Thursday, October 12, 2006

Oil Conspiracies

I seem to be the last one in America to see any popular movie, so it’s awfully late to mention “Syriana”, last year’s oil conspiracy movie. However tardy, though, it certainly fits nicely with the recent spate of political cartoons implying that the timing of the recent fall in gasoline prices--so close to the November elections--is no accident. The Washington Post took on this subject recently, and they did a nice job, debunking a variety of skewed notions about how the energy industry functions. But when you watch a film like “Syriana”, you realize how deeply-embedded some of these ideas are, particularly with regard to Middle East oil in the post-9/11 world. I’ll bet there are a few energy executives who secretly wish that things really worked this way; their lives would be simpler and more exciting.

Human beings love conspiracy theories; it must be hard-wired into our brains, perhaps going back to some aspect of life on the savanna. Somehow, though, I didn’t inherit those genes; I got the skeptical ones, instead. I see the strongest argument against conspiracies in the incredibly rapid dissemination of secrets in our society. Of course, there are obvious exceptions to this, such as those exploited by Al Qaeda, which relies on the classic “cell” structure and often seems to “hide in plain sight”. But if you can’t keep something secret, you can’t pull off a conspiracy. And that’s the problem with most of the oil conspiracy theories: too many people would have to know about them, and would leak it out by phone, email, text, or carrier pigeon.

For those who haven’t seen it, “Syiana” is a tense, vivid thriller built around two conspiracies between oil companies and government officials: one involving the disposal of an inconvenient Middle Eastern prince, and a related cabal working to ensure the approval of a big oil company merger. Although Iraq never comes up, it’s hardly an accident that a story like this would show up during a war that many thought was motivated by “ blood for oil,” or making the world safe for oil companies. It’s a good movie, but as a critique of international energy business it falls flat, requiring nearly as much suspension of disbelief as the “Da Vinci Code.”

Ironically, the only documented oil conspiracy of recent years attracted relatively little attention and even less public outrage. High officials and shady businesses deliberately and systematically undermined the UN’s Iraq Oil for Food program, or looked the other way as more than a billion dollars in kickbacks and fraudulent transactions enriched Saddam’s regime, at the expense of providing food and medicine to poor Iraqis. If you want to read about a real conspiracy, rather than watch an imaginary one, check out the final report of the Volcker Commission.

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