The Tyranny of Oil

By Antonia Juhasz; NYC: William Morrow, 2008, 480 pp.

In responding to an attack on her book in the Washington Post, Antonia Juhasz explained, "My goal in writing The Tyranny of Oil was to offer an analysis that has been sorely missing in U.S. literature since the 1975 publication of Anthony Sampson’s classic book, The Seven Sisters: an unapologetically and vitally necessary in-depth and serious critique of the current state of the U.S. oil industry which also raises the voices of those not regularly heard on nightly news programs, television commercials, and in books."

Juhasz succeeded in that aim and then some. The Tyranny of Oil is a tightly-written overview of the rise of Big Oil, from its origins in the 19th century power grabs of John D. Rockefeller and his ilk to the rise of the petroleum mega-corporations. Clearly, the world of oil conglomerates has always been fairly brutal. An early chapter quotes Rockefeller saying, "The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets." But Juhasz shows that the Bush regime, packed to the gills with oil industry vets, took the big oil/military industrial complex linkage to a new level. She quotes Kevin Phillips, who describes Bush’s "petrol-imperialism" facilitating "the U.S. military’s transformation into a global oil protection force."

The book begins with a section on pioneering investigative journalist Ida Tarbell and her early 20th century crusade against Standard Oil. Tarbell’s exposé fueled public anger at Standard trust and helped pave the way for legislation which broke up Standard Oil in 1911. Though the separate components of the trust were later reconstituted, Juhasz presents the successful grass-roots campaign Tarbell helped spark as an instructive example for today’s activists.

The oil giants, by far the most profitable corporations that have ever existed, spend huge amounts on PR greenwashing. Yet Juhasz’s research shows that most spend a pitiful 1 to 4 percent of total capital expenditures on green energy alternatives. In addition to uncovering and sifting through oil company data, Juhasz did her best to interview Big Oil operatives. Though repeatedly denied access to most such officials, she did speak to John Felmy, chief economist for the leading oil industry trade association. Felmy conceded that among "emerging energy technologies" are investments in "frontier hydrocarbons" like tar sands and oil shale, which Juhasz describes as "methods of oil extraction that are even more environmentally harmful and risky than traditional methods."

Further, Big Oil has greatly expanded ocean drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. Such deep sea drilling releases methane, at least 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Passively hoping that these companies will help us wean ourselves off our oil addiction as they put up billboards of earnest looking types saying things like "I will consume less" is not exactly a brilliant strategy. Juhasz is also well aware of the dangers of hoping Democrats will do the hard work of shifting the developed world away from petroleum-based economies. But she has a nuanced view of what is possible through citizen action and stresses the need to keep pressure on Congress and the Obama administration.

While she doesn’t fetishize street protest as the only worthy activist tool in the proverbial took kit, much of Juhasz’s focus remains on grassroots social justice and anti-war actions which take on Big Oil.

Since Juhasz resides in San Francisco, it makes sense that a major target of her research is the San Ramon-based Chevron Corp. This oil giant reaped $18.7 billion in profit in 2007. It is also a key player in Western corporate interests to profit from Iraq’s oil supply. Chevron was one of the first recipients of marketing contracts after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and is now marketing significant quantities of Iraqi oil.

Chevron would profit massively through passage of an Iraq Oil Law still being pushed by the U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund. The law, a draft of which was provided to international oil company executives and the IMF for review before it was seen by Iraqi parliamentarians, would privatize Iraq’s oil industry, leaving at least two-thirds of Iraq’s oil open to foreign-company control under contracts lasting for more than a decade.

I asked Juhasz about her ongoing campaign against Chevron. She emailed me: "For the last several months, I’ve been working with an unprecedented group of communities, activists, and organizations concerned about Chevron from across the Bay Area, the nation, and around the world. While Chevron’s 2008 Annual Report to its shareholders is a glossy celebration heralding the company’s most profitable year in its history, it does not tell its shareholders the true cost paid for those financial returns: the lives lost, wars fought, communities destroyed, environments decimated, livelihoods ruined, and political voices silenced. Thus we prepared an Alternative Annual Report for Chevron entitled ‘The True Cost of Chevron.’" Juhasz and others delivered the report to Chevron and its shareholders at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in San Ramon on May 27, while several hundred people staged a protest at the company’s corporate gates.


Ben Terrall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared in In These Times, Counterpunch, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay View Newspaper, the Progressive, and other publications.