How does oil make its way from the bowels of the earth to carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere and plastic waste in the sea?
This is the journey that James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello take us on in their new book, The Oil Road.
They travel from Baku on the Caspian coast of Azerbaijan along the BTC pipeline through Georgia and Turkey.
They then head to the supertanker ports and refineries of central Europe. And finally they arrive at the corporate headquarters of the City of London.
Each stage on their journey illuminates the messy history of oil routes. The book also highlights the authors’ own investigations as longstanding activists for Platform, the oil NGO.
It also features the work of their colleague Greg Muttitt, whose recent book Fuel On The Fire shone a light on the tortuous progress of Iraq’s oil law.
James and Mika’s journey takes in everything from Baku’s boomtown period, where the man who would become Stalin agitated among oil workers, to the Adriatic port where Italian fascism took its first steps.
They meet villagers and fishers whose livelihoods have been torn asunder by pipelines and supertankers. And they meet democracy activists who accuse oil companies of collusion with corrupt, repressive governments.
It’s a glimpse of the reality behind the security fences and corporate greenwash.
The lion’s share of the book is given over to the BTC pipeline in the Caucasus, built in the turmoil that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. Its route was dictated by British and American politicians, keen to weave through the gap between Russia and Iran. The operation is dominated by BP and the unpopular governments it works with.
At times this story struggles to get through the book’s travelogue format, leaving the reader as frustrated as James and Mika in their meetings with the oil industry’s PR warriors. And their musings on the broader economy don’t quite add up to an analysis.
But as a series of snapshots The Oil Road is a fascinating opportunity to see the filthy entrails of the world economy up close and personal.
The Oil Road by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello is published by Verso, £16.99