This is a non-fiction account of insatiable greed on the part of a particular segment of self-serving, uncaring people drunk on money and power, who work directly in, or benefit indirectly from, the oil and gas industry. It demonstrates how this industry fuels politics around the world, and has played a surprising role in attempts by Vladimir Putin to sow discord in the West and control Washington.
Rachel Maddow, known from her news show on MSNBC, is more than a media pundit: she received her undergraduate degree in public policy from Stanford and a doctorate in political science from Oxford University. The information in her book is meticulously researched and documented.
She carefully weaves together connections between oil executives in the U.S. and oligarchs in Russia. Putin has chosen to gamble the future of Russia entirely on the success of its oil and gas production. But his control of the industry is based on “graft, financial manipulation, and violence as needed,” rather than expertise, so he needs technology from the West to achieve his aims. Western companies – in particular, ExxonMobil – have been more than willing to ignore Russia’s strong-arm and even murderous tactics in exchange for the opportunity to get in on the lucrative development of its untapped resources. In fact, as Maddow points out, the oil companies share a number of undemocratic values with Putin in any event, including a deep hatred for government regulation impacting their own operations, and a dedication to enlarging personal profits at the expense of wreaking “geopolitical and environmental havoc both at home and the world over.”
Maddow includes fascinating portraits of the people who run the energy businesses, and how they spend their vast fortunes. What choices do you make, for example, when your net worth is $162 billion or more? How much is necessary to make sure politicians vote your way? (No matter how much you spend, it’s peanuts in relation to the financial benefits of tax write-offs. As Maddow notes, “U.S. taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas drilling are now almost literally insane,” and she gives numerous examples of why this is so.) How many houses and yachts do you buy? (Spoiler alert: as many as you can.) What concern do you have for the many people who are left to deal with your industry’s toxic waste poisoning the air, land, and water, and damage from the massive numbers of earthquakes you have generated? (Spoiler alert: none.)
She also explains fracking; how and why fracking generates “earthquake swarms”; and how the growth of fracking has put pressure on those in the energy industry to get on top of the curve.
Most importantly for American readers, Maddow shows what it actually meant to appoint the CEO of ExxonMobil to be Secretary of State; why the Russians were so eager to meet with, and offer support (both overt and covert) to the Trump campaign, and what it all had to do with oil and gas, inter alia. (Hint: it’s all about removing the sanctions that impede further oil and gas exploration.) She explains how even the Trump Tower Moscow project was adversely affected by the sanctions, which helped influence Trump’s opposition to them. Maddow writes: “Mueller assessed [it] could have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump” if only he could get those pesky sanctions lifted.
Putin, a former KGB operative, is always looking for “useful idiots” to exploit. The Trump campaign team, she argues, offered plenty of them. (The sanctions themselves however have been miraculously – at least until now – protected by Congress, in spite of vigorous efforts by both the Trump team and the oil and gas industry to eliminate them.)
Maddow also clarifies what Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine have to do with oil and gas – a great deal, as it turns out, and how Putin managed to keep Europe and the United States mostly in check as he took what he wanted. (It became a lot easier after the Russia-friendly Trump Administration came into power.) She also explains why the leadership of Ukraine will meet even the most absurd demands from the U.S. President if the country can procure help in protecting itself from Russia’s predatory aims.
Using data collected from the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Maddow delineates, in perhaps her scariest chapter, how techies at a Russian troll farm – the “Internet Research Agency” north of St. Petersburg – disseminated misinformation via fake accounts by people working in two separate twelve-hour shifts – around-the-clock information warfare. As one adherent claimed: “One hundred repetitions make one truth. The defenders of the truth can be overwhelmed by repeated lies.”
Putin’s trolls were told to focus on the most contentious and divisive issues in America and fan the flames. One of them later confessed: “Our goal wasn’t to turn Americans toward Russia. Our goal was to set Americans against their own government. To provoke unrest, provoke dissatisfaction.” In short, to set up a situation in which millions of angry, disaffected people might vote for someone who wanted to tear the system down from the inside. Analogous to the oil and gas industry, Maddow notes, Putin’s army of trolls “poured infectious waste” into the most ragged faults and fissures in Western democracy. [Presumably they are still hard at work, but Maddow sticks to what has been documented thus far.]
The oil and gas industry also sought to influence the 2016 election, enriching the coffers of Republican candidates by some $152 million, compared to $21 million for Democrats. When the Republicans won all three branches of government, party members quickly began to dismantle any legal protections for consumers against the industry. These included the repeal of laws requiring clarification of payments by oil and gas companies to foreign governments as well as the necessity for any declarations delineating actual tax payments and the use of tax shelters. They also eliminated as many Obama-era environmental protections as they could manage, a project that is ongoing.
What can we do? Maddow argues:
“Containment is the small-c conservative answer to the problem at hand – democratically supported, government-enforced active and aggressive containment. . . . Powerful enemies make for big, difficult fights. But you can’t win if you don’t play, and in this fight it’s the stakes that should motivate us: Democracy either wins this one or disappears. It oughtta be a blowout.”
Evaluation: I felt like I needed a shower after each chapter, reading about the avarice and corruption that characterizes oil and gas industry operatives around the world, and how politicians have been bought off to protect that system. But in spite of the unpleasantness of this information, I think it is critical for Americans to understand not only how this industry has distorted the democratic process, but how the Russians have successfully roiled the waters in the West, and continue to do so. If we don’t gain awareness and get inspired to take grassroots action to protect democracy, there may be nothing left to protect.
Published by Penguin Random House, 2019