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Review: Why We Hate the Oil Companies, by John Hofmeister; Oil, by Tom Bower

Poggy fish lie dead and stuck in oil in Bay Jimmy near Port Sulpher, Louisiana on June 20. The BP leak continues to dump thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day.

Oil companies are front and centre this summer. From business-news headlines to the environmental blogs, we just can't stop talking about them. In a way, not much has changed. From the legislated breakup of Standard Oil in 1911 to the Exxon Valdez, and with the BP oil gush in the Gulf of Mexico, hatred for Big Oil has been with us a long time.

Two new books bring some interesting perspectives to the ongoing (but often misguided) hate-fest.

Why We Hate the Oil Companies is a book you discreetly hide as you read it in a coffee shop in downtown Calgary. (Trust me.) John Hofmeister, former president of Houston-based Shell Oil, has written a remarkably balanced reflection from a past industry player. Hofmeister obviously doesn't give a rip about what his former colleagues think about him; he's critical of the industry and has the street cred to be.

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He believes, for instance, that oil companies have no regard for the people buying their product (Apple is cited as a counter-example). They only care about finding and extracting oil profitably. Sadly, the system is set up this way. A believer in carbon-induced climate change, he lays a lot of blame for the problems squarely at the feet of consumers and legislators.

He offers some aggressive solutions to global warming and the over-consumption of energy. But he tries to sell his ideas by labelling them "grassroots." I tried to count how many times he used the term, but gave up. It's one of those slippery, overused words that make an idea hard to criticize but don't really mean much.

Hofmeister does have some interesting ideas. For example, he suggests that the U.S. government establish a Federal Energy Resource Board - a presidentially appointed, Senate-approved group of governors - with the accountability and responsibility for the country's energy and environmental policy. These non-partisan leaders could take the long-term view of the problem. And because they would not be up for re-election every few years, they could make the big decisions required to move the U.S. closer to responsible energy and environmental sustainability.

But what's so "grassroots" about a super-governmental committee, appointed by the president, with 14-year terms? It actually sounds like everything true grassroots movements are against: more government committees.

While the book is a reasonably balanced criticism of oil executives and environmental activists alike, it never really gets around to answering the question implied in its title. His answer - "Why do we hate the oil companies? Because politicians have taught us to by using them as scapegoats and because the oil companies have sat under a rock" - is not very satisfying. And, actually, the answer is simpler than that. People hate the oil companies - or at least they want to hate oil companies - because they won't take responsibility and alter their own collective actions (i.e., use less energy), and because it's easier to hate something external (Exxon, BP) than to admit that we've done this to ourselves.

The real reason people hate oil companies can be found in the heavier tome, Oil: Money, Politics and Power in the 21st Century, by British journalist and historian Tom Bower (the same Tom Bower who eviscerated Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel in Conrad and Lady Black; Dancing on the Edge). Unlike Hofmeister's personal, reflective and prescriptive work, Bower takes an investigative and narrative approach. If you already hate oil companies, read this book. If you're not sure, read this book. If you love oil companies, read this book - but be prepared to start hating them.

The book is hardly flattering to past oil executives. Former BP chief executive John Browne, former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer and chairman Lee Raymond and former Shell Oil chairman Philip Watts are skewered pretty badly. Through what must have been months and months of interviews (Bower claims to having talked with nearly 250 people), the author takes us into the inner sanctums of the world of Big Oil. The personalities of these power brokers come through loud and clear - especially their greed and insecurities.

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Bower clearly wishes to shock us with incredible tales of shady dealings, double-crossing and backstabbing in the corporate scramble to dominate the world's supply of hydrocarbons. In doing so, he delivers a fascinating volume that, at times, reads like a juicy gossip column.

He tells a particularly titillating tale of how, after the Exxon Valdez spill, chairman Lee Raymond screwed Alaska fishermen. Raymond had agreed to pay $70-million (U.S.) in compensation to fishers and fish processors, but there was a condition buried in the fine print: In accepting the money, the fishers unwittingly agree to repay Exxon a share of any punitive damages awarded by a court. They were hoodwinked, and the trial judge described Raymond's tactics as "deplorable" and "an apparent fraud on the jury."

While Bower's interviews and research are exhaustive, he's not the first to write about Big Oil nastiness. And as a journalist, he is clearly driven by an agenda to embarrass. Some facts are clearly wrong. For example, in one of the very rare references to Canada (only 10 in nearly 500 pages), he states that mining Alberta's oil sands will mean surface excavation and destruction of a boreal forest area the size of New York State. Wrong, wrong, wrong: The entire area containing the oil sands may be this large, but only a tiny fraction of it is mined. If total oil sands deposits were the size of a football field, the amount of open-pit mining would be the size of a Smart car parked at the centre of the field And if he has that minor fact wrong, what other facts has he stretched?

Given the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, people may feel they don't need a book to tell them why they hate oil companies. Others may relish more fodder. While the world may have changed for BP, it seems nothing about Big Oil has changed at all. Consider BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg's reference to those hurt by the gulf spill as "small people." The gaffe was quickly followed by apologies, but the message fits the themes of both these books: Oil executives live in one world, the rest of us live in another.

Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based economist at a major financial institution. He has written on a variety of topics including energy, the economy and public finance in the media, and appears regularly on national news programs as a commentator. He also teaches economics at the University of Calgary.

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