Sunday, April 03, 2005

My Dad, Big Oil, and the New World Order

It’s hard for me to be objective about oil. Some of my earliest memories are of motoring past the Standard Oil refinery where my father worked as a chemical engineer. From the back seat of our shiny wood-trimmed station wagon, I remember gazing with awe at the massive, entangled clusters of pipes, towers, and steam valves that somehow brought gasoline to our corner filling station. At least that’s what my father said—and I had no reason not to believe him.

Indeed, whenever we pulled into the local gas station, they all seemed to recognize my father as someone important in their industry. I could tell by the way that the smiling young men in crisp white uniforms followed my father’s instructions with military precision, wiping the windshield, checking the oil, and calling him “sir” at every turn.

Needless to say, these memories predate the small-is-beautiful late ’60s and the Big Oil-is-evil late ’70s, not to mention the self-serve 80s, 90s, and 00s. Back then, oil was cool, at least in my house. It wasn’t unusual at our dinner table to hear references to catalytic cracking units and distillation columns mixed in with the usual chatter. My father was the only one who knew what it meant, but we could tell by the way his eyes lit up that it was something truly good and powerful and somehow American.

Soon my hair started growing longer, as did the gas lines at the corner filling station, and I began to develop a more nuanced view of the ultimate goodness of oil and its producers. But my father kept me honest. When the TV would show a dark, grayscale image of a refinery spewing alleged contaminants into the air, my father would wail in frustration: “That’s steam!” he’d say—and I had no reason not to believe him.

“No blood for Oil!” went the cheer of the 1991 anti-Gulf War crowd. I hated that slogan—so typical of the simplistic mindset of the aging hippie left. In my mind, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was exactly the kind of brazen, colonialist resource grabs that the anti-war movement was most successful at discrediting. If we couldn’t use our military might to protect a defenseless country from blatant aggression, why have a military at all? At least that’s what I thought then.

I was living in Japan at the time, having recently retired from 20 years of starving artistry and, for the first time, learning the true joys of punching a clock at a real money-making, goods-producing enterprise. (OK, it was an advertising company, but at least we celebrated capitalism, unlike my musician friends who hated big corporations unless they could sign a record contract with one.)

It seemed I was one of the few born-again capitalists who came to Japan in the booming ’80s—most of my fellow ex-patriots were left-leaning youngsters who had come to teach English to the Japanese and change the world in their spare time. Lots of backpacks.

One night I was having beer and sushi with some friends when the topic of the Exxon Valdez oil spill came up. My roommate’s girlfriend, who had just flown over from the States, suddenly became indignant. “Exxon should be SHUT DOWN,” she huffed. I thought this curious coming from someone who had just consumed tons of jet fuel flying halfway around the world for a week’s visit. In a strange way, I envied her hypocrisy, but my father wouldn’t have allowed it…

My father doesn’t work for Big Oil anymore. He retired early, sailed around the world, and settled on a bayou in Mississippi with his new wife and three kids. He doesn’t own a TV set and rarely picks up a newspaper, but somehow he knew about September 11 and the alleged perpetrators. I joked that I had become a “conspiracy theorist,” at least to the extent that government’s b-movie plot of Arab hijackers, “let’s roll” heroes, and cave-dwelling evil masterminds didn’t quite ring true to my ears.

Never a fan of conspiracy theories, my father smirked, in the same way that he used to smirk at rumors of fully loaded oil tankers parked offshore in the ’70s, driving up prices while Americans waited in gas lines. He scoffed at such tales—and I had no reason not to believe him.

So he listened with amusement as I ran down some of the alternative theories of 9/11: The Mossad trying to drag the US into a war against Israel’s enemies; an attempted coup by renegade elements in the military; a Reichstag-style pretext for the US to invade Afghanistan and seize control of Central Asia’s oil resources…

Something changed in his face. I could tell I had struck oil, as it were. In the same animated voice that he used to describe catalytic cracking units and distillation columns, he brought home to me—like no one else could—just how high the stakes are when it comes to oil.

“They talk about the effects of a stock market crash on the economy, the crisis in investor confidence, blah blah,” he said mockingly. “Let me tell you, without a steady supply of oil, the economy would STOP.” His words created vivid imagery of society at a standstill, like a scene in a 1950s sci-fi movie. “Believe me,” he assured, “there’s no government on earth that would let that happen—no matter what the cost.”

And I had no reason not to believe him.