Commentary Magazine

The Prize, by Daniel Yergin

Is Oil Everything?

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.
by Daniel Yergin.
Simon & Schuster. 876 pp. $24.95.

Daniel Yergin’s timing could hardly have been better. With Kuwait kidnapped, and roughly one million U.S., allied, and Iraqi troops poised to shoot, history conspired to make his sprawling, heavily documented work about the centrality of petroleum to the modern world order supremely topical and compelling. Would that the book itself rose to the occasion. Yergin, president of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, billed as a leading authority on world affairs and the oil business, indefatigable proselytizer for alternative energy scenarios, has offered up a major disappointment.

The Prize claims to be an epic narrative, a history of what Yergin calls “the age of oil”—i.e., our age. Its thesis is that crude oil now lies at the bottom of Everything: not only industrial organization, but entire forms of civilization. By extension, how the Western world deals with its relationship to oil is a key to how the West will deal with Everything. Unfortunately, The Prize does not begin to come to grips with the issues which according to its author we need to confront if “hydrocarbon civilization”—meaning, more or less, life as we in the West know it—is to resolve its many contradictions. Instead, it is a heavy mass of often shapeless information entwined around a fairly familiar historical core.

The Prize fares best as straight commercial history: the story of the great, globe-girdling enterprises built upon the discovery of the properties of long-dead plant matter. For roughly half its length, The Prize tells a fascinating and in many ways profoundly American tale of development, starting with George Bissell, the self-made polymath who first divined that drilling for supplies of petroleum might open the door to a massive expansion of the kerosene lighting industry. Bissell and a group of investors formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, found a mercurial jack-of-all-trades named Edwin L. Drake to do their drilling for them, and in 1859 inaugurated the first wild American oil boom near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Their success was soon followed by overproduction, glut, and depression, periodic characteristics of the oil industry to this day (and an important reason behind Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait).

If the first theme of the early sections of The Prize is petroleum’s expanding empire, the second is the efforts made to bring the cycle of scarcity and production under control, from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust to the councils of OPEC. Along his lengthy way, Yergin introduces us to an intriguing parade of characters, from Rockefeller and his associates to Marcus Samuel, the driven son of an East London shell merchant who founded Shell Oil, to Henri Wilhelm August Deterding, the iron-willed manager of nascent Royal Dutch Petroleum, who built up the company from the turn of the century until he was shunted aside in the 1930’s after succumbing to Naziphilia. Yergin writes intriguingly of the recurrent role of Winston Churchill, first in converting the British navy from coal to oil power just prior to World War I, then in switching from side to side in the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) as a government-dominated instrument of British energy policy in the interwar years. Since Britain had no oil of its own, it was London’s decision to switch to oil propulsion—needed to maintain technological supremacy over the rising German fleet—that more than anything else converted the politics of oil into strategic politics. (For the U.S., the issue of oil management was, until the discovery of the immense Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields in the late 1930’s, more of a conventional commodity concern, since—wondrous to remember—America was the world’s major oil exporter.)



There is plenty of grist for populists and anti-capitalists in the saga of the rise of international oil, though Yergin himself does not yield much to the temptation. The story has often been told of Big Oil’s maneuvering to gain and maintain its concession rights in Latin America and the Middle East, and the concomitant efforts at cartelization and other means of dividing up the oil pie. Yergin is both understanding of and fairly sympathetic to the underlying dilemma behind many of these oft-maligned efforts: the dilemma of dealing with the boom-or-bust cycle of a commodity which, however vital to the West, has behaved in all too ordinary an economic fashion. A minor fault with The Prize is that these and other intriguing issues—how Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust actually worked, details of the Rothschilds’ role in developing the Russian oil industry—often demand more texture than Yergin provides, despite the imposing length of his work. So vast is his canvas that events of great interest often march past at the brisk and unsatisfying rate of a survey course.

Others, however, remain bogged down, seemingly forever. Starting with its treatment of World War II, The Prize begins to waver and bloat. Yergin’s determination to locate petroleum as one of the fundamental issues of the war results in a number of alarmingly reductive readings of the conflict. Thus, he quotes Nazi supply-meister Albert Speer to the effect that “the need for oil certainly was a prime motive” in Hitler’s drive against Russia; in some sense it may have been, but in no sense greater than Hitler’s manic anti-Bolshevism. Again, Yergin claims that without America’s surplus oil production capacity of about one million barrels per day at the onset of hostilities, “the course of World War II might have been different.” Well, by how much? At still another point he argues that the real difference between British and German air forces in the Battle of Britain might be measured in thirteen points on the octane scale; Britain’s Spitfires were topped off with 100-octane fuel, while Germany’s Me-109s only used 87 octane. Yergin solemnly assures us that “Some attribute Britain’s critical edge and victory in that life-and-death air battle to the 100-octane gas.” No doubt “some” do.



Yergin finally arrives in the postwar period at roughly the midpoint of his narrative, and from then on The Prize becomes ever more muddled. The oil industry was one of the first to confront the multifarious challenges of third-world nationalism and nationalization, but the truly important story of how it fared is too often buried here under numbing accounts of the renegotiation of oil leases and the merger of lesser firms into larger ones. The fact is that in these years the international oil world grew in complexity beyond Yergin’s ability to describe it. Tens of countries were involved, rather than a handful of robber barons; nationalistic bureaucracies grew vast and unfathomable, motivations chokingly complex.

Yergin’s way around many of these complexities is simple-mindedly to affirm the centrality of oil to world politics—in itself impossible to deny. He skirts but does not succumb to conspiracy theory, a glue which other writers, including the oil industry’s many Marxist non-admirers, have used to keep their disparate constructions together. But he fails to address any number of critical questions raised by his thesis that oil is Everything.

If, for instance, oil interests enjoy the paramountcy in national policies that Yergin ascribes to them, why in 1971 did the British suddenly and unilaterally abandon their military commitments in the Persian Gulf region? A number of important historians, most notably J.B. Kelly (Arabia, the Gulf, and the West), see in this abandonment a major cause of the gulf crisis we are still living with, for it led directly to a dangerous power vacuum and to the arming of regional powers like Iran and Iraq, first as an alternative arrangement for the balance of power (as articulated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger), then as a desperate and dangerous method of recycling oil debt. Yergin notes the event, as he must, but with nowhere near the care it deserves.

In similar fashion he does not delve deeply enough into the behavior of the Truman administration during the earlier (1948-54) crisis of legitimacy of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. At the very time the administration was struggling with that crisis, allegedly on behalf of American oil interests, Washington was authorizing criminal antitrust action (later diluted to civil proceedings) against U.S. oil companies. In 1949, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report, entitled The International Petroleum Cartel, which Yergin himself declares one of the most unsympathetic, even misleading and unfair, documents ever aimed at the industry. Why these seemingly contradictory policies?

The answer to these and other questions lies in an area that Yergin’s book does not address: the shifting calculus of intersecting national strategies. There is no doubt whatsoever that petroleum—access to it, pricing, volume of supply, and myriad other related details—has become a vital element in that bewildering calculus. Americans have fought and died in part on that account. But only in part: the story of oil is not, as Yergin avers, the thread that leads one in and out of the world-historical labyrinth. That is merely a technocratic fantasy. And it is why, in the end, Yergin himself, and his Prize, become so thoroughly lost in the telling.

About the Author

George Russell is the executive editor of Fox New Channel.

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