Oh what a tangled web they — Russia, oil interests, foreign oligarchs, banking titans — weave when at first they start to deceive.
That is the story MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow sets out to tell in “Blowout,” an account of international intrigue, high finance, low characters, and outrageous legal and illegal acts that put the global economy and Western democracy at grave risk. She tells this tale deliberately and methodically, building her case not as a cable commentator, but as a Rhodes Scholar academic.
Maddow describes Big Oil as “the richest, most powerful, and most destructive industry on the globe.” Implicated along the way are the United States government, Vladimir Putin, the fracking industry, some high-flying accountants, and even the corrupt regime controlling Equatorial Guinea. Plus American consumers, with their insatiable appetite for energy.
This is a chronicle of greed and deception, and of conflicts of interest and real military conflicts. It involves a conspiracy of a clutch of people on at least three continents making big money while producing big trouble — for the public, for the international diplomatic world, for democratic rule, and for the global environment.
Billions flowed along with massive amounts of oil and gas. But for all those NeverTrumpers who have beatified Rex Tillerson — once the chief of ExxonMobil, briefly Trump’s secretary of state — for the simple act of describing the president as a “moron” (with an unforgettable vulgar adjective), a few pages of this book will relieve their adoration.
Maddow portrays Tillerson, with his “signature composure and buttoned-down elan,” as a schemer and a deft inside player (and much, much worse) in Washington, and around the world. He emerges as the personification of the evils of Big Energy.
“Oil and gas companies do the kind of risky, capital-intensive work that the average Joe, the average mom-and-pop business, even the average company, doesn’t do for itself,” she writes. ‘’In so doing, they can make a spectacular pile of money, but they can also make a tremendous amount of mess. And ruin. And even catastrophic, polluting apocalypse, when they really put their shoulder into it.’’
What is more, they operate with the legal impunity that comes with public ignorance. Listen to Maddow’s argument:
‘’What could you, in Congress, possibly know about oil that Rex Tillerson doesn’t? How could you, with your lily-livered environmental worry beads, think to weigh in on what could go wrong when pumping oil up from 5,000 feet of one of the richest fisheries on earth?”
In these pages, Maddow offers a primer on the oil and gas industry, arguing that resource companies are “incentivized to push as far as they can on extraction ... and to escape negative consequences caused by that extraction.” Moreover, she argues, the companies buy off, sometimes legally, sometimes not, the governments of the lands where they are extracting their resource riches.
She sets out the controversial side effects of fracking (earthquakes in Oklahoma, a well explosion in Pennsylvania) and illuminates the dependence Putin’s Russia has on oil revenue — a dependence that rendered Russia open to Tillerson’s entreaties.
“The Russian government, under Putin’s control,” she writes, “has steadily become more integrated with all kinds of transnational organized crime in the former Soviet sphere — and not just because Putin has tended to attract the kinds of broken-nosed toughs who would otherwise be called ‘henchmen’ if Putin hadn’t made them so rich.”
Maddow builds a case of cross-cultural corruption that is marred only by the occasional informality of her prose and her sometimes-distracting wise-guy rhetoric. She describes, for example, Skadden, Arps as a “fancy rich-guy law firm” and litters her prose with sentences like this: “Anyway, corruption-wise, things were going along pretty swimmingly in Ukraine.”
Even so, she displays a deep understanding of what makes Russia work in the age of Putin. To wit: “Oil and gas could be wielded as an international cudgel to force other countries to respect and deal with Russia no matter anything else Russia did. The industry also — bonus! — trailed enough easy cash to generate almost instant, almost limitless corruption wherever needed.”
That’s before Putin decided, as Maddow puts it, to “muck around in our democracy.” The result is a disaster in two dimensions — compromising both American democracy and Russian national culture.
“Russia,” she writes, “has been assiduously engineered into a sclerotic dictatorship; its economy wholly dependent on its one indispensable industry which is by design almost solely monopolized by its big, lousy, non competitive state-controlled oil and gas companies, which are all run by spies or thugs or judo guys, and almost exclusively for the benefit of Vladimir Putin and his global aims.”
This is not the New World Order George H.W. Bush proclaimed when the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism crumbled. It is instead a brave new world of corruption and pollution, endangering both the winners and losers of the Cold War.
BLOWOUT: CORRUPTED DEMOCRACY, ROGUE STATE RUSSIA, AND THE RICHEST, MOST DESTRUCTIVE INDUSTRY ON EARTH
by Rachel Maddow
Crown, 432 pp., $30
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.