Who better to review a book about the depredations of the fossil fuel industry than John Thompson, who lives in Oklahoma, where that industry controls the legislature? Thompson pointed out when he sent this review that the federal governmentspends ten times more to subsidize fossil fuels than it spends on education.

He writes:
Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest Most Destructive Industry on Earth is a case study in the “Resource Curse,” the social science concept explaining why petroleum produces corruption and poverty. It’s presented in Maddow’s inimitable style, providing a “guided tour of some of the landmarks, like Oklahoma, and Equatorial Guinea, and Russia.”

Maddow describes the oil and gas industry as “essentially a big casino” that “invites gangsterism, extortion, thuggery, and the sorts of folks who enjoy these hobbies.” Of course, those behaviors are more extreme in Equatorial Guinea and Russia, but American companies also cause “mindless damage.” Big Oil is willing to profit in ways that stunts development in the Third World and funds dictators like Vladimir Putin. Moreover, minimizing damage to the planet “had never been a critical variable in oil and gas exploration.”

Blowout’s “narrative thread” starts with hydraulic fracking, a production technique developed by George Mitchell, and expanded by the Oklahoma-based corporations, Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, and Continental Resources. Ironically, Putin could have learned from the foul-mouthed Oklahoman Joe Mach and ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson, and built an oil industry that could have been Russia’s “Crown Jewel.” (That is not to say they would have been interested in sharing the benefits or minimizing the inevitable damage.)

Maddow explains that Tillerson, for instance, had a two part-mission, “maximize shareholder profits” and “bring the world’s most vital commodity to the market.” He and the other oilmen would gladly help Putin build a 21st century economy, extracting natural gas from the Artic (which, of course, is very threatening to the environment), while turning a blind eye to other behaviors. As long as Putin kept honoring “the sanctity of contract and implementing friendly tax laws,” oil interests “have shown little hesitation in making those deals.”

But, Putin chose to almost completely control Russia’s oil industry. And as he grew more paranoid and vindictive, Putin launched the assaults on American democracy that would be documented by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

The American side of the narrative begins with Oklahoma’s Robert S. Kerr, the “Uncrowned King of the Senate.” During his reign, oilmen could have been satisfied with 5 to 10% tax break to spur exploration, but they obtained and protected their 27.5% break. Maddow describes it as the “longest-running welfare program” in US history.

Kerr was Aubrey McClendon’s great uncle. McClendon, a co-founder of Chesapeake, was the visionary character described in Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, the story of Oklahoma City becoming a “Major League City.” Like Anderson, Maddow details McClendon’s charm which explains why “people wanted to believe” him. But, “Accuracy just never really captured the expansiveness of his vision.” She says, “What he lacked in strict truthfulness, he made up for in boyish and enthusiastic sincerity.”

McClendon joked about “him and his Oklahoma redneck buddies pulling a fast one on the entire leadership suite of the City of Seattle” to bring the NBA “Thunder” basketball team to Oklahoma City. He was known for $100 tips, as well as his 100,000 bottle wine collection. McClendon invested in a 11,000 square foot mansion and a Whole Foods grocery next the Chesapeake campus, and he donated to the Sierra Club.

Chesapeake (and Devon) made $25 billion in 2008 by fracking for natural gas. By 2010, however, Oklahoma was racked by earthquakes, including the magnitude 5.7 quake in 2011. These hundreds of earthquakes were “largely caused by the underground disposal of billions of barrels of wastewater” from fracking.

McClendon’s generosity didn’t prompt an effort of dispose of toxic wastewater in a safe manner. And the quakes didn’t deter him from another “buying spree.”

The fracking pioneer, Mitchell, wasn’t surprised by what followed. He told the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, “’these damn cowboys will wreck the world in order to get an extra one percent’ of profit.”

By 2013, McClendon was removed from Chesapeake, and three years later he didn’t attempt to brake when speeding into a concrete bridge. After his death, Blowout focuses on Harold Hamm who used fracking to produce oil, as opposed to natural gas.

Hamm, the 13th child of sharecroppers, became the 24th richest man in America by 2014. He was worth at least $14.6 billion. Maddow says his wealth and fame “made him uncompromisingly certain of his own vision of national destiny.” He couldn’t understand the advocates for “green energy” incentives, regulations on fracking, or limits on tax breaks for oil and gas. She explains, “Hamm didn’t understand how anybody could argue against him …”

As Hamm grew richer, Oklahoma school funding dropped by 24% over ten years, making schools 49th in the nation in state funding. This prompted the 2014 walkout of 25,000 teachers. They came to the State Capitol with signs like, “We Will Not Be Silent!”

Hamm and other oil producers organized a counter-demonstration, “Rally for Rigs,” with signs like “Don’t Be a Fracking Idiot.”

The push for a tax increase for big oil and gas companies was assisted by Mike “Bubba” Cantrell, “Hamm’s former government affairs pro,” who didn’t believe his status made him better than other Oklahomans and who tried to get funding for cleanups. Cantrell said, “It’s only smart to play nice with everybody.” Also, small oil companies were paying taxes at a rate “seven times that of Continental, Devon, and Chesapeake.”

Even so, it took four years, and another teacher walkout, to raise taxes on horizontal drilling from 2 to 5%.

During that time, Hamm fought a bitter divorce battle with his wife, Sue Ann, before agreeing to a settlement of nearly a billion dollars. My only complaint with Blowout is that it didn’t describe the great good done by Sue Ann Arnall’s subsequent philanthropic efforts.

Hamm also fought aggressively against the scientific evidence that disposal of fracking waste caused earthquakes. In 2015, Oklahoma had 900 earthquakes over 3 points. The number dropped to 198 in 2018 after regulations were imposed.

Maddow described a meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren and Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS). Hamm said OGS was aiding the “war on fossil fuels.” Holland said that Hamm was “just a little intimidating.”

OU Dean Larry Grillot “wrote an email a few hours after the meeting” that said, “Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting … to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed.”

After leaving Oklahoma, Holland said that “wastewater injection deep within the earth … is an ultrahazardous activity. Because you can’t control the risk.”

Hamm, a fervent Trump supporter, further expressed his views at the 2016 Republican convention where he said, “Every time we can’t drill a well in America, terrorism is being funded.” Moreover, “Every onerous regulation puts American lives at risk.”

Maddow closes the chapter on Hamm’s defense of fracking. He said Russia was playing a role in the battle. Hamm contended, “It all ties back.”

Maddow replies, “which was nuts, of course. But it wasn’t that more nuts than the truth.”

And that brings her narrative back to Putin’s assault on American democracy. She had previously shown examples of the incompetence of Russian efforts ranging from oil production to intelligence collection, as well as “Guccifer’s” primitive methodology when stealing and publishing electronic messages.

But, after Putin put $50 billion into the 2014 Sochi games, in “a festival of corruption,” and as violence in the Ukraine distracted from his extravaganza, Putin’s ego suffered and his attacks on western democracies became more sophisticated, leading to the infamous Trump Tower meeting, and the Internet Research Agency’s fake news. After more than 1000 Ukrainians were killed, “Putin’s longtime man in Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych lost control.” Paul Manafort’s efforts to support Yanukovych also helped Russian corruption intrude into American elections.

In 2013, there was also an intriguing effort to bring Oklahomans into Russian matters. Carter Page registered Global Natural Gas Ventures LLC at it’s headquarter four miles from Chesapeake. Apparently Page sought to follow Aubrey McClendon’s fracking path without realizing it was a “tad stale” by then. Page’s goal was becoming a “point of contact” between Russian and American oil companies. But, Page apparently was too incompetent to pull off anything like that.

Maddow concludes that Big Oil hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. She doesn’t say oil “is hellbent on bad government for some ideological reason; it’s just practical business sense.”

She also concludes the teachers who fought back were “superheroes.”

I agree on both points. When I was an Oklahoma oil rig roughneck in the 1970s, my first day on the job was very reminiscent of the days of Social Darwinism. Like all rookies, my unofficial job title was “worm.” Our tool pusher was yelling into the radio, “Frack after dark! Frack after dark! Call Western, they love to Frack after dark!” He then explained that we were supposed load explosives into a tool for perforating a pipe. After dark, any CB radio – even in a car a hundred miles away – could blow up the entire crew.

The last time they fracked after dark, had distant radio waves ignited an explosion a minute earlier, everyone would have died. But they had just put the tool in the hole. One roughneck was declared dead on the scene, but revived on the way to the hospital. My tool pusher said he was a high school dropout and, if necessary, he would have to take the risk.

“You have a future,” he advised, if we have to frack after dark, “quit this job and hitchhike home.”