Seizing Power: The Grab for Global Oil Wealth

Slater
By Lauren Meryl Williamson

For author Robert Slater, it really is all about the oil. From manipulative government tactics, to aggressive moves by multinationals, to the minute diplomatic endeavours of politicians, the quest for oil lies at the centre of it all. While the book Seizing Power: The Grab for Global Oil Wealth is clearly slanted toward the resource narrative, the substantiating evidence Slater provides makes the bias seem justified.

Most people have never heard of the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea. But the country’s involvement with oil, which began in 2003, provides the opening case study examined by Slater, as he shows the duplicity of oil and the “chaos of petropolitics today”. The resource discovery in Sao Tome and Principe at once inspired the poor, gave them hope for a brighter future and boosted their economy; it just as quickly led to political instability and tempted greedy leaders while driving them to arm citizens in order to protect the newly acquired wealth.

Slater’s book guides the reader through the history of oil, how it was discovered and first applied, how it became the backbone of industrialisation and mechanisation leading to the rise of western companies and then eventually how the energy resource paved the way for smaller countries to gain geopolitical clout on the international stage.  Essentially, as Slater writes, oil is the very reason for the development of the West and the very reason the West is in a state of panic over the limited resource today.

But exactly how limited are the world’s oil reserves? As there are gaps in the assessment methodologies and transparency records of many oil nations, so too there are gaps in the world’s knowledge of proven and probable reserves. Marion King Hubbert argued in 1956 that the end of the petroleum age would occur by 2070, and peak output would be reached in the 1970s, the same decade the US became a net importer of oil. Big multinationals dispute this, though Slater rightly points out that they have incentive to oppose the theory.

At times, Slater’s writing comes off a bit pedestrian. He employs an extraordinarily simplistic style, writing chapters no more than 10 pages long. Yet at other times, Slater seems pedantic, his words hard to follow. This is the case for Chapter 8 “Hedging; Insurance or Speculation?” That being said, perhaps oil financials is a subject deserving of its own book to fully explain the complexities of the market. One topic that could benefit from supplementary material is his discussion on the hegemony of the US dollar and how if Iran chooses to switch to trading dominated by the euro rather than the US dollar, it could prove disastrous for the US.

Additionally, the book would be well served if it included a deeper perspective from the private multinationals. How is ExxonMobil planning to tackle the new challenges ahead? Why does BP continue to do business with Venezuela’s incorrigible Hugo Chàvez? What is the corporate strategy to handle growing nationalism and the nationalisation of oil in the third world? Albeit, gathering a first hand, honest interview with the upper echelons of these private corporations to answer such questions would be a near-impossible task.

Slater excels in providing the story behind the numbers, explaining price swings over time. Slater paints OPEC in a surprisingly favourable light, giving empirical evidence to suggest OPEC has maintained a trend of supporting rational prices in the market—except for the oil crisis of the 1970s in which OPEC imposed the infamous embargo. But OPEC’s use of oil as a political tool set a precedent, and Slater argues that should have been the wake up call for America — but it was not.

Slater’s account of various international developments, as viewed through the lens of oil acquisition, is rather depressing. Political tensions play out in battles over oil field rights, services, operations, expansion projects. In the well known accounts, the US’s oil interests dictate its relations with Saudi Arabia, owner of the largest oil reserves, and Iran, holder of the second largest reserves. But oil is also why Russia invaded Georgia, why China pumped US$8 billion into Sudan and is investing heavily in Africa, and why India recently held the first Indian-African summit.

The book as a whole serves as a quick read, loaded with useful facts and information, although the more provocative topics are only superficially addressed. Slater’s work, however, was not intended to be comprehensive. Yet the amount of research he draws from—as evidenced by the ample statistics, additional quotes and numerous case studies—indicates he has certainly mastered the topic.

He poignantly hints at an upcoming crisis, bigger than the oil shocks the world has previously witnessed. Quite chillingly, he unveils that part of current US military preparations include scenarios in which oil resources are compromised, stolen or held hostage. Such actions—however unlikely they may seem at present—would be viewed as acts of war and responded to accordingly.

Slater’s conclusions are within the realm of possibility, though. In 2005, Venezuela openly accused the US of planning to invade it over oil issues. In 2008, five Iranian boats aggressively approached and threatened US naval ships in international waters that carry oil tankers. The point is that violent oil-related scenarios may be more feasible than we’d like to think, and the new petro-aggressors also have more power than we would like to believe.

Of the top 15 oil companies, fewer than half are western owned, and today’s western companies are in production decline. By the early 2000s Saudi Aramco had 20 times the reserves of ExxonMobil. The newer oil finds are located now in developing nations, and they are most likely to be nationalised. And the West’s dependence on the commodity has become so easy to manipulate that third world nations are now powerful enough to “take on western institutions”. These are unpleasant realities, but realities that must be faced nonetheless.

 

Robert Slater, Seizing Power: The Grab for Oil Wealth (Bloomberg Press: 2010). 
 

11 May 2011 

 

This piece was originally written for The Majalla