THE OIL GAME by James McGovern


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Anyone who wants to understand the oil business--and especially those aspects which most defy understanding, like the prices consumers pay and the profits Exxon and the other majors make--had better stick with John Blair's justly acclaimed The Control of Oil (1976). To the extent that this seems to offer a simpler account of the industry's structure and functioning in recent, chaotic years, it's a fizzle: poorly organized, spotty in doing out information, shaky in coming to any sort of conclusions. We're told in the first chapter, for instance, that the majors don't need their huge profits for exploration because ""independent wildcatters have done most of the discovering in the past""; in chapter two we're reminded that ""the biggest oil companies were using their profits to diversify into businesses that had nothing whatever to do with exploration or even energy""; in chapter three we hear about the companies' ""heavy diversification into energy sources other than oil and gas""; and chapter four, winding around again to the exploration-justification, concludes that ""there is not much oil left to be found""--by anybody. Whereupon we're informed, blandly, that ""the American people need the expertise of the majors, the big independents, and the wildcatters to find and supply whatever oil is left. . . ."" And the facts on such truly complex matters as the relationship between OPEC pricing, supply shortages, government policy, and company operations are even more difficult to disentangle. The book also sets itself up, however, as a Baedeker of the US oil business--with mixed, and indeed sometimes confusing, results. Still involved with the issues, we expect the ""improbable saga"" of the Hunts to tell us something significant, and it doesn't; nor does our subsequent brief encounter with Exxon board chairman Garvin--for the different reason that executive salaries, which then come up, are peripheral to ""the charge of profiteering."" But when the focus shifts away from headline issues into the role of such ""supporting players"" as the lobbyists and PR men, some interesting material does turn up. . . like the strategy of Mobil's celebrated flak Herbert Schmertz. Then, finally, McGovern takes on the world--with brief treatments of everything from the politics of Saudi Arabia to the geology of the Baltimore Canyon (both, of course, in relation to prospective oil supplies)--and one realizes that he's aiming, aimlessly, to be encyclopedic. It just doesn't hang together.

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 1981
Publisher: Viking