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13 November 2019

The astonishing backstory to fracking, Russia, and the dangers of capitalism out of control

Blowout is truly a standout. It brilliantly illuminates powerful forces behind ongoing changes in the oil and gas industry. As the book makes clear, we underestimate these forces at our peril. Accordingly, Blowout deserves a wide readership.

Rachel Maddow, the author of Blowout, doubles as the narrator of the book’s audio version. She also hosts a nightly public affairs show on MSNBC. She reads her own words with great panache. It’s as if the listener could see the knowing winks. Indeed, whilst listening to Blowout, I was prompted to laugh on loud on occasion – before feeling pangs of guilt for having taken pleasure at various all-too-human episodes of duplicity, hubris, and downfall. This isn’t really a laughing matter, though the humour helps our sanity. The future may depend on how well we take to heart the lessons covered in Blowout.

Despite the sharp critical commentary, the book also offers a lot of sympathy. Although the oil and gas industry is portrayed – as in the subtitle of the book – as “the most destructive industry on earth” – and as a strong cause of “corrupted democracy” and “rogue states” – the narrative also shows key actors of this industry in, for a while, a positive light. These individuals see themselves as heroic defenders of important ideals, including energy independence and entrepreneurial verve. Blowout shows that there’s considerable merit in this positive self-assessment. However, very importantly, it’s by no means the whole story.

Blowout interweaves a number of absorbing, captivating tales about larger-than-life individuals, decades-long technological innovation, some of the world’s most successful companies, and clashes of realpolitik. The structure is similar to a pattern often found in novels. At first it’s not clear how the different narrative strands will relate to each other. The connections become clear in stages – vividly clear.

Together, these accounts provide the backstory for various items that frequently appear in the news:

  • The transformation of the oil and gas industry by the technology of fracking (fracturing)
  • Oil executives being seemingly unconcerned about interacting with repulsive autocratic politicians
  • Russian political leaders taking steps to destabilise democracy in the US and in the EU
  • The long relationship between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • The activities of people whose names have featured in the Mueller investigation – including Paul Manafort and Dmytro Firtash
  • The floods of aggressive denial against the findings of scientists that activities of the oil and gas industry risk humongous environmental damage.

Blowout deserves a five-star rating for several different reasons. The discussion of the history of fracking, by itself, should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the general principles of technological disruption. The development of fracking conforms to the common pattern of a disruption lingering through a long, slow, disappointing phase, before accelerating to have a bigger impact than even the cheerleaders of the technology previously expected. It also produces a strong example of how an industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The industry will have too strong a motivation to downplay the “unexpected side effects” of the new technology. It’s chilling how oil and gas industry experts sought to silence any suggestion that fracking could be the cause of increased earthquakes. It’s also chilling how people who should have know better rushed to adopt various daft pseudo-scientific explanations for this increase.

The book’s account of oil-induced corruption in Equatorial Guinea is also highly relevant (not to mention gut-wrenching). The bigger picture, as Blowout ably explains, is addressed by the concept of “the paradox of plenty”. Of even greater interest is the application of this same theory to developments within Russia.

Alongside tales of epic human foolishness (including the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the bizarre experience of Shell’s experimental drilling in the Artic), the book offers some genuine inspiration. One example is the growing democratic push-back in the state of Oklahoma, against the previous dominance in that state of the oil and gas industry. Another example is the way in which by no means every country with a “plenty” of oil falls victim to the “paradox” of poorer overall social wellbeing.

In the end, Blowout emphasises, criticising the behaviour of the oil and gas industry makes as little sense as criticising a lion for having the temerity to hunt and eat prey. The solution cannot be merely to appeal to the good conscience of the executives in that industry. Instead, it’s up to governments to set the frameworks within which that industry operates.

In turn, it makes strong internal sense for executives in that industry to seek to undermine any such regulatory framework. We should not be surprised at the inventiveness of that industry and its supporters in finding fault with regulations, in obscuring the extent to which that industry benefits from long-standing subsidies and kickbacks, and in undermining effective international democratic collaboration (such as in the EU). Instead, we need clear-minded political leadership who can outflank the industry, so that we gain its remarkable benefits but avoid its equally remarkable downsides. And what will help political leaders to gain a clearer mind is if the analysis in Blowout becomes better known. Much better known.

PS Some of the same analysis is also covered in this recent video in the series about the Technoprogressive Roadmap:

 

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