Investigative journalist Tom Bower gathered firsthand information from sources all over the world, including politicians, corporate heads, and traders to compile the definitive history of oil. It is a story of high stakes and oil-exploring rivalries. Bower lays out the oil industry and its players in a way that highlights a sense of greed, intrigue, and arrogance.
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GATHERING THE MASTERS of the underworld at BP's concrete campus in Houston's sprawling suburbs in early 2009 was a cruel ritual. The muted light cast a harsh sheen across the weary faces of 12 men and one woman in the "Big Brain Room," a small cinema formally known as the HIVE, the Highly Immersive Visualization Environment. In the center of the front row sat David Rainey, BP's head of exploration. Peering at the curved screen through battery-powered spectacles allowing "sight" of the whole reservoir, the audience scrutinized the computer-generated three-dimensional images of a possible oil reservoir four miles below the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.
Hand-picked to assess the risks, none of the 13 was a buccaneer; they were rather proven company loyalists temporarily united by one credo: if their $100-million gamble to discover whether oil existed deep in the unknown was successful, BP could pocket $50 billion over 10 years.
But they would be cursed, not least by themselves, if their calculations were wrong. For oil explorers, the license to make mistakes was limited. The humiliation of failure was permanent. The mood in the HIVE was inevitably influenced by BP's decision to locate its headquarters within a modern concrete zone. Despite some scattered trees, the disfigured Texan landscape embodied the cliché that oil is either an old, difficult and dirty business or "new, good stuff." "Nothing is more exciting than drilling," smiled Rainey. The Ulsterman, born in 1954, personified the oilman's permanent restlessness. Easy oil — "the low-hanging fruit" — was now history, and breaking frontiers to find new oil was "incredibly difficult." Although BP's skills in exploration were acknowledged by its rivals, the search beneath the Gulf of Mexico was particularly brutal. Excluded from most playgrounds, at best only one in three of BP's operations would strike oil. At the end of the show the 13 headed for a hotel conference room, each clutching a personalized folder listing 50 potential sites for test holes off West Africa's coast, in Asia, South America and the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next four days they would decide where to spend more than $1 billion drilling through sand, salt, clay and rock. BP's future depended on finding new oil but there were no guarantees. Although the exploration business was dependent on science, much remained beyond their control. Even the best geologists tended to deploy just three words: "possibly," "probably" and "regrettably."