By Gail Picco (November 5, 2019)

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow, Crown, October 1, 2019, 432 pp., $29.70

It’s tough to write a review of Rachel Maddow’s new book Blowout without borrowing her process of explaining the foundational elements of the story before actually getting to the meat of it; of burying your lede so deep that the news becomes a suspenseful set piece—and you’re left wondering what the story will ultimately be—instead of having it summarized in the opening paragraph.

Maddow, the highest rated prime time host on cable television in the valuable 24 – 54 year demographic, goes up against Sean Hannity of Fox News every week night at 9:00 EST in a battle of facts vs alternative facts.  She is a Rhodes Scholar from California, a lesbian who has lived with artist, Susan Mikula, in Massachusetts and New York for 20 years, who puts a “$20 jacket” on over her t-shirt and jeans, replaces her horn-rimmed glasses with contact lenses, and allows a make-up person to swish on a bit of eye shadow and lip gloss before she sits in front of the camera at a glass-topped desk in an MSNBC studio. She had a professional rapport with the late Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News and disgraced sexual harasser. Her mother is from Torbay Newfoundland.

If you watch The Rachel Maddow Show, you know that her opening is a 20 to 24 minute, commercial-free monologue that starts at the very beginning of any given story. For a piece on disgraced politician, for example, she might start out with the properties of copper.  She approaches her audience as part teacher, part entertainer. 

“Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent,” says Janet Malcom in a 7,500 word New Yorker profile published in 2017.

In 2012, Maddow released her first book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power where she argued that, with the advent of drones, the consolidation of presidential power and the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans now serve in the military, “the decision to go to war has become too easy.”

The New York Times called Drift a “thought-provoking and timely book. And many readers, conservative and liberal alike, will embrace one of Maddow’s practical prescriptions: that taxes should be raised or war bonds sold to pay for any conflict, since “going to war, being at war, should be painful for the entire country, from the start.”

Maddow has said in interviews and on her television show that writing Drift took so much out of her, she’d never write another book. 

Then Donald Trump got elected and everything turned upside down. 

*

Oil, or “Texas Tea” is not as easy to get out of the ground as the 1960s hit television show, The Beverley Hillbillies’ theme song claimed, Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed/A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed/And then one day he was shootin’ at some food/And up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude/Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.”

The popular assumption of drilling for oil is that there’s a “vast worldwide web of subterranean lakes and caverns filled with oil and gas” where oil companies can “stick big industrial size straws into the ground, suck it dry, and move on to the next one,” writes Maddow. 

“But the truth is, there aren’t really underground lakes or even puddles filled with Jurassic Juice. Most of the hydrocarbons we want are spread through layer upon layer of what looks like nearly impermeable underground rock—in very tight little micro-crevices. The capture of fossil fuels is less like sticking a straw into a Big Gulp schooner and gently drawing it out, and more like sticking that straw into a sponge and having at it … The extraction from the sponge requires considerably more, well, brutish effort … And this understanding of the need for near-violent force has driven most of the successful (a.k.a. lucrative) innovations in the oil industry … Innovation in the oil and gas industry is about brawn.”

*

These days John D. Rockefeller’s name is most associated with philanthropic gifts made to organizations throughout the world by The Rockefeller Foundation, which holds $4.5 billion in assets generated by Rockefeller’s donation of 73,000 shares of Standard Oil and whose stated mission is “promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world.” 

But John D. Rockefeller was the original American oil baron. Maddow writes, 

“And even today, more than a hundred years later, the major non-state-run international oil companies we know best—ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Marathon—have their roots in Standard Oil and trace their ancestry directly back to Rockefeller. Standard DNA is shot through the oil industry, as are Standard’s dominant traits: a penchant for pinching pennies, an eagerness to devour and expand, a mistrust and even hatred of government regulation, a vaguely delusional sense of higher calling, and a wary respect for innovation. Worth keeping in mind, because they’ve gone on to shape the modern world.  They still function as a character sketch—or maybe a psychological profile—of the richest, most powerful, and most destructive industry on the globe.”

*

“Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” said the late Senator, John McCain after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. “It’s a country that’s a kleptocracy, it’s corrupt. It’s a nation … that’s … dependant on oil and gas for their economy.”

In late 2016, as a result of their election meddling, the Obama administration placed economic sanctions on Russia and on individuals doing business with Russia.

Geologically, Russia is running out of all the easy ways to get at its reserves of oil and gas. They need Western expertise to get at the rest, but the economic sanctions stand in their way.  Getting those sanctions removed would be the lifeblood of the Russian oil and gas industry, of Putin’s Russia and its continued leverage across the globe.

As Donald Trump presidency came into full swing in early January 2017, when the entire U.S, intelligence community agreed that Russia had interfered in the election to the benefit of Donald Trump, Rachel Maddow covered the breaking news night after night, connecting the dots between Putin, Russian oligarchs, the Trump campaign and other people close the Trump administration. 

Maddow says she started off knowing nothing about oil and gas. She was trying to figure out why “Putin so intent on messing with the American election?”

And why, as she writes, did “…the Russian Federation ultimately [embark]on a deliberate and aggressive campaign to tear apart western alliances, to rot democracy, and to piss in the punch bowl of free elections all over the civilized world.”

In an attempt to answer the question, the book—which introduces us to a wild cast of characters, some ripped out of the headlines, such as former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to a range of Russian actors, to ordinary Americans like Austin Holland, the geophysicist/seismologist who was concerned about a “10,000% jump in the number of felt earthquakes” in Oklahoma—looks at the world through the prism of the oil and gas industry.

Rex Tillerson did an oil deal with Russia for half a trillion during the Obama administration. He then became the Secretary of State under Donald Trump without, apparently, having met him.  Maddow writes,

The Kremlin certainly seemed delighted with the choice. “[Tillerson] fulfills his duties very professionally,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on hearing the news. Rex was a very special kind of win-win. Good for Russia. Good for oil and gas.

One of the first actions of the new Trump administration was to kill the so-called resource extraction rule and withdraw from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) which, according to a Reuters report, “required companies like Exxon Mobil Corp to disclose taxes and other fees paid to foreign governments, such as Russia.”

In response to the action, Democratic Senator, Ben Cardin, and Republican, Dick Lugar, who worked together to help ensure that the United States became an implementing country of the EITI, issued a joint statement calling it “the result of “Big Oil and Gas’ money and influence” and “a painful abdication of American leadership on transparency and good governance.”

Maddow’s book, like her work on television, is meticulously researched and engagingly told. Every paragraph has scores of new details. It is a modern history of the political impact of the oil and gas sector. Her writing is accessible but demands that you pay attention, or you’ll miss a captivating piece of the puzzle. 

*

Maddow’s analysis of the power of the oil and gas industry strikes a current chord here at home. Canada has just come through a more-bitter-than-usual federal election, resulting in a minority government, with Alberta, where about a third of its economy is tied to the oil and gas industry, voted for a party that wants less regulation of the oil and gas industry and less intervention in climate change, a position in direct opposition to the rest of the country, save its oil-producing neighbour Saskatchewan. 

A separate WEXIT party has filed for official party status in Alberta.  The list of grievance is long according to the CBC

New legislation on environmental reviews of large industrial projects like pipelines, which Alberta Premier Jason Kenney calls the “no-more-pipelines act,” has ruffled feathers, as has a carbon tax and the West Coast oil tanker ban.

And then there’s the wildly differing views on climate change. Only 42% of Albertans believe the Earth is getting warmer partly or mostly due to human activity, while, for example, 67% of Quebecers believe that to be true, as do 60% of the Canadian population in general.  

Charities being called on the carpet for criticizing the oil and gas industry in Alberta.

Rachel Maddow

The government of Alberta currently is holding a public inquiry into environmental charities saying it wants to investigate “allegations that large amounts of foreign funding has contributed to a successful campaign to block new pipelines to export Alberta oil and gas.”

According to reports in the Globe and Mail, the commissioner of the inquiry Steve Allan, a forensic accountant appointed in July 2019, is “considering asking other provinces for jurisdiction that would allow him to compel witness testimony and evidence elsewhere in Canada.”

It feels like the country is on a collision course with the oil and gas industry, the provinces whose economies currently depend on it, and the people–many who live in other parts of the country– who want to further regulate oil and gas, and reduce the use of fossil fuels to help mitigate climate change.

Blowout is an important read for the discussion ahead. 

(Gail Picco is a charity impact strategist, author and editor of the CSP Book Blog.)

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