The Viscous Prize

The Viscous Prize

Americans who question why their government has gone to war over oil should read Daniel Yergin`s fascinating history of the slippery substance. What he terms simply the "lifeblood of civilization" is responsible for the making and breaking of nations, the rise and fall of national economies, the winning and losing of wars — to touch on just a few hydrocarbon highlights.

Saddam Husseins bold gambit to control one-fourth of the world's oil reserves shattered more than just the post-Cold War euphoria. Demolished as well was the oil detente of the last half of the 1980s. For almost five halcyon years, the price of the world's most important commodity was just about right: not too high, as in much of the 1970s, nor too low as it was during the 1985-86 glut. The difficulties of either extreme are myriad. Low prices sent Americas domestic petroleum industry into a depression, made the nation ever more dependent on Middle East supplies and threatened the international financial order as overextended oil exporters like Mexico teetered on the brink of ruin.

When Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait last August 1990, it was clear that the United States had to react quickly or risk forfeiting its role as both a leading economic and political power. Yergin points out that a triumphant Hussein would be able to intimidate his oil-producing neighbors and bankroll an aggressive political agenda — perhaps even the renewal of war with Iran. As with Kuwait, Iran`s oil reserves and infrastructure are temptingly close to the Iraqi border.

The history of the viscous substance that sustains our civilization cannot easily be separated from history itself. Black crude had been oozing out of the good earth for millennia prior to 1859, when Edwin L. Drake inaugurated the Hydrocarbon Era by attaching a common hand pump to his 69-foot-deep oil well in Pennsylvania. In ancient Mesopotamia, which included what is now Baghdad, bitumen was used as mortar, caulk and even medicine almost 5,000 years ago. The handy substance bound the walls of Jericho. In Homer`s Iliad, the Trojans employed it to burn Greek ships.

But in 1859 humans learned how to coax the wondrous black genie out of the ground. At first, it gave us light and heat and later propelled our cars, factories and engines of mass destruction. Oil gave birth to the first multinational corporation, John D. Rockefellers domineering Standard Oil. It also launched America as a world power. By 1940 the United States was producing 63 percent of the worlds supply, and its surplus was crucial to England`s survival against Germany in 1940-41 as well as the eventual triumph of the allied forces in World War II.

But Americans were not only producing the most oil; they were using the most, too. From 1945 to 1950 the nation went on an oil-fueled bender. It hasn`t stopped yet. By 1948 the United States was importing more oil than it exported, and the center of the hydrocarbon universe would soon be the volatile Middle East. The prize, as Yergin so aptly terms oil, was slipping from U.S. control, as the next four decades of geopolitical wrangling would make increasingly clear.

Yergin`s thorough research and eminently readable prose makes plain that what we have experienced in our lifetime is nothing new. In 1905, an unsuccessful rebellion in Russia was the first time that politics interrupted the international oil trade. Joseph Stalin, a budding Bolshevik, helped shut down the Baku oil fields during that dress rehearsal for the 1917 Russian Revolution. (Hussein, interestingly enough, has cited Stalin as one of his role models.) Between 1918 and 1920, the price of oil jumped 50 percent and was far more costly to consumers than it was in 1986. In the 1940s (among other times) there was widespread fear that the world would soon run out of crude.

Yergin ends his book on an ironic note, given the present crisis: The miraculous substance that has built our civilization may ultimately be hazardous to our life-support systems. The next century may see warning labels on gasoline pumps: Gas May End Life as We Know It on This Planet.