Commentary  Where there’s oil, there’s action

Crude is central to our civilization

I finished Sonia Shah’s Crude in a single sitting, and I was quite sincerely blown away.

Written with elegance and clarity, it is a survey of the life and times of oil that speaks to the concerns of “oilmen” (that nebulous class that includes business people, managers, geologists, engineers, financiers, contractors, et cetera), academics, historians, economists, and environmentalists. It remains accessible and entertaining for the layman who has a passing interest in the history and business of the life-blood of modern civilization.

Shah starts with a chapter on the formation of oil, writing with all the enthusiasm of a marine biologist. A hundred or so fascinating pages later, she ends with a look into the future from a perspective that is at once novel and appropriate, stating the fact that in the seven-billion years or so the Earth will exist, oil will be formed again and again, and someone else – our descendants, or some other, distant branch of the tree of life – will be faced with the same questions.

Reverent and cynical, Shah does not fall into the trap of being either a follower blind to the resource’s inevitable exhaustion nor a fanatic Greenpeace-type advocating a sudden abstinence from humanity’s single most vital asset. She instead strikes an admirably journalistic stance, presenting facts and figures with an understanding yet critical eye that does credit to her profession.

She does not gloss over the more appalling pronouncements of “oilmen” (for example, ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson calling renewables so-called renewables) or circumstances in which oil is produced (such as in Nigeria, where it involves oil company-sponsored armies and navies). At the same time, she takes a moment to reflect upon the term “production” (as if something was actually produced instead of simply recovered from the crust). She considers the nature of Nigerian oil: “the oil itself is just beautiful: light, sweet, low in sulfur, and hardly any polluting impurities” – using the same tones bright-eyed young entrants and knowing veterans of the field alike often use, mulling on oil as an old friend or an admired sweetheart.

Oil is a many-headed, omnipresent god, in fuel, in plastics, in fertilizers, in space, and under the sea, sometimes benevolent, often vengeful, moody, and stubborn, and again surprising in its bounty and – dare one say it – beauty. From the “unborn oil” of Colorado shale to the “dead oil” of Alberta’s tar sands, oil runs an entire spectrum of quality and availability, and companies and countries will go to enormous trouble for seemingly small amounts of it. It’s an industry of no-nonsense Texans and African dictators where the true figures are jealously hidden, and where oil is both weapon and prize for forces as disparate as rebels in Colombia and sheikdoms in Arabia. It faces challenges and will eventually need to be replaced entirely, an inevitability Shah does not overlook, weighing the relative merits of hydrogen, nuclear, and solar options in a manner that is concise yet anything but cursory.

All things considered, this book is one that, for once, deserves the cliché and abused sobriquet of “must-read.” Oil is beyond question the supreme bargaining chip of the international economy, a coveted prize, and closer to home, the backbone of Canadian credit and the strength of the loonie. It influences politics and governance, presents unique challenges in finance and management, employs some of the best minds in science and engineering, and has been the prime mover of socioeconomic change from Angola to Alberta to Abu Dhabi since, at least, the seventies. It is the ink in which our histories and destinies are scripted, so grab a copy of Crude from Schulich today because, as ExxonMobil’s Lee Raymond says, “You kinda have to go where the oil is.”

Manosij Majumdar is a U3 Chemical Engineering student. Tell him about your favourite reads at