The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London

By James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello
Verso , November 30, 2011, $12.99

The corporate oil industry is unsustainable; it is damaging not simply to the environment, but across a range of political and social dimensions. The effects of the extraction, transport, trade and consumption of oil is well known in general, but often less easy to document in specific terms, given the secrecy with which oil companies and oil states generally try to shroud their activities.

A number of encounters with security personnel in The Oil Road bear out this problem, in the course of travels through the areas crossed by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

This region is the primary focus for the issues discussed by the authors of The Oil Road. As indicated by the subtitle, however, the journey is followed through to the real end of the road, and the account never loses sight of the imperialist system in which the BTC has been embedded from the start.

Burning oil will, of course, emit harmful greenhouse gases, but otherwise oil is not in itself necessarily the cause of such extensive layers of damage to those countries which hold it as a resource. Observations threaded through the narrative of this book show the primary importance of political and economic power relations in constructing the precise ways in which the oil industry contrives to make such a valuable, basic commodity into a source of violence, local environmental and social destruction, and, of course, war.

At a number of points in the authors’ travels across the landscape, observations are made about the changing climate of the region, and its destructive impact on local agriculture, laying the blame upon the liquid flowing through this pipeline which scars the countryside of three states. Although, of course, particular short-term trends in regional climates cannot be proven to be caused directly by greenhouse gas emissions, the general tendency is clear enough, so the bitter irony is well taken. Not only does the oil fail to bring much, or any, wealth to the populations of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, its very consumption brings economic decay. Nonetheless, the focus of the book remains largely on the social and political sphere, where the destructive consequences of oil production are not nearly so inevitable.

It would be quite easy, even safely conventional, for a book focused on oil and the oil industry to slip into a deterministic account where the necessary consequences of oil include dictatorial rule and vast inequality. This tragedy of oil is real enough, but it is not a necessity, as has been shown by the example of Venezuela, never mind absurd denunciations of Hugo Chavez as an authoritarian. Rather, the common grim history of oil nations has its origins in the decisions of the gigantic oil corporations, and of the Western states for whom oil and its corporations have been of strategic importance for well over a century.

The Oil Road offers several different perspectives on the pipeline, woven into a travelogue narrative starting from the source of the oil in the Azerbaijani fields in the Caspian, and working its way inland, across to Georgia, through Turkish Kurdistan to the Mediterranean coast, and finally through to the north Adriatic and into Germany.

The journalistic travelogue can be a superficial and irritating form, but Marriott and Minio-Paluello offer a skilful, informative and thoughtful example of the genre. At each stage the immediate environmental impact of oil is made vividly clear, whether in the description of the various architectural stages of Baku’s development, or in the scars produced by the pipelines across landscapes.

Alongside personal encounters with the people of these countries, are the recent political histories. In Azerbaijan’s case this is intimately tied up with the planning and building of the pipeline. The authors do not leave it at that, but add another dimension of the long history of Western corporate meddling with the affairs of oil nations in this region, going back to the nineteenth century. This historical depth gives a genuinely illuminating impression of the recurring patterns of oil imperialism. At points there is a further strand from the perspective of mostly London-centred activist critique and campaigning over the pipeline and the oil corporations, BP in particular.

Everyone will be very familiar with the argument that American policy towards Iraq, Iran, and consequently Israel, is dominated by its concern to control sources of oil, and that a more aggressive US policy in the Middle East was made possible after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The strategic importance of the BTC is less universally understood, but nonetheless is of considerable consequence. The overriding concern was to re-direct the oil route away from passage through Russia, and therefore Russian control, through a route that could be dominated by the West. This goes beyond interest in profits per se; the authors are revealing about the ways in which the relationship between an oil company like BP and networks of imperial power work, and how the wider strategic interest of the United States drives the expensive and difficult development of an oil pipeline like the BTC (p.100). Any defence a spokesman of BP might put forward against the arguments in this book would necessarily focus on the need to secure profits against competition, but the anti-Russian strategic purpose of the BTC pipeline make such a riposte implausible from the start.

The story thus begins with the process of establishing a sufficiently compliant post-Soviet regime in Azerbaijan. In the murky and unstable politics of this newly independent state, it was even possible for theSunday Times to suggest that the coup that brought Heydar Aliyev (a former Soviet era ruler) to power in 1993 was backed by BP (p.58, another Aliyev, a son, is presently in charge). The authors are dismissive of this particular allegation, but their discussion of the post-Soviet history of Azerbaijan demonstrates that a major corporation like BP, with the undiluted backing of its host government in the UK (p.57), is able to control the political situation without such forms of intervention. Indeed BP is said to be ‘so dominant that hardly any important government decision concerning oil’ is made without its ‘consent’ (p.67).

This sort of hegemony is not achieved by any simple weight of power or threat, but by the web of interests and forces, embedded in the whole history of oil exploitation and imperialism in the region. The authors’ awareness of the complexities, and simplicities, of oil history here is what makes their many-layered approach informative and nuanced, without pulling any punches on the various sins in which BP in particular is so heavily implicated. The oil company can both mould a country like Azerbaijan to suit its purposes, and plausibly stay out of the dirtier aspects of the Aliyev regime. Indeed, it would be possible to compile an extensive list of sins of omission and sins of commission perpetrated by the oil industry from the information and observations of The Oil Road. One of the more noxious omissions the authors point out in relation to Azerbaijan is the failure of the company to distance itself publically from the ‘anti-Armenian conspiracy theories’ peddled by the regime (p.77).

However an oil company needs to be active in establishing for itself what the authors usefully call a ‘social licence to operate’. Oil production and transportation is a complex and vulnerable affair compared to most commodities, and it requires the acceptance and protection of its host countries. This necessity makes it all the more clear how the operations of a gigantic corporation like BP cannot be held distinct from the troubles of a producer-state. Particularly illuminating in this context is the account of NGO operations in Azerbaijan, which the authors introduce as follows:

‘Baku is full of GoNGOs, CoNGOs and MaNGOs — local terms for the strange progeny of the growing Azeri civil society. A GoNGO is a government-supporting NGO, while a CoNGO is a computer with one person sitting behind it promoting their name but doing little else. A MaNGO, meanwhile is a mafia NGO, often established by relatives of those in authority, which is used primarily to launder cash’ (p.77).

This observation in itself does a good deal of work in explaining why oil wealth does not flow into the growth of the general social good. The mediation of NGOs also helps to show how oil corporations can both secure effective social hegemony and yet disclaim responsibility for the obvious brutalities of regimes like that of Aliyev and son.

The banalities of market-based justifications are quietly but consistently undermined and ultimately discredited by cumulative observations about the power relationships between BP and the states of Azerbaijan and Georgia in particular, or between the interests and forces of the pipeline and the people living near it. Economics is actually political, and the neo-liberal free market is a self-serving fiction peddled by those whose social power exists in the intersections of political economy. British Petroleum operates in what the author’s call a ‘Carbon Web’ linking government institutions, law and finance firms, a range of industries, and ‘cultural’ institutions from PR companies to museums, who benefit from sponsorships (pp.178-9). This international web is also capable of smothering any independent development within an oil state like Azerbaijan, with companies tied into the imperial complex being preferred to Azeri firms (p.89). Thus the oil drilled in the Caspian repays the giant corporation, its satellite companies and institutions, and imperial economies several times over, while the returns for Azerbaijan are funnelled through a corrupt comprador state.

The case of the neighbouring state of Georgia confirms this picture of a nexus of power relationships that enabled Western imperialism to enforce their preferred political settlements after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here the story of the eventual fall of Eduard Shevardnadze is instructive, since this Georgian leader certainly was amenable to the advance of Western interest. In fact he had helped the US government to convince BP to build the initial phase of the pipeline in 1995, yet even so, on balance, he had not ‘so carefully courted Western governments and companies’ as Aliyev had (p.142). Western imperialism is no monolith, and the lines of power exercised are by no means absolute, but these complications only serve to underline the reality of unequal and exploitative relationships between various agencies of Western capitalism and a strategically weak state.

The reality of the imperial relationship between the West and a country like Georgia or Azerbaijan is not revealed though any one incident, but in the long history which unveils the patterns of power. A final line of defence for the oil corporation would be that however unfortunate its dealings might be, it is driven by the necessity of consumer demand for oil. Yet, like the imperial relationship more broadly, the authors of The Oil Road show that the ‘consumer’ claim needs also to be put in historical context. It is in fact a myth that consumption leads production; the reverse is in fact the case.

Oil companies had to take active steps to create demand for the resources they were exploring in the Middle East, first in the late nineteenth century, and at many other points thereafter. Notably, the Marshall Plan after World War Two was ‘significantly biased towards increasing oil consumption’ (p.310). The deliberate expansion of the supply of oil meant creating infrastructure, and targeting particular economies, like that of West Germany, to absorb the supply (pp.274-5). This process is shown, once again, to be indivisibly political and economic. There is no pure market-driven process here, only the decisions made by corporations and governments to pursue certain strategies for the reproduction of capital.

The Oil Road does not conclude with the end of the BTC pipeline on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, but follows its transportation network into central Europe, where the social impact of oil infrastructure reveals itself still further, in parallel or different forms. Activism against oil corporations, and BP in particular, in which the authors have been fully involved, is also explored as a thread throughout the book, but increasing in prominence as the view comes closer to the imperialist centre. The authors do not attempt to deliver a specific strategy to confront BP’s particular ‘carbon web’, or the general problem of the oil corporations and imperialism. It would be unrealistic to expect this, but what this book does reveal very effectively is the workings of capitalist imperialism through an industry which is so central to the system.

The complexity of BP’s power web does provoke an important observation emphasising the vulnerability of the system: the oil road contains many fault lines and conflicts, and depends upon the continual reproduction of a complex network. Illustrating how such a network can be both enormously powerful and brittle at the same time, the authors’ make a not implausible analogy with the Roman Empire and its collapse (pp.293-5, for example).

Overcoming the environmental, social and political costs of the oil industry will not be solved by any moralistic appeal to individuals to consume less, but by confronting the social relations of production themselves. Only system change on the large scale can free people from the Caspian to the Atlantic, and further on, from the power represented by the oil road.


This review was originally published in Counterfire and is republished here with permission.