The root of all evils? The fossil fuel industry, says Rachel Maddow

Jill Dougherty

The Washington Post – Fulminating comes easy to Rachel Maddow. What sets her apart from other serial fulminators is that she does it with facts – and sardonic wit.

Her new book, Blowout, takes on the fossil fuel industry or, as one person she cites puts it, the “excrement of the devil”. This is not – and who would expect it from Maddow? – an “on the one hand, on the other hand” type of journalistic endeavour.

She states her thesis at the outset: The oil and gas industry “is the most consequential, the most lucrative, the most powerful, and the least-well-governed major industry in the history of mankind.”

At its heart, this book is a tale of two countries, the United States (US) and Russia, and how, as Maddow sees it – individually and together – they have been warped by a rapacious fossil fuel industry. In her view, almost everything comes back, in the end, to the industry.

It’s the “key ingredient in the global chaos and democratic downturn we’re now living through,” she said. The industry is so rich, so “ginormous,” so intertwined with every aspect of our lives and the lives of everyone on Earth that, if you follow the dots, it explains how almost everything in the world works – ultimately, she warns, it will “fatally injure the whole freaking planet.”

The book’s title is a technical term for that horrifying moment when, if pressure in an oil or gas well builds and control systems fail, the fuel races back up to the rig and explodes in a fireball. Blowout reads like Maddow’s MSNBC monologues, piling outrage on top of outrage, peppered with breathless asides warning of Armageddon, “Hey, in the quest for American energy independence, maybe a few of us have to take one for the team – line up your pets, line up your eighth graders.” You can almost see that finger jab as she drives home the point.

Maddow’s tale ties together fracking in Oklahoma, Russian “sleeper” spies, the debauched son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, “earthquake swarms,” poisoned pets, the hacker Guccifer, Moammar Gaddafi’s death, a secessionist movement in Texas, but wait, there’s more! Fossil fuels are the world’s cheap high, an international addiction, Maddow argues, creating “such large, up-front, sweat-free gains for connected elites that no one wants to do anything else but chase the oil jackpot.”

One of her most outrageous examples is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, wayward son of Equatorial Guinea’s president-for-life Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Ensconced in a USD30 million mansion in Malibu, California, he owned houses around the world, a fleet of luxury cars and a massive yacht, and liked to treat his girlfriends to an afternoon of shopping, giving them USD80,000 in USD100 bills, forked over from a Nike shoe box stuffed with cash.

Oil, you see, had been discovered off the coast, and as a result, a Global Witness report showed, the tiny nation’s oil revenue soared from just USD2.1 million in 1993 to USD3.9 billion in 2007. Meanwhile, the report said, 77 per cent of the population lived in poverty.

In tracing the industry and its impact on our lives, Maddow begins at the beginning, in 1859, with the discovery of “rock oil” and, a few years later, John D Rockefeller’s founding of Standard Oil. She takes the story up to today’s inventions – hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling – that have revolutionised extraction and helped launch America on its road to “energy independence.”

An inseparable part of America’s fossil fuel history, Maddow points out, are the federal and state tax breaks for the industry, what she calls the “longest running welfare programme in the nation’s history.” This spawned a symbiotic relationship, as the fossil fuel industry began to feed on the body politic, eventually creating its own “corporate shadow foreign policy.”

The ultimate victims, Maddow says, continue to be average Americans across the country, in thrall to an industry that gives them jobs but threatens their health, even their lives, all the while undermining democracy.

Russia, without strong democratic institutions, comes off even worse, beset with “the Resource Curse” – abundant energy resources that create enormous cashflows but that crowd out more stable and diversified roads to economic development. The result: “poor governance and high corruption [that result in] devastating economic, health and environmental consequences at the local level, and high incidences of conflict and war.”

The culprit, as Maddow sees it, is President Vladimir Putin. Early in his presidency he targetted energy resources as the path to return Russia to its rightful place on the world stage after the ignominious demise of the Soviet Union.

That was a worthy goal, and during the George W Bush administration, when relations with America were more hopeful, Putin calculated that Russia could become an important energy supplier to the US.

It didn’t end up that way.

Maddow devotes a large section of Blowout to Russia, but it’s not what you might expect from an American writing about America’s nemesis. Yes, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Russian “illegals” – undercover intelligence agents living in the US as Americans, including Anna Chapman, “billed as a modern seductress worthy of Mata Hari.” And there’s Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil, who signed a strategic alliance deal between his company and the Russian energy giant Rosneft, and who went on to become President Trump’s secretary of state. And there’s Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft and a member of Putin’s inner circle, described with Maddow’s inimitable style: “When Sechin did smile, he looked like a fairy-tale ogre who had just swallowed a small tasty child.”

Her description of Carter Page, foreign policy adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, is a close second: “The wheels in Page’s head didn’t turn with a great deal of velocity, but they exhibited real stamina.”

Maddow’s sources include some of the best writers on contemporary Russia, including Masha Gessen, Mikhail Zygar, Karen Dawisha, Nina Khrushcheva and Anna Nemtsova.

There are a lot of bad guys in this book.

But there are a few good ones, too.

Like Austin Holland, head seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey, who, under great pressure from the industry and its supporters to stop his research, found that disposal of wastewater from fracking was, indeed, linked to an astounding increase in earthquakes in the state.

Eventually, he left his position and headed for New Mexico and a job with the US Geological Survey.

The real heroes, Maddow says, are the teachers, students and parents in Oklahoma, fed up with the fracking and the earthquakes – more than 100 measuring a magnitude of 3.0 or higher in the state in February 2016 alone – and the tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, even as spending per student plummeted by 24 per cent over eight years.

Thanks to their protests, the state legislature eventually raised taxes on the industry and put more controls on wastewater.

Maddow doesn’t think the fossil fuel industry is going away anytime soon, although she says it will eventually: “Coal is dead. As dead as whale oil and kerosene and every other fuel source we once believed we couldn’t live without. Oil and gas are dead, too – only they don’t look sick yet.”

The world, she said, must figure out how to get along without them.

And, although it seems hard to believe after more than 350 pages of horrors that the industry has inflicted on the environment and geopolitics around the world, Maddow claims that “this is a doable, winnable fight here at home.”

In Blowout just like in her MSNBC monologues, Maddow doesn’t shy away from hyperbole: “Democracy either wins this one or disappears.”

But we readers have to ask ourselves – is it really hyperbole?