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Subterranean Estates

Life Worlds of Oil and Gas


Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts

Cornell University Press
Ithaca and London

To view this text, please see the printed book.




Part I. Oil as a Way of Life

1. Oil for Life

2. Velocity and Viscosity

3. Deep Oil and Deep Culture in the Russian Urals

4. Oil, Masculinity, and Violence

Part II. The Oil Archive, Expertise, and Strategic Knowledges

5. The Oil Archives

6. Securing the Natural Gas Boom

7. Crude Contamination

8. The Image World of Middle Eastern Oil

Photo Essay

Specters of Oil

Part III. Oil Markets

9. Near Futures and Perfect Hedges in the Gulf of Mexico

10. Securing Oil

11. Oil Assemblages and the Production of Confusion

Part IV. Hard and Soft Infrastructures

12. Offshore Work

13. Black Oil Business

14. The Political Economy of Oil Privatization in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Part V. Oil Futures and Oil Transitions

15. Carbon, Convertibility, and the Technopolitics of Oil

16. Events Collectives

17. Reserves, Secrecy, and the Science of Oil Prognostication in Southern Arabia

18. Vicious Transparency




Like much that passes as research in academia, this book was a collective and, most important, a cross-generational and multidisciplinary endeavor. It took shape on the Berkeley and Stanford campuses. One of us (Hannah) was completing a dissertation in anthropology on the modular nature of the oil business in Equatorial Guinea. Another (Arthur) was a postdoctoral fellow on the Berkeley campus extending earlier work on the cultural economy of natural gas in Alaska-western Canada into the Norwegian-Russian Arctic. And the third member of the posse (Michael) was in the fourth decade of teaching on campus and pursuing his research on political violence in the oil fields of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. What we shared was a profound sense that the academic boomlet in oil studies—in part a reflection of the global climate change debate, the effects of September 11th, and renewed concern with peak oil and the geopolitics of the end of easy oil—was frustratingly standard and normalized: the resource curse, the petro-state, post–Cold War geopolitics, oil wars, manufactured scarcity, transparency, restructuring, accountability in the industry, and so on.

All of this bled directly into the policy world—one thinks of the influential work of Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, and Paul Collier, for example—producing standardized accounts of what needed to be done. What was striking were the silences (why was the agency of the oil and oil service companies so absent in analyses of oil violence?) and the extent to which oil (not gas) was invested with Olympian powers (causing corruption, promoting civil war, and so on). We started from another position, one articulated by Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy—namely, that forms of political, economic, and social relations are in fact engineered out of the flows of energy, that energy helps organize politics, and that the oil and gas world (to use the language of one of our contributors, Andrew Barry) manufactures a vast archive of knowledge produced and fought over by multiple and complex actors and agents.

These concerns came together geographically and intellectually with the generosity of the Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowship program that brought Arthur and Hannah to the Berkeley campus. But not before the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University—to which Hannah was attached—funded the Oil Talk Workshop in New York City in April 2013 that brought together most (but not all) of the contributors in this book. Robin Stephenson, Laura Morrison, and Sasha de Vogel were outstanding in helping to organize that event at Columbia. The discussions at the workshop were exhilarating in many ways and we hope that the chapters gathered here speak to both the intellectual energy and the complex intersections, complementarities, and tensions across a multiplicity of regions, disciplines, and aspects of what is arguably one of the most global—and one of the most technologically complex—of industries. The conceit of the workshop, maintained in the book, was to take the material and physical aspects of the industry very seriously (FPSOs [floating, production, storage, and offloading vessels], pipelines, public hearings, fracking) but also to shed light on them in a way that does justice to the contested nature of the operations—symbolic, political, cultural, scientific, public—of the oil and gas sector around the globe. The Institute of International Studies at Berkeley generously provided some support for the Oil Talk Project as did the Class of 63 Professorship at the university. We are collectively indebted to our sponsors. In the last phases of the project Katie Thomas-Canfield and Felicia Lui provided invaluable editorial assistance. Finally, Ed Kashi generously provided some of his extraordinary images of the petro-assemblage drawn from around the world.

In the process of writing the book we received two generous extended commentaries by reviewers for which we are grateful even if we have not responded to all of their suggestions. In addition, we have benefitted hugely from the sage counsel of Roger Haydon at Cornell University Press. It is a better and more rigorous book as a result of our taking heed of his critical commentary. And not least we are especially grateful to Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater for his image Evolution of Man, which graces the cover. Mr. Mater’s gallerist, Jumana Ghouth, kindly assisted.

When we began this project we were three; at its conclusion Hannah had brought, with her partner, a new life into the world. We dedicate this volume to him, Thelonious Ruff AppelCrosby. May he grow up in a world where different relationships to hydrocarbons are possible.


Oil Talk

Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.

—W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

According to Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize, the great Whig history of the oil industry, the shale gas revolution resembles the arrival of Walmart in town. So far this century, this is the biggest innovation in energy, in terms of scale and impact, Yergin says.¹ It is also the most environmentally controversial. In Yergin’s bullish account, fracking has triggered a veritable convulsion of creative destruction capable of finally breaking America’s slavish dependence on the Middle East, jump-starting an economy laid low by the financial crisis of 2009, and offering a clean bridging fuel to a low-carbon economy (see Yergin 2012).

Hydraulic fracking is, on the account of McKinsey & Company, likely to turn America into the world’s largest oil and gas producer (eclipsing Russia and Saudi Arabia), adding close to a trillion dollars to the economy by 2020 and creating 1.7 million jobs, a figure in excess of the automobile industry. A technology developed in the late 1940s known as well stimulation and subsequently patented by Halliburton in 1959, fracking was helped along by the Department of Energy in the 1970s. Since its formative days, fracking has been refined and repurposed largely under the dogged commercial drive of George Mitchell, one of the great Texas gas barons. In 1997, Mitchell Energy confirmed that mixtures of sand, water, and chemicals (rather than foams and gels) inserted into one of its shale gas wells in the Barnett Shale formation could open up the subsurface shale frontier. Since then fracking has proved to be financially viable to release the light, sulfur-free tight oil and gas in the vast and complex shale formations like the Bakken in the U.S. West—a play that might hold over five hundred billion barrels of oil equivalent. The first horizontal wells were spudded (initially drilled) in the Bakken in 1987 but it was not until 2000 that the first hydraulic fractures were initiated. These early efforts were dubbed Hail Mary Fracks because engineers would drill, pump, and pray. With greater precision now, and through enhanced matching of the hydraulic materials to the specifics of the formation, wells are fracked in stages; there are typically at least eighteen different cycles in each fracking operation that require changes in the composition of fluids and chemicals. As drilling companies fill out their leases, it will take two decades, according to industry estimates, to develop the forty thousand wells required to exploit the thermally mature part of the Bakken (an area about the size of West Virginia).

The shale revolution, in short, is a boom story, and as such has a deep resonance across the history—barely a century old it needs to be said—of the modern oil and gas industry. The director of North Dakota Oil and Gas Research, Brent Brannan, saw no better metaphor for the boom than the landmen—whose job it is to dig through courthouse records to acquire the leases from the often tangled mineral title and surface rights—leaving their briefcases on the steps of the Stanley, North Dakota, courthouse at 6:00 a.m. in frigid conditions to claim their spot when the courthouse opened at 7:30 a.m. (Brown 2013). According to the Economist (2013), America’s current shale-energy boom has plenty in common with the California gold rush: It has created a gusher of wealth in remote places…it has lured young men to wild frontier towns such as Williston, North Dakota. North Dakota now accounts for 11% of U.S. oil production. But the Economist might as well have invoked Caspar, Wyoming, or Sidney, Montana. Bakken is a booming economy, a land rush, a frontier, and a capitalist spectacle all at once. Flared gas from the Williston Basin is the main reason that the United States has jumped from fifteenth to fifth (behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran, and Iraq) on the list of gas-flaring states. It’s Kuwait on the prairies.

Unlike the gold rush, the shale boom and fracking demands capital—lots of it—and high-tech expertise: the likes of Statoil, Schlumberger, Talisman, and Encana are its avatars. Frack pads, mobile drilling rigs, seismic sensors, and horizontal drilling four miles below the surface are all put to the service of shooting thousands of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals (most of which are not on the public record) into the shale formations to create hairline fractures in the oil and gas bearing rocks. An entire economy has sprung up around it—typically chaotic and unplanned—to support the landmen, the frackers, the drillers, road and school construction, temporary housing, hotels, and bars.

Like all boom stories the real picture is complex and contradictory. Here is New York Times reporter Chip Brown describing the impact on the small communities of western North Dakota:

It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in [these] communities…. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime…. Oil has financed multi-million dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings…. It has forced McDonalds to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country—truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. (Brown 2013)

Naturally, it has spawned a reality TV show, Boomtown Sisters. The boom is always pregnant with the threat of the bust, however. North Dakota’s last oil boom thirty years ago collapsed with the sharp downturn in prices; workers fled the oil towns so quickly they left coffee in their cups in their trailers. This time, local opinion has it, will be different: no Dutch disease or Gillette Syndrome, no resource curse or devil’s excrement.² This is our time, says a local North Dakota professor. It’s our gold rush, or Silicon Valley. It reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death (Brown 2013).

It is instructive to think about the shale revolution in light of another turning point or defining moment in the recent history of North American oil and gas, also with a deep historical resonance. During the late evening of April 20, 2010, mud and water shot up and out of the derrick of BP’s drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, located in deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico, which was finalizing the completion of its Macondo well. Shortly afterward it was followed by a massive explosion, instantly converting the rig into a raging inferno. Located almost fifty miles off the coast of southern Louisiana in very deep water, Deepwater Horizon sank two days later onto the ocean floor, resting one mile below the sea’s surface. As the rig sank, it ruptured the risers (the marine drilling riser connects the floating rig to the subsea wellhead) and a mixture of oil and gas, under extreme pressure, was released into the warm and rich waters of the Gulf. The blowout preventer had failed to function.

The Macondo well—ironically named after Gabriel García Márquez’s famous fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude—was drilled from a semisubmersible mobile rig owned by Transocean, while BP as the field operator (as is often the case in the Gulf) shared the field with Anadarko Petroleum and Mitsui Oil Exploration. The well was successful in locating a major reservoir, and at the conclusion of the drilling operation the well casing was to be installed and the field sealed with a cement plug that would later be opened from a production platform. In all phases of the process the well proved to be difficult to manage and control, while considerable pressures were placed on the rig to finish up an expensive and frustrating project. All was not be. The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon produced a calamity comparable to the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which released almost eleven million gallons (roughly 275,000 barrels) of heavy crude oil and laid waste to thirteen hundred miles of Alaska coastline and covered eleven thousand square miles of ocean. By mid-May 2010, the Deepwater discharge was hemorrhaging at a rate of over two hundred thousand gallons per day; surface oil covered 3,850 square miles. When it was all over almost five million barrels had been released and 35% of the U.S. Gulf Coast was affected. It took eighty-seven days to bring the well under control. The disaster happened on the same day that BP executives visited the rig to congratulate management on a job well done. It was coincidentally the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

There is much to be said about these two revolutionary moments on the prairies and in the Gulf of Mexico. Each is of course constituted and explained through a complex mix of metonyms, figures of speech standing in for the thing itself. Oil as wealth, gas as environmental catastrophe, the lexicon of boom and doom, descriptions of particular pathological or emancipatory conditions (the resource curse or windfall gains), oil exploration as technological hubris: each exposes certain aspects of the oil and gas complex that are relatively invisible to the armies of American consumers. The Bakken and Deepwater Horizon exposed the inner workings—the infrastructural guts—of an industry largely invisible to the American public (the refrain of the industry is properly that nobody understands what it takes to get oil to the gas station, a condition that insiders have themselves facilitated), and largely invisible to the naked eye for those who are curious about the energy of modernity (big pieces of machinery located on the seabed or fluids sloshing around four thousand feet under the earth’s surface). Each is a sort of spectacle—they draw us into the image world or, as Debord (1967) puts it, into a state in which being declines into having, and having into merely appearing. The oil spectacle in this sense is not just a collection of images but rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images (1967, thesis 4). One thinks of the bombardment of images—from slicked pelicans to anxious chief executive officers to the endless replaying of oil disgorged from broken blowout preventers to televisual and documentary representations such as the Boomtown Girls reality TV show and Gasland. The image world is central to the very ways in which these two key moments in the global oil and gas value chain, to say nothing of oil as a very specific sort of mass commodity, are presented and represented within the capitalist order. Both the Bakken boom and the Deepwater disaster are, in quite different ways, moments of crisis, and like all crises they exposes the inner workings—the normalized and often invisible everyday functionings—of the systems of which they are an expression (on Deepwater and crisis management, see Bond 2013). In their extremity they are limit cases of the everyday; they also demand that a world that has been exposed or upended be put back together, that is to say, renormalized.

Our task in Subterranean Estates is to dig deeper into the metonyms of oil and gas—into oil talk delivered in quite differing registers—and to open up the invisibilities and occlusions that crises or periods of upheaval like Deepwater and the shale boom reveal. Necessarily our brief will take us far from Williston and Louisiana to other parts of the globe—as befits a global industry—but it will not take us away from the infrastructure, the engineers, the landmen, the media circus, the cultures of expertise, the consultants and the regulators, the petro-politicians and the spin doctors that constitute the oil and gas talk in North Dakota or around the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Intellectual Vertigo

By most estimations the global oil and gas industry is valued at several trillions of dollars. The market capitalization of the twenty largest oil and gas companies amounts to over $2 trillion, larger than the technology and consumer goods sectors, and comparable to financials (PWC 2013); it is at least five times larger than the global pharmaceutical market. These sorts of calculations immediately pose the rather tricky question of what sorts of activities should plausibly be subsumed within an entity called the global oil and gas industry. The scale and reach of the sector is in fact almost impossible to fully grasp in part because of the difficulty of deciding on its circumference and limits—should calculations include the petrochemical industry for the provision of fracking chemicals, for example?—but also because of the extreme volatility of oil and gas prices (and hence problems of valuation), and the surprising degree to which the basic numbers on output and reserves don’t add up.

However the lines around the sector are drawn, the incontestable fact is that the industry embraces a massive, sprawling, high-tech engineering and financial infrastructure, presided over by some of the largest corporate and state-owned enterprises in the world, standing at the heart of contemporary hydrocarbon capitalism. Rigs, semisubmersibles, risers, blowout preventers, condensates, shut-in wells, FPSOs, peak-shaving facilities, jack-up rigs, Brent marker prices, gas flares, the oil futures market, the New York Mercantile Exchange, the Keystone XL pipeline, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the oil consultants and the industry’s organic intellectuals and celebrities, the armies of petroleum lawyers, the legacy cases and massive compensation suits, the oil lobby and its minions, and the prosaic world of gas stations: all of this and more constitutes the seemingly unfathomable universe of Big Oil. It is the world conjured up by Pablo Neruda—the subterranean estates, the engineers and title deeds, paraffin foliage and smiling assassins—in his Canto General poem, Standard Oil Co (Neruda 1991). To enter into this world as a scholar, or indeed as a layperson, is an unsettling and, in some respects, a deeply confusing experience. Immersion in the world of oil and gas tends to produce a profound sense of intellectual vertigo.

It should be no surprise that in an industry typified by concentrated economic and political power—whether a privately owned international oil company like ExxonMobil or a state-owned behemoth like PetroChina—secrecy, security, guardedness, corporate ventriloquism, and defensiveness are the hallmarks of the industry’s operations. But the intellectual vertigo is not solely attributable to the culture of smoke and mirrors in a highly securitized industry. It is also shaped by the degree to which, in a world thick with technical expertise and scientific sophistication, there is a startling degree of inexactitude, fundamental empirical disagreement, and lack of confidence in basic data. Why, for example, are the mundane and foundational questions of quantity, output, and price seemingly so vague, opaque, and elastic? This epistemological murkiness is on display when one poses the most basic questions of how much oil there actually is, and how much enters the world market.

The world of oil is saturated with declensionist language and dark futurity: Can we find enough? How long will it last? How quickly is it running out? What price can we afford at the pump? In the popular imagination, and in the way that the industry often presents itself to us, the Three Stooges’ line oil’s well that ends well (uttered by Joe sitting atop a gushing oil well after a bungled effort to find uranium) seems to possess little cachet. A deepening anxiety over the imminent arrivals, passings, and forgettings of Hubbert’s Peak continually shifts the pendulum of concern over peak oil from the margins of the energy debate to its dead center. And yet, for every Malthusian credo of a King Hubbert there is a prominent doubter, whether MIT economist Morris Adelman or industry savant Daniel Yergin, for whom oil is inexhaustible.³ Disparity in the quantitative estimates of oil—primary and secondary proven reserves—and the unfathomable variance in official oil projections are striking. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, for instance, publishes twelve unique scenarios resulting in peak world crude oil production emerging between 2021 and 2112. The questionable practices of estimating proven reserves—so-called booked reserves—has been thrown into sharp relief on numerous occasions, most prominently in 2005 by Royal Dutch Shell’s admission that it cooked its numbers (in this case overestimating the reserves) in Nigeria and Australia as a way of capturing tax breaks (see Mitchell 2004).⁴

Turning to basic oil output data, the quotas of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are regularly exceeded by margins that are assumed to be large but difficult to estimate. OPEC members publish output data in delayed time frames, thereby maintaining confusion between actual output and quotas, while operators and consultants track tankers in a game of hide and seek. In theory all oil production is metered and registered; indeed, in principle, through chemical fingerprinting one can trace any barrel of oil to its wellhead. Yet vast quantities of unmetered oil enter the global market every year (there is talk in the business of an international oil mafia in a shipping industry that, it should be said, is distinguished by its extraordinary lack of accountability and transparency). After fifty years of oil production in Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil exporter, the head of the Central Bank recently asked the Nigerian Senate how they knew the exact quantity of oil produced when the metering system is nonexistent. Within the industry there is an assumption that perhaps 10% or more of U.S. imports might be stolen—obtained outside of legal proprietary rights. The oil industry’s shadow kingdom—mafias, militias, illicit traders and refiners, speculators and swap dealers—is a phenomenon in and of itself. In short, there is a sort of public secret in the industry that any exactitude about the basic sorts of numbers should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. And yet a language of decorum permeates official discourse: one consultant delicately referred to this epistemological murk as a lack of transparent data (Moors 2011, 43).

What is true for quantity—that is to say, what exactly oil’s finite qualities actually refer to—is equally true for price and for the operations of the oil market. Indeed, the very idea of an oil market, global or otherwise, opens up a world of make-believe. A market that has been historically dominated by a transnational corporate oligopoly (the Seven Sisters), a Third World cartel (OPEC), a First World consumer lobby (the International Energy Agency), and long-term contracts is not so much an example of rational irrationality—rational self-interest leading to socially irrational outcomes—as antimarket madness. The actual dynamics of price determination are utterly confusing, mind-boggling in their illogic and unpredictability, as Jane Guyer (this volume) shows. Industry consultants, tasked with rendering this illogic somehow transparent and actionable, acknowledge the vertigo; our collective experience in studying quite different aspects of the industry is that the company consigliere convert this illogic into risk and probability algorithms. Longtime consultant Kent Moors writes (2011, 43) that oil does not respond as most other goods do to market factors…. To date there has yet to emerge a consistent theory…fully explaining how oil prices operate. Arguably the oil market remains the most powerful exemplar of how relations between supply and demand cease to operate in any predictable fashion and are not related in any determinate way to price (Mitchell 2010). There is no discipline in the social sciences, says Oystein Noreng in his encomium to the industry, Crude Power, that has been successful in analyzing the energy markets (2006, 8).

In the oil market, ignorance and confusion take on organizing potential. The lexicon of evolution, progress, or navigation does not hold; what we get instead is threshold, crisis, potential (P. Collier 2007). Geopolitical leaders and industry experts follow suit with exaggerated rhetoric connected to strange predictions that figure strongly in price fluctuation. Volatility—in price, supply, and beyond—comes into its own in those places where the normal and calculated course of energy events is interrupted: what occurs instead is an opening for productive discursive play. Events are isolated, unique, and excluded from the real duration of market trends. Events become structured through chance and contingency, providing an opening for the intrusion of seemingly nonhuman forces—economic collapse, war, insurgency, weather, low storage, decline in production, error. In any neoclassical, let alone neoliberal, economic model, the greater the supply the lower the price, yet in the oil sector the very opposite seems to hold (and this is not fully attributable to inelastic demand). In 2004, for instance, the serial phenomenon of global supply exceeding demand recurred. The industry organ Oil Market Intelligence concluded that the traditional market signposts were of little use in explaining a contradiction that pointed to the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the upward oil price ‘shock’ (2004, 16). Four years later, in the run up to $147 a barrel in 2008, Lehman Brothers—yes, Lehman Brothers!—concluded it was an asset bubble, an instance of petromania (O’Sullivan 2009), what they cleverly called Oil dotcom. Standing at the center of neoliberal capitalism, in other words, is a commodity and a market for which the terms market rationality or market fundamentals—let alone a neoliberal or free market—seem utterly irrelevant to the operations of what passes as the oil and gas global value chain.

This radical incalculability and epistemic murk butt against the quotidian truth that, for the better part of a century, petroleum has been the energy source of industrial capitalism—the fuel of our high-energy economy and biopolitically constitutive of our carbon democracy. Equivalent power commanded by today’s affluent Euro-American household—without the convenience, versatility, flexibility, and reliability of delivered energy services—would have been available "only to a Roman latifundia owner of 6000 slaves, or to a nineteenth-century landlord employing 3000 workers and 400 big draft horses" (Smil 2001, 48). The juxtaposition of oil’s centrality in contemporary life with its resistance to calculability or any effective means of account or inventory, speaks powerfully to the conundrums and contradictions of one of the largest and most important industrial complexes on the face of the earth. Each of us—but we suspect many others too—sense this intellectual vertigo on entering into the world of Big (or small) Oil.

We begin with this juxtaposition to introduce Subterranean Estates as a volume that explores the ground in between intellectual vertigo, on the one hand, and oil’s cynosural politics—its inescapable presence—on the other. By what histories, physics, and affective powers can oil be in some profound respects unintelligible and yet the explanation for everything? A universal, determinative set of causal powers while also a seemingly irrational, incalculable, and occluded set of practices?

Oil as Metonym

We want to understand these contradictory qualities of oil and gas by starting with representational practices. That is to say, the conundrum of oil’s vertigo is in part an affective product of social science, journalism, policy, and corporate self-representation, which have worked to stabilize oil’s unruly referent, to collapse its densities and contradictions into mere metonym. It is perhaps a testament to oil’s demiurgic power that social science has almost always approached it as a metonym—oil as modernity, oil as money, oil as geopolitics, oil as violence, oil as ur-commodity, the mother of all commodities that enables all other commodities. In its metonymic register, social science conveys a great deal of certainty and causality—oil becomes a global commodity whose capabilities to determine social, economic, and political life often assume Olympian proportions. The social sciences—political science and economics in particular—and the popular press have long vested oil with enormous, often magical, powers: it is construed as a curse, the devil’s excrement, the source of the Dutch disease, the Grim Reaper wrecking havoc everywhere. As we write a story appeared in the New York Times taking the reader to the modern-day Wild West of Sidney, Montana, rich in oil, signing bonuses, and easy money yet awash in a proverbial tidal wave of criminality, assault, and theft (Healey 2013). Each of these tropes is nested in larger discursive fields, from the mainstream media to popular culture to policy. Here, we explore four of these approaches before outlining the ways we depart from them.

The first locates developmental pathologies—authoritarianism, corruption, violence, misallocation of money—solely in oil-producing states. Michael Ross’s recent book, The Oil Curse (2012), for example, is an archetypical dystopian account in which, in his interpretation, the scale, source, instability, and secrecy of oil and the attendant rise of the so-called new seven sisters (the massive national oil companies of petro-states such as Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) that explain the so-called paradox of plenty, generate massive state pathologies (corruption, no rule of law, the failure of public goods provision) and human developmental failures of oil-rich states. (On the so-called resource curse, see Humphreys, Sachs, and Stiglitz 2007.) In his influential book The Bottom Billion (2007), Oxford economist Paul Collier offers a version of this thesis in which revenues are looted by rebels for whom oil finances lead not to emancipatory politics (social justice, self-determination) but organized crime conducted as rebellion and war. In Collier’s account, greater oil dependency produces an increased likelihood of civil war and violence. In this body of work, as in those that follow, when scholars use the word oil what they are actually referencing is money. Oil politics here is narrowed to the capture of rents by state agencies and the political class. The agency of oil corporations, or the oil service industries or financial institutions, for example, is almost entirely absent.

In these tellings, oil is capable of distorting the organic, natural course of development. Oil dependency hinders democracy (as if copper might promote constitutionalism); oil revenues permit low taxes and encourage patronage (thereby dampening pressures for democracy); oil endorses despotic rule through bloated militaries, and it creates a class of state dependents employed in modern industrial and service sectors who are less likely to push for democracy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has even identified a First Law of Petro-politics: the higher the average global crude price of oil, the more free speech, free press, fair elections, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and independent political parties are eroded. Hugo Chavez and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were the law’s most devious exponents. President Putin assumes that mantle now. One of the great lacunae in this line of reasoning is the manner in which oil is presumed to condemn the state and politics without ever recognizing, for example, that the forms and practices of politics, to say nothing of the institutional capabilities of differing state agencies, vary hugely within and among oil-producing states.

A second line of reasoning is almost entirely focused on corporate oil and global geopolitics. Michael Klare’s book The Race for What’s Left (2011b) is an exemplary case that follows what he has called the U.S. global oil acquisition strategy. Here the driving logic resembles another form of commodity determinism, namely industrial capitalism’s enormous appetite for oil and gas, now spurred on by extraordinary capitalist dynamism in South and East Asian economies. The byline is scarcity and rates of consumption: more than half of the oil consumed between 1860 and the present was accounted for in the three decades after 1980. Peak oil is now upon us, which necessarily amplifies the geopolitical pressures and struggles precipitated by tight oil markets, slower rates of discovery, and challenging operating environments (the end of cheap and easy oil, as the oil industry puts it). Precisely because of its strategic qualities, oil exploration and development has a praetorian cast, a frontier of violent accumulation working hand in hand with militarism and empire, which is leading inexorably to a tooth-and-claw struggle for both conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons (for example, the tar sands, shale gas, deepwater oil and gas). In this account we are about to enter a new thirty-years war (Klare 2011a) for resources characterized by market volatility, ruthless resource grabs, and a sort of military neoliberalism. Here it is not oil as money so much as oil as post–Cold War power politics, or oil as national security in the contemporary argot. What is on offer is a Big Oil–Big Military–Big Imperial State triumvirate. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is, in this account, a paradigmatic case;⁶ Thomas Malthus is inevitably its reference point.

In short, here we are asked to focus on corporate oil and global geopolitics, typically given a robust Malthusian cast, and the violent struggle over strategic scarce resources. Haunted by the specter of depletion, states and corporations embark on a desperate and increasingly violent scramble for oil. Since 2001 in particular these forms of geopolitical violence have been associated with two powerful figures: the mercenary and the Muslim terrorist. An example of the former is the so-called Wonga coup led by Simon Mann (A. Roberts 2006). In 2004, a coup attempt was launched against the government of Equatorial Guinea in order to replace President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo with exiled opposition politician Severo Moto. British financiers and mercenaries—mostly South African war veterans of Mozambique’s Cold War proxy struggle now working as private contractors—joined forces in the attempted overthrow. Severo Moto was to be installed as the new president in return for preferential oil rights to corporations affiliated with those involved with the coup. As it transpired the attempted coup was a fiasco—Simon Mann in his memoir (2011) called it a swashbuckling fuck up—and he and other mercenaries were arrested en route in Harare and imprisoned in both Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.⁷ The Wonga coup and its combination of tyranny, corruption, mercenary interests, and ghastly geopolitics is petro-violence in its purest melodramatic form—taken from a Frederick Forsyth novel, it is almost always already made for TV. In the recent past petro-violence has acquired another avatar: here it is the lethal mixture of oil, radical Islam, American empire, and the demographic youth bulge that is typically seen to be the combustible mix exemplified by Osama bin Laden (the son of an oil contractor, after all) and al Qaeda. As Timothy Mitchell (2011) shows, oil was never able to create a political order on its own for its own purposes. Rather, oil politics are refracted through local collective forms with their own purposes and dynamics. In the Middle East, this included organized Islam, which, in the context of oil profits, arms, and corrupt comprador classes, provided a nonsecular alternative—political Islamism—capable of undercutting the political control of Arabia that Big Oil (and imperial states) required. One expression was the rise of violent global Salafism.

A third line of thought focuses less on the producers than the world of the consumer, and the sociological provisioning that oil and gas provide. Pointing to the relations between oil and ways of life, this representational trope focuses both on the post-1945 American consumer landscape (Huber 2013; Campbell 2005; Strauss, Rupp, and Loue 2013) and on the new cosmopolitan terrain in oil-producing petro-states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, and Ecuador, where oil wealth ushers in an economy of hyperconsumption and spectacular excess: bloated shopping malls in Dubai, glamorous Russian oligarchs (see Gessen 2011; Davis and Monk 2008). There is even a psychological appellation to describe the condition: the Gillette Syndrome. El Dean Kohrs (1974) studied the booming coal town of Gillette, Wyoming, in the 1970s, and witnessed how a commodity boom brought a corresponding wave of crime, drugs, violence, and inflation. It would afflict new gas fields of Wyoming, indigenous oil communities of Ecuador, and the rough and tumble Russian oilfields of Siberia. The theoretical and empirical narrative for contemporary Western consumers is of a rather different register. Oil is capacious, central to virtually every aspect of our lives; as the New York Times put it, oil oozes through your life (Urbina 2011a) showing up in everything from asphalt to flavoring to drugs to plastics to fertilizers. Oil is the lifeblood of just about everything including, it turns out, the sorts of civic freedoms and political liberties that most Americans have come to take for granted: unlimited personal mobility, cheap food, the prospect of property ownership in the suburbs (Huber 2013; see also Shever 2012 on Argentina). Oil underwrites modern life but the social cost is addiction (as the audience chanted as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani addressed the Republican National Convention in 2008: Drill, baby, drill), and its outcomes are supposedly clear, as if carbon emissions lead to global warming, with the causality of private ownership (of multiple-car families, of multiple-appliance families) removed. The debates over unconventional oil and the processes of its extraction—fracking and tar sands come to mind—rear their heads here as well, justified by the threat of continued political dependency in parts of the world that, as Dick Cheney famously noted, do not have U.S. interests at heart. In this rendering, oil can be construed as a form of biopower (Foucault 2003), a resource central to the life and management of populations and to the constitution of forms of security.

Finally, oil figures into the social imaginary that oil’s ontological form of provisioning provides—that is to say the image world and the domain of representations⁸—in powerful if contradictory sorts of ways (Apter 1993). In the American oil imaginary, petroleum bubbles forth from a magical spigot, a vision arguably rendered less miraculous by the live video feed of the Deepwater Horizon’s subsea spigot. Most Americans outside of the Gulf states were surprised to learn, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that oil and gas are pumped from thirty thousand feet below the surface of the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Although nearly everyone has been exposed to the image of the gushing oil well—an image deployed with particular effect in the award-winning Hollywood film There Will Be Blood—it remains the case that picturing the oil and gas industry has a limited popular vocabulary: pipelines, gas flares, the oil derrick. Conversely, the worlds of the oil sheik, of the heroic wildcatter, of the blowout and oil spill, of shady deal making and corrupt petro-elites have proved to be a rich loam for the literary and fine art worlds, both expressing and constructing this larger imaginary and the spectacle of Big Oil. Amitav Ghosh has referred to petro-fiction (one thinks of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! [1927] and Abdelraman Munif’s Cities of Salt [1987] trilogy) in regard to literature, but documentary,⁹ photojournalism, and fine art photography too has a long tradition of addressing oil.¹⁰ Alfredo Jaar’s extraordinary oil installations point to a much larger petrolic semiosis deployed by artists of various stripes and by the curatorial community of the art museum world.¹¹ How these images circulate and to what effect is a complex question, of course. Some, such as photographer Owen Logan, have explicitly addressed how visual culture—still images in particular—has pictured the oil curse. In his reading, this body of work hinges on the orchestration of pathos—the attempt to convince audiences to identify with a photographer’s viewpoint through his or her expression of pity. As it happens he is especially critical of the images of Ed Kashi (one of us produced a book on oil in Nigeria with Kashi) whose work appears in this book. He views it an example, as he sees it, of the National Geographic, undialectical depiction of oil perpetrated by cultural entrepreneurs creating a walled garden of bare life (Logan 2012, 126).¹² The oil image, in short, is part of an industry of iconic images of suffering and fortitude—an aestheticization resting on pathos. Connecting the rise of pathos with the rise of consumer sovereignty, Logan argues that consumerism thrives on synthetic forms of solidarity incapable of the lofty goals he sets himself of meaning, empowered social democracy, and the unsettling of imperialism. Whether Logan is right—readers can judge Kashi’s images for themselves—the cultural arts necessarily enter into what we call oil’s ontological form of provisioning (see Watts, Specters of Oil, this volume).

It is inevitable that the power of oil as metonym is pervasive not simply in depicting and picturing oil but in popular beliefs and everyday ideologies, whatever their complex relation to the image. The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (1982) called oil a fairy tale and like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie. He was of course writing from the vantage point of the shah’s Iran and the unlimited potential that it seemed to confer, at least in the shah’s imagination. (See also Coronil 1997 on Venezuela and Limbert 2010 on Oman.) In the popular imaginary of the United States, oil is something turned on and off, subject, alas, to the whim of Arab despots (notwithstanding the fact that most Americans would be largely ignorant of the map of American oil imports). There are tropes of heroism and entrepreneurship too: the figure of the oil entrepreneur or wildcatter—whether a Rockefeller or Texan wildcatter Rogers Lacey—is ubiquitous, but it coexists with a deep cultural suspicion of the corrupting power of oil wealth and now corporate influence. By the 1890s the main elements of a popular dissenting tradition—in this case, against Standard Oil—were already in place: the moral superiority of small business, the erosion of democracy and civic virtue by the concentration of wealth and power, and the corrupting influence of big business were its defining tropes (see Olien and Olien 1990). By the 1920s, in the wake of antitrust legislation, an emerging conservation movement (motivated by the Malthusian specter of the scarcity of domestically produced U.S. oil) was coextensive with a new powerful ideology of the automobile as the symbol of American prosperity (between 1921 and 1930 the number of vehicles increased from 10.5 million to 26.5 million). In short, popular suspicion lived comfortably with a series of expectations and normative claims about housing, mobility, and food, all of which derived from the power of the oil majors, backed up by the military might of the state (nowhere better expressed than in Churchill’s claim in 1912 that we must become the owners…at the source of at least a proportion of the oil we require). One can well understand why Gavin Bridge and Phillippe Le Billon, in their book Oil (2013, 1) conclude that creating wealth and power from oil is quite a trick.

In this volume we take these four approaches both as intellectual points of departure and as partially constitutive of oil’s discursive work in the world. The first approach, for instance, widely dubbed the resource curse, becomes the academic architecture on which much policy in the resource-exporting global South is built. In the small central African nation of Equatorial Guinea, for instance, the state’s formal development plans are informed entirely by resource curse literature that travels as economic theory and policy prescription from country to country, allowing official documents to completely overlook local histories of violence, dispossession, and repression. In terms of the second approach, oil as violence, it is incontestable that the world of oil and gas is—and has been historically—associated with conflict and with the violence of imperial geopolitics. Oil bears the hallmark of what Hannah Arendt (1957) once called the original sin of primitive accumulation, dripping with blood and dirt. The annals of oil, after all, are an uninterrupted chronicle of naked aggression and the violent law of the corporate frontier. This violence is palpable and existential. To enter the oilfields of Wyoming, Texas, Siberia, or the Niger Delta is to experience it directly; these spaces are always profoundly securitized (the military and forms of surveillance are omnipresent), threatening, rough and tumble, confrontational, and uncomfortable. They bear all the marks of violent enclaves everywhere. And yet it is one thing to take account of the association between oil and violence, but quite another to chart the complex traffic between the two. The challenge is to acknowledge the violence that has attended the upstream and downstream sectors of the oil industry and yet to not presume that violence inheres in the commodity (a sort of commodity determinism). The politics of oil cannot be reductively and deterministically abridged to the survival of the fattest, patrimonial politics, and oil wars. Rooting conflict and particular sorts of politics in a global commodity—even a resource as indispensable as oil—tells us little about the ways patrimonial regimes can deliver very different political and economic orders, how we think about the uneven institutional and governance capabilities across petro-states, and why violence occurs in different forms in different places, and in some parts of the world not at all.

In other words, in their metonymic recitation, the four approaches we have outlined here indulge oil’s demiurgic power as a self-reproducing form. They offer ready-made and enduring discourses that constitute oil’s power politics as having no social reproductive ground. These approaches, we suggest, fundamentally shape the sense of discursive foreclosure that oil summons, even in quotidian conversation among friends—oil is the answer to every question, as one of our Norwegian industry informants quipped. In Subterranean Estates we take to task approaches that stabilize oil’s referent, that allow its demiurgic power to collapse multiplicity into metonym. As we see it, our task is not only to critique but also to think through and acknowledge the work these approaches do in the world. These approaches are not simply inadequate, they are also performative. What do these approaches do? How have they been shuttled through oil’s metonymic passage point, and come out the other side reifying its modernist effects?

Critical Topography

We offer Subterranean Estates as a critical topography of the industry itself, understood not solely as an assemblage of corporate forms but also as expansive and porous networks of laborers and technologies, representation and expertise, and the ways of life oil and gas produce at points of extraction, production, marketing, consumption, and combustion. In this approach, states, companies, universities, insurgents, local geographies, representations, and the materiality of oil itself cannot be approached as discrete, but must be understood as co-constitutive. If metonymic social science has set these ontologies into equations—oil rents + developing country = corrupt state—this collection shows both the fluidity and the boundary-making practices between and among these forms. Accounting for oil as empirical and experiential multiplicity, as agencement, leads to a series of conceptual shifts—removing the commodity form from its pedestal and offering in its place a changing series of objectives: the option form, the contract form, or the infrastructural form. We move away from a preoccupation with the Seven Sisters and international oil companies toward national oil companies (NOCs), insurance companies, financial houses, consulting companies, community organizations, legal cases, oil service companies. We move away from the suffocatingly blunt totalities of money or politics and toward the forms of knowledge production and subjectivity that constitute those structures—science, engineering, markets, price, law, archive.

Arguably, the most striking and profound silence in scholarly work on oil to date has been the absence of rigorous attention to either the industry itself or the materiality of the hydrocarbons around which it is built. In its metonymic register, oil is money or modernity or violence or social imaginary, but rarely appears as itself, or in its conditions of technosocial possibility. Both the guts of the industry and the material resource have been black boxes, near-ghostly presences with predictable outcomes—profit, pollution, political corruption. In this insistence we share terrain with Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011). Mitchell reflects on why it is that so many of those who write about oil pass over the guts of the industry itself. He notes that explanations of oil inadequately address the apparatuses by which oil is converted into forms of affluence and influence. Often, he says, oil is portrayed as an affliction of governments who deploy petrodollars, not of the processes by which a wider world obtains the energy that drives its material and technical life (2). Mitchell claims that the structure of the oil industry is ignored precisely because it presents itself as a standardized form—as an assemblage that can be copied from place to place in modular fashion (Appel 2012a; Appel, this volume)—as opposed to the notion that political, economic, and social relations are in fact engineered out of the flows of energy (Mitchell 2011, 5). In other words, this engineering is place and time specific because oil is always discovered in space-time (say, Spindletop, Texas, January 10, 1901), and subsequently built in localized political economies (say, coastal Louisiana), even if the properties of the wider oil assemblage are in some sense normalized (Barry 2006). Engineering in this capacious sense is never just a reflection of a political or economic order developed de novo by oil but the outcome of complex accommodations, compromises, complicities, oppositions, and violence. If we take these dynamics seriously, as Neruda’s great poem suggests, the trail of oil leads elsewhere: to the engineer, the title deed, the workers and the technologies of exploration, the construction companies and offshore accounts, the illegal refiner, the activist scientist, the Federal District Court, and the customs house.

A necessary starting point is to see oil and gas as a global production network with particular properties, actors, governance structures, ecologies, institutions, and organizations, but also as a complex regime of accumulation, regulation, and auto-critique (see Noreng 2006; Boyer 2011; Bridge 2011; Le Billon and Bridge 2013; P. Roberts 2005). These networked processes emerge and take form in radically different ways across space—everywhere inflecting the ways that oil’s provisioning power, its energopower, contributes to a semiotics of the self for producers, consumers, and those merely proximate to either position (Boyer 2014). Matt Huber (this volume) thinks through oil as biopolitics—the regularization of the population relies on cheap commodities, he argues, which in turn rely on cheap oil, in effect a subsidy provisioned through the control of supply and demand—from the U.S. Bureau of Mines to OPEC. These forms of regulation can of course be disrupted, by oil’s price volatility (both Watts, chapter 10, and Guyer, this volume) among other factors, leading to moments of rupture in which the role of cheap oil in biopolitical life (facilitating wage sufficiency to pay for cheap commodities) can be questioned. The coevolution of oil and life and the semiotics of self take a very different form for male youth in the Niger Delta. Rebecca Golden Timsar (this volume) traces the making of culturally meaningful masculinity in an oil-production zone by attending to initiation practices that have become newly urgent as Delta youth navigate a violent, alienating, lived experience.

When we take this global production network in its most expansive form, we see that the subterranean estates of the oil and gas industry are vast on all counts, entering into social, political, and institutional spaces (e.g., the derivatives market, the security industry, climate science, executive training seminars) typically seen as at arm’s length to the workings of the industry. Keeping intellectual vertigo in mind, let’s start with best