________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 19 . . . . May 16, 2008


Oil. (Groundwood Guides).

James Laxer.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
144 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-816-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-815-6 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Petroleum industry and trade-Political aspects.
Petroleum industry and trade-Economic aspects.
Petroleum reserves-Political aspects.
Energy consumption-Environmental aspects.
World politics-21st century.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader's Edition.


In the early years of the twenty-first century, the world runs on petroleum. Take oil and natural gas out of the equation and transportation systems, home heating, agricultural and industrial production, and much of electric power generation would stall and grind to a halt. World oil production now totals about 75 million barrels a day (there are 35 gallons in a barrel.) With only 5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day, over a quarter of global consumption. Rounding out the top five oil-consuming countries are China (6.4 million barrels a day), Japan (5.8 million barrels), Russia (2.8 million barrels) and Germany (2.7 million barrels.)

Oil is the fuel used to provide 90 percent of the energy consumed to propel automobiles, trains, airplanes and ships. About 40 percent of the energy consumed in the United States is provided by petroleum, oil and natural gas. Meanwhile the US produces less than half the oil it consumes, leaving the world's most powerful country increasingly dependent on imported oil. As China and India rapidly industrialize, the global demand for oil is rising and is projected to continue to do so.


There is no question about it: the industrialized world is hooked on oil, a non-renewable energy resource, and the non-industrialized world is reluctant to avoid addiction. James Laxer's Oil, one of the latest in the "Groundwork Guides" series, provides a concise but thorough overview of the geo-political and economic circumstances which have led to a world dependent upon petroleum products, not just to fuel various means of transportation vehicles and to power industrial development, but also as a component of a host of manufactured products necessary to 21st century civilized life.

     So, how did the developed world become an "oil addict"? In a chapter on "the Hydrocarbon Age", Laxer explores the relative newness of petroleum as a significant commodity, as well as the swift establishment of American and international oil companies which came to control the industry, both in terms of production and price-setting. The role of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States), which played such a crucial role in the ups and downs of oil prices during the 1970's and 80's, is also explained. After World War II, the United States recognized petroleum as a strategic commodity, resulting in post-war foreign policy driven by the need to ensure the security of oil reserves in countries friendly to U. S. interests. Explained in terms of this need, the reason for political alliances and interventions in the Middle East become clear, especially as American domestic oil reserves have diminished drastically.

     Although oil and the Middle East have been synonymous for years, Laxer reminds the reader that significant reserves of petroleum exist elsewhere in the world: Russia is a significant supplier of petroleum to much of Europe (although the Russian pipeline system is in serious disrepair), and Laxer describes both the strategic role of Caspian Sea oil producers and the tactics used to show just who is in control of production and pricing. Canada is now "the largest single source of oil imported into the United States."(84) and the history of oil exploration in our country, as well as the ways in which foreign interest in the product (and foreign control of the industry) have shaped Canadian energy policies are concisely delineated. Mexico and Venezuela are the other two big producers in North America, with Venezuela being particularly successful in using oil wealth to pursue domestic social and economic objectives.

     In the concluding chapters of the book, Laxer returns to the real price of oil: not the price per barrel, (although the book is current enough to quote the November, 2007 price of $98 per barrel) but the price that is and will be paid in the future. "Two great issues loom over the future of the global petroleum industry. First there is the question of ‘peak oil'; second, there is the rising concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming." "Peak oil" is the estimate of the point at which the world's petroleum output has maxed out; it must be remembered that, even if petroleum reserves are available, costs of recovery and refinement must be met by the price obtained by the sale of the refined product. Regardless of how the estimate of peak oil is arrived at, the reality is that petroleum is a finite commodity which is running out. At the same time, the problem of climate change is an increasing challenge. How will world leaders - political, economic, military, and social – find solutions for these two problems? Laxer has no answers, but offers much to think about.

     Oil is one of the best of the "Groundwork Guides" – it presents a complex current issue and does so concisely, yet comprehensively. Teachers of senior high World Issues, Economics, and Geography classes will find it a source of current and readily accessible information, and school libraries should consider buying more than one copy for its circulation collection.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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