Big Oil’s malign influence is waning at last

Waiting for the end? Almost: old North Sea oil platforms wait in Scotland’s Cromarty Firth for the price of oil to rise again. Image: By joiseyshowaa, via Wikimedia Commons

It has enriched us, even dictated our politics, but now we know Big Oil’s malign influence we want no more of this black gold.

LONDON, 12 May, 2021 − Despite the hold that oil has had on our lives for the last century through cars, chemicals, plastics, pesticides and almost every facet of daily life, including keeping millions of people in employment, it is something few of us ever think about. Big Oil’s malign influence has left us unaware.

But oil has a remarkable story to tell: its rise, its ascendancy in all our lives, and now, if civilisation is to survive, its fall. These phases are all described in a new book, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation.

Although the book is specifically about oil’s role in shaping the United Kingdom, it is also concerned with the way oil changes the politics and national economies of the rest of the world.

This is because, more than with any other industry, the scramble to own and distribute oil is a multi-national business controlled by some of the world’s biggest and most powerful companies, which have frequently influenced the destiny of nations.

The authors, James Marriott, a writer who has been studying the industry for 35 years and Terry Macalister, former energy editor of the Guardian, detail just how pervasive oil is in our lives. They visit towns that were once thriving hubs of industry, places of full employment which are now hollowed-out relics.

“ . . . they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad . . . ”

More illuminating though is their series of interviews with former and current oil executives, speculators, politicians and civil servants. Some of them have been all of those things at different times in their lives.

They have managed this because, as the book demonstrates, there has always been a revolving door between governments and the oil industry that allows powerful individuals to shape policy and wield undue influence.

The history of the industry and its effect on our lives is fascinating. We are reminded that it is the reason for the existence of many products we use and benefit from daily. Then there is the downside: the wars fought over oil, the way that the industry has used its influence to protect its position and its profits, undermining democracy and ruining many thousands of lives.

Perhaps, for those involved in the battle over climate change who want to see the back of Big Oil, it is the last part of the book that is most illuminating. It describes how the multi-nationals BP and Shell have striven to brush up and green their image.

This is partly because of pressure from shareholders and environment groups, but also because the companies themselves realise that the game will soon be up for fossil fuels and they will need to invest elsewhere.

An era ends?

Although the book explains that it may be a case of too little, too late for both the planet and the companies, Shell and BP are currently reducing their exploration in sensitive and expensive areas and selling oil assets to hedge funds and shadowy offshore companies. At the same time, they are beginning to invest heavily in renewables.

This diversification may help some oil majors survive, but according to the authors the new oil barons who buy their assets face none of the pressures that steer the companies to go green. The barons’ sole aim is to squeeze every drop of oil and dollar they can from the industry as it gradually winds down.

This change signifies a new kind of institution in the industry. It has scant need of journalists, unlike the traditional corporations which used the media to build a positive profile as they lobbied ministers, largely behind the scenes.

“Instead they are hidden and largely closed to scrutiny, except by their own public presentations. They are privately owned, often by individuals tax-domiciled abroad,” the authors say.

In a final chapter, entitled rather hopefully Heading for Extinction, the book concludes that the era of oil is over, or at least rapidly fading. It charts the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, and the growing awareness of the danger the human race is in. It is an optimistic end to a fascinating and detailed account of how we have all let oil dominate our lives. − Climate News Network

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Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation. Pluto Press, hardback £20.00:  to be published on 20 May, 2021. By James Marriott & Terry Macalister