oil jackpot.”

That casino-like dynamic also makes for some meteoric fortunes and just-as-spectacular financial collapses. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s early oil barons in the 1990s, built his company, Yukos, into a $36 billion business. But by 2003, after defying Putin, he was in jail on an array of trumped-up charges, and Yukos was taken over by Rosneft, the state-owned company.

In Oklahoma, meantime, Aubrey McClendon developed one of the first big U.S. companies involved in hydraulic fracking, Chesapeake Energy, and made a fortune doing so, becoming a hero in his hometown of Oklahoma City through job creation and his contributions to civic improvements.

But McClendon eventually crashed and burned when his company overextended itself and took on too much debt. He lost millions, was indicted in 2016 for violating federal antitrust laws related to gas leases, and then drove his SUV at high speed into a bridge abutment in an apparent suicide.

If “Blowout” overall is a sobering tale, Maddow often lightens the atmosphere with droll humor. She offers a priceless description of one of Putin’s longtime henchmen, Igor Ivanovich Sechin, who when he smiled “looked like a fairy-tale ogre who had just swallowed a small tasty child.”

But Maddow also says We the People and government must do more to rein in the excesses of the fossil fuel industry, like ending generous subsidies for oil and gas development. Not doing so is to leave our fragile planet increasingly prey to “destruction on multiple levels — geopolitical balance, governance, environmental injury, and climate apocalypse.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Rachel Maddow appears Sunday, Nov. 17 at Chapin Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College for a book reading and signing that unfortunately has long since been sold out. But if you want to try and catch a glimpse of her before or after the event, it’s scheduled to run from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

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