The Age Of Oil

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power was first published 27 years ago, although Daniel Yergin added an Epilogue in 2008. It is nothing less than an economic and political history of crude oil. At 910 pages of text and footnotes it’s an epic read, but you can select sections of interest and jump around, leaving and returning to it later. The very beginnings of the U.S. oil business were about producing kerosene from “rock oil” to replace whale oil or turpentine used for light. Its illuminative qualities were deemed far superior to the alternatives and production took off in the early 1860s. The Civil War boosted demand and the oil business had begun. John D. Rockefeller became the richest man in America by selling kerosene.

During the early 1900s the internal combustion engine created a new market for gasoline, promoting oil in importance over coal as a source of primary energy and leading Daniel Yergin to dub the 20th Century “The Age of Oil”.

The 1973 Oil Shock is a distant memory for those of us old enough to have any first-hand recollection. It’s therefore quite sobering to re-familiarize oneself with its history as recounted by Yergin in 1990 when its ramifications remained fresh. Iconic photos of cars lined up outside gas stations were a vivid reminder of modern society’s dependence on oil; they also exposed the western world’s sudden vulnerability to an adverse clash of politics and economics in a volatile region.

Reading about events some 44 years later, the ability of Arab oil producers to turn a spigot so as to influence U.S. policy decisions was outrageous, an affront. The history of how OPEC came to wield such power is well recounted by Yergin. From 1948-72, 70% of newly discovered proved oil reserves were located in the Middle East. This concentration of oil resources combined with western governments’ inattention to their increasing reliance on monarchs with whom their interests were not aligned created the conditions under which the Arab Oil Embargo was so effective.

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