Oil Dependence Reading List: How Did We Get Here?

I read a lot of books about oil. There have been masterful overviews of the industry such as Yergin's The Prize and Maugeri's The Age of Oil. There are also smart, user-friendly volumes such as Tertzakian's 1000 Barrels a Second and Margonelli's Oil on the Brain. And Hollywood has of course also produced its share of takes on the industry with films such as Syriana and There Will Be Blood.

Lately I've been digging into the history of the industry, and for those interested I recommend taking a look at a few relatively new additions to the field.

One of the fun reads is The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World's Oil Market by Leah McGrath Goodman, which is a history of the famous (and infamous) oil-futures marketplace, the NYMEX. This is a rollicking, fast-paced, decades-long tale of a marketplace that sprang out of -- no kidding -- a potato futures market. The pit where most trading took place is still active in New York City, but in just the past few years much of it has moved online, and is handled by computers able to rapidly process reams of data (note that this move hasn't yielded more stable prices in fact one could argue the opposite case). The reporter, who worked for many years as a Dow Jones reporter covering the market, has many solid relationships with the traders who built the NYMEX and this adds a lot of color to the narrative. When the instability of supply and relentless demand drives up price levels and volatility, many of these traders do very well indeed. And when that happens, the partying really kicks into high gear.

I have just started another book about the industry, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough. This is a big book (22 hours of reading as an unabridged audiobook), as befits its topic. As I have written, we have drilled a lot of wells in the U.S., with more than a half-million currently producing oil. Texas alone has about a million wells, dry and producing. This book is the story of the dramatic expansion of this industry over the course of the twentieth-century, through the rise in fortunes of four big oil men. So far the book has covered the rise of H.L. Hunt, and it is a story of persistent embrace of risk and eventual success (one of the characters who eventually strikes it very rich indeed is nicknamed "DH" for "Dry Hole" because of a particularly long run of failure at drilling). His is also a life of intrigue, as he takes care of two growing families a hundred miles apart, each of which is unaware of the other. It is an engrossing, wild series of tales about the rise of these industry giants.

The other book I finished a couple of weeks ago is Michael Klare's latest, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. One of his previous books (he's prolific, having penned 13 volumes so far), Blood and Oil, was one of the more enlightening reads for me, showing as it did how deeply rooted our oil addiction is in public policy decisions by past (and current) Presidents. This new book is also exhaustively researched and global in scope. Klare does an excellent job of laying out the tremendous challenges we face due to petro-politics pitting a limited number of large oil producers against a limited number of large oil consumers. I urge you heed his warnings about our energy future (click here for a lecture by him on the book). While I quibble with some of his prognoses vis-a-vis technological solutions to our predicament (I am not optimistic about hydrogen gas as a transportation energy carrier, for example), it is difficult to find a more astute and thorough diagnostician.

While these books aren't exactly light beach reading, they are useful, careful and intelligently crafted. And if you want to move beyond the stupid bumper stickers and (as someone in The Big Rich might have said) cow manure that muddle the crucial debate about our energy future, they are well-worth the effort.