A Gusher Of Facts On Oil In Fact, A Glut


By Daniel Yergin

Simon & Schuster -- 877pp -- $24.95


"El petroleo? Es bueno y es malo." I was in a bar in Villahermosa, in the thick of the Mexican oil boom of the late 1970s, and that's what a young boy said when I asked what he thought of all the excitement. Oil is both good and bad. It's one of those simple insights you can pass over too quickly. Here's another: Oil is power. Physical power, to be sure, but also economic and hence political power. That's the simple insight Daniel Yergin ponders in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.

One thing he doesn't do is pass over it too quickly. This is an exhaustive work--an 877-page history of oil. Even so, it was expected to be a "crossover" book, one that draws readers from outside its field. Yergin's 1979 book, Energy Future, was. Alas, The Prize is destined for the library shelf.

But it belongs there--and I mean that as a compliment. It's probably the best history of oil ever written, surely the best I've read. Yergin put seven years into it, and it shows.

The Prize has been compared with The Seven Sisters, Anthony Sampson's 1975 look at the global oil majors. But that book was much narrower. And it had a message: that the big oil companies, through various arrangements, controlled the price of this crucial commodity. John Blair made the same point in his more scholarly The Control of Oil.

Yergin wouldn't necessarily disagree--he probably wouldn't bother. In telling the history of oil as an observer, not a commentator, he shows that someone will always control it. After all, oil is the lifeblood of Industrial Man. No one in a position to matter would ever leave this critical substance to the whims of the market--not for long, anyway. John D. Rockefeller, the big oil companies that followed, the Texas Railroad Commission, OPEC--they've all taken turns, sometimes together. This has been neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is.

Although exhaustive works can't help but be exhausting, Yergin generally tells his story well. But he's not flawless as writer or historian. His book is sometimes repetitive, and, despite its length, sometimes sketchy. Covering the heyday of wildcatting in the U. S., he falls into a particularly unctuous habit: His heroes always seem to end up broken by their struggle against entrenched forces. Didn't they ever just succumb to some disease? Later on, Yergin, an energy consultant, seems to go easy on oilmen.

It's not that we need another jeremiad about Big Oil. Far from it. The oil companies have probably been pushed around as much as they have pushed. Time and again, the Interior or State Dept. forced them to take some joint action to safeguard U. S. oil supplies--for which the Justice Dept. or some grandstanding subcommittee would then pursue them for conspiracy. The pattern was established by the 1930s, when the price of oil collapsed. At Washington's behest, the majors helped stabilize the market. Justice then hit them with an antitrust suit.

Yergin describes this good-cop, bad-cop script well. But he skews the cast. While he finds plenty of dolts in public office, the characters from Big Oil always seem to be dedicated men of vision. Uh-uh. If oil is good and bad, so are all the players in the oil drama.

But these are small complaints about a good book. The best of its five sections is a summary of World War II as a

struggle fought for, and with, oil. Yergin's account is utterly persuasive and, at times, downright gripping.

The German Army bogged down in Russia, he notes, largely for lack of fuel. When Field Marshal Erich von Manstein pleaded with Hitler to shift his forces in the Caucasus to the embattled army at Stalingrad, the Fuhrer exploded. "Unless we get the Baku oil," he said, referring to the Soviets' giant oil-producing region, "the war is lost."

Rommel's drive across North Africa was halted at El Alamein only after the Allies set up a base on Malta to sink the ships supplying gasoline for his panzers. And Rommel had advanced so far that his overland supply lines were too long: Fuel trucks were using more gas going back and forth than they delivered.

It was the same in the Pacific. Although the Japanese entered the war with a two-year supply of oil, they were running on empty when their Navy met defeat at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Two Japanese ships never made it to the battle for lack of oil. Others arrived hours late because they were slow-steaming to save fuel. The Japanese Second Fleet might even have annihilated General Douglas MacArthur's forces, but it turned away 40 miles from the gulf. A Japanese admiral later explained why: "Because of shortage of fuel."

Yergin's analysis of the oil shocks of the 1970s and the glut of the 1980s, while less exciting, is also well done. With plenty of fresh detail, he shows why and how the oil-producing countries were finally able to wrench the reins from the companies, only to see the kind of collapse in prices that has periodically visited those who have won the prize.

One cringes, however, at Yergin's occasional smugness. He chastises Jimmy Carter, for example, for embracing a vast synthetic fuels plan in 1979 even as The New York Times cited a Harvard business school group's conclusion that the U. S. could reduce oil imports faster and more cheaply through greater energy efficiency. He doesn't say that the Times story was about his own Energy Future--actually a compilation of ideas proferred by others. What's more, Carter turned to synthetic fuels only after his initial plan, based largely on the then-radical idea of improving energy efficiency, was ridiculed by a mystified public, Congress, and oil industry.

Here, too, Yergin pulls his punches, lionizing Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's former oil minister, who now has a London think tank devoted to oil issues. Yamani was one of the most perceptive representatives of the oil-exporting nations during this tumultuous era. But he was a master of spin control who played the flip side of a record any time he thought his audience needed a change of pace. Yergin should know that, but he plays back only The Best of Yamani.

Still, The Prize should stand the test of time. Although it tells more about its subject than most people will ever want to know, it does bring our knowledge of the 20th century--the Age of Oil--into sharper focus. That's no small feat.

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