books business current affairs energy

Books about oil

I’ve been reading a lot about the oil industry recently, and I will be posting what I’ve learned in the due course of time. Oil hit 100 dollars a barrel last week for the first time ever, and with the very real possibility of peak oil in the mix too, there’s no better time to be reading the history of oil.

So, here are a couple of books I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of weeks.

The Story of OilCrude: The story of oil‘ by Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah begins her history of oil with the ancient movements of tectonic plates, and ends it in a world without humans, the oil slowly accumulating again deep underground. It is a story on a grand scale, and Crude gives it the treatment it deserves.

Reading this book, I realised just how unique and amazing oil is. One gallon of oil has as much energy as ten kilos of wood, or a day’s work for fifty slaves. It is incredibly dense energy, and when it was first discovered, it was literally just bubbling out of the ground. It must have seemed almost miraculous. (And, in fact, the Zoroastrians did in fact worship the ‘eternal flames’ of Azerbaijani natural gas.)

Shah captures the magic of oil, the promise of cheap energy, and the consequences of its discovery. She covers the key innovations and the rise of the automobile, maps out how oil came to saturate every aspect of our culture and industry, and ends with the strained market for dwindling oil supplies. It’s a story of discovery, of intrigue and of outrageous greed, and although its a history book, it reads like an adventure and a tragedy.

Anatomy of Industry
Oil: A concise guide to the most important product on earth‘ by Matthew Yeomans

Matthew Yeomans has divided his guide to oil into topics. He starts with a brief and informative history, and then goes on to explore car culture, human rights, the stock trading of oil, and a number of other key issues.

Topics are well chosen, and well researched. The background on the Bush family and on the Iraq war, are very good. Less convincing is his optimistic championing of the hydrogen economy. The jury really is still out on whether or not hydrogen can ever really compare to the riches of cheap oil.

If you’re looking for the key facts on the most important questions – why oil companies have a bad human rights record, why we go to war for oil, why prices fluctuate in the global market – this is a great summary.

It would be unfair not to represent the other side – I found Shell’s official history A Century in Oil in a second hand shop, and it’s a great illustrated volume. Obviously, if you know anything about Shell you’ll understand how different their interpretation of some events might be, so this one’s strictly for a different perspective.

If you want to do some serious research, I would also recommend Daniel Yergin’s comprehensive The Prize, which is a useful reference. The oil world moves fast, and as this was published in 1993 it’s better on the historical aspects.

Finally, I haven’t read these yet, but Jeremy Leggett’s Half Gone, or The last oil shock by David Strahan will bring story more up to date.

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