‘It is easier to deal with one family, one man, one dictator’ – industry saying.
Rachel Maddox’s foray into the murkey world of oil and gas is a tour de-force- bringing together the fracking, Russian geopolitics and big finance.
The familiar drum beat of poisened water wells, boom and bust and catastrophic spills going back decades. This is the first time I’ve seen it brought together in a compelling narrative which is accessible to the general public.
Much of the material here will be familiar to industry insiders. The history of Fracking is dealt with deftly. The damage it has wrought to the environment is writ large alongside the fortunes made and lost.
The lengths the American governments went to ensure energy security through nuclear explosions will shock and alarm many. 40 or so years later the vision has been realised -energy independence has been achieved.
Big personalities bring the narrative to life. From the fabled rise of Mitchell energy through the pioneering work of Nick Steknsberger to horizontal drilling. Maddox manages to sprinkle a little bit of oil and gases manifest destiny across the pages.
We come to understand the innate gambles that explorers on each technology, project and well take. There are no guarantees, no promises that oil will be found. The risk of implosion both economic and personal comes across in the truly tragic life of Chesapeake founder Aubery McClendon.
Our journey begins on an unassuming forecourt in New Jersey. At what could have been a new dawn for Russian-American relations. Amid the gleaming pumps and newly pressed uniforms the diminutive figure of Vladimir Putin enters the stage.
The reader can almost taste the brugening sense of possibility and the chance to finally bury the proverbial cold war hatchet. Putin quickly becomes the master of background deals, expropriation of of assets across his empire, all the while cementing himself as dictator in perpetuity. (reference Julius Ceaser)
One of the main strengths in Maddox’s approach is how quickly she moves between topics. The narrative never gets bogged down on one character or theme keeping the reader on their toes and building momentum.
It’s clear how black gold keeps the Russian economy running. Putin is acutely aware of this reliance a vulnerability he shares with the leaders in so called ‘banana republics’ abroad.
Rewinding to the early chapters John D’s rise as the preeminent robber Barron’s of the era is drawn in large brushstrokes. For further reading Chernow’s Titan is well worth seeking out.
I love how Maddox weaves the dissaperate strands into a rich tapestry. Nothing is hammered home, no point overly laboured. She gives the reader room to make connections between the powers at play.
British readers will also enjoy the discussion on Oklahoma a city which will forever be connected to the 1996 bombing. There are parallels here with the recovery and resurgence after the Manchester Arndale bombing.
Residents in Aberdeen will also be familiar with the story of broken promises, mothballed projects and an overriding sense of lost /squandered opportunity.
The sector has always been and remains the stomping ground of many a big personality. Aubrey McLendon, Mitchell and lesser knoe Yukos found all feature heavily. Again there are books which delve deeper The Frackers by Greg Zuckerman is a great example.
Howard Hamm is another who bet the farm and made it all the way to the top of the capatalism mountain. All the larger than life characters share a little magic- the ability take risk- posseses with boundless energy to succeed.
In the final analysis McClendon comes off worst. He throws good money after bad in a vain attempt to recapture the heady heights of market cap/ share price dominance.
ExxonMobil doesn’t exactly come out of the book smelling of roses. The oil and gas beamoth carved out of Standard Oil prefers to deal with tin pot dictatorships. In some ways who can blame them. With paypackets linked inextricably to the quarters results: why would you care or invest in smaller nations half a world away?
As ever the small details- McClendons penchance for fine wine and an the equatorial guineas Playboy’s Jacko memorabilia add light relief. The western reader may be shocked but not suprised to learn of the growing infant mortality.
The curse of oil flows through Blowout and leaders today would do well to learn the lessons.