Rachel Maddow's ‘Blowout’ Book Plumbs the Toxicity of the Oil and Gas Industry

Photo by Terry Ballard from Merrick, New York, USA – Book, CC BY 2.0.
Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow

In Blowout, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow plumbs the toxic influence of the oil and gasoline industries on the economies and governments of Russia, the United States and other countries.


Energy companies free of constraints can be harmful to your homeland’s economic and civic health, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia just might be Exhibit Number One.


Here’s a country of 145 million people with an economy smaller than that of Italy (around 60 million). Untainted national elections don’t exist. Putin flunkies boss major newspapers and broadcasters. All the better for oil and gas companies.


Under Putin-style dictators, it’s clearer whom to bribe; and uppity civic activists who value their lives are less likely to speak out against filthy air and water. What’s more, who cares if average citizens don’t share the wealth in a major way? Or if the authoritarians focus on extractive industries at the expense of more sustainable economic development benefiting all—or the fight against climate change? Those are among the major points that emerged as I read Maddow’s book and related writings from others.


Clearly, although the extents of the outrages vary, this isn’t just a Russian phenomenon. Take Equatorial Guinea, where most people live in poverty while, thousands of miles away, the dictator’s son could splurge $700,000 on a boat rental to impress a rap-star date. Then there’s Oklahoma; the local fracking moguls bullied the state seismologist and tried to cover up the connection between their industry and the spike in the number of earthquakes. Also, it goes without saying that oil and gas interests here in the United States have been among the foes of campaign finance reform and solar and wind power.


Maddow’s Blowout book impresses me as more of a follow-up on earlier exposes than as original reporting on Big Oil and Gas, and she could have explored the campaign-donation issue and some other topics more thoroughly, but it’s still a good, compelling read—full of Maddow’s entertaining snark to help you get through the scary subject matter. For the most part, Blowout masterfully connects the dots. It’s the oil, stupid! And the gas, too.


Oil and gas gushers inspired Blowout’s title. Maddow’s metaphor especially sums up Russia’s many energy-related woes. Washington talked of free-market capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Instead, free of adequate regulations and enforcement, a kleptocracy seized control of state-owned and formerly state-owned companies. Putin and his sidekick Igor Sechin turbocharged the process in the energy industries and elsewhere. More gushing of cash for the favored! “For my friends, everything,” was Putin’s motto in effect. “For my enemies, the law.” Phony tax evasion and embezzlement charges were among the specialties of the Putin crowd.


When accomplished Russian business people managed energy companies well, Putin’s thieves stole the fruits of their labor. The result was less efficiency, less productivity, less innovation. None other than Morgan Stanley promoted investment in Rosneft, the Putin-controlled energy corporation, after it miraculously swallowed a larger competitor. ExxonMobile executives had earlier cozied up with the other Russian company but ended up focusing instead on Putin and friends.


Alas, a little complication transpired: Russia ripped off a chunk of Ukraine. International economic sanctions ensued against the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, thwarting the Putin-ExxonMobile dream of American know-how and investment revving up Russian energy output.


Needless to say, the sanctions enraged Putin, who saw Rosneft and other energy companies not just as a way to enrich his circle and retain power, but also to help restore Russia to the glory of the old Soviet Union. Europe and even the United States would thirst for Russian oil, no? Anxious to see the sanctions killed off, Putin used social media, Wikileaks and other means to try to manipulate our 2016 elections. Hatred of Hillary Clinton, the likely winner, was far from the only reason.


An obvious question, broached by an Amazon reviewer of the Maddow book, arises. How could sociopaths fare so well in government offices and corporate suites in energy companies and elsewhere? It’s one thing to tell how Putin and others pulled the levers to get their way. It’s another to unravel the root reasons of why they succeeded.


Surely, Ms. Maddow, more than a few nonsociopaths had to go along. My own theory is that sociopaths rise and remain in power because, while lacking empathy, they somehow can win over corporate boards or read the mass mind at election time. Plenty of sociopaths stay out of prison, and even the worst can come with their own positives. The masses often go for glamor and showmanship. Putin obliges, complete with images of him bare-chested on horses. Trump, the orange-skinned reality show alum, is our carnival-barker-in-chief. Both conjure up memories of their respective nations at the peak of their power.


The energy business itself has been the territory of colorful crooks and conmen almost from the start, despite protestations to the contrary; and nostalgia can be powerful snake oil. Even if bribed and blackmailed by the Russians, Trump is drawn to Putin as a kindred spirit, a fellow liar, sociopath and control-freak who likewise sees democracy as an inconvenience to the extractive industries.


Here’s something else that the two men share, as I myself see it—alliances with religious fundamentalists. The Trump Foundation has donated to the Rev. Franklin Graham, for example, and eagerly courted the right-to-life faithful with the appointments of right-wing judges, while Putin, of all people, has aligned himself with the “family”-minded Russian Orthodox church. Isn’t it a paradox—to be in favor of “life” and families while encouraging the growth of fossil fuels: the cause of so many pollution-related deaths, not to mention the damage from climate change? Oil and gas, of course, do have their biblical side. Has not the Almighty favored both countries with their presence? Far be it for the faithful to question this divine design.


While I wish Maddow had deeply delved into the fundamentalist angle in an energy-industry context and more thoroughly explored the campaign-finance horrors from Big Oil and Big Gas, let me emphasize my overall enthusiasm for Blowout. If you wonder whether Maddow’s story-telling gifts on MSNBC have found their way to print, too, the answer is a decided “yes.”  She deftly weaves back and forth between Oklahoma, Moscow and the other crime scenes and teases you with intriguing minor facts that pave the way for her to make her major points.


This is Maddow’s second book, by the way, the first being Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, telling how the executive branch nudged us into wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I haven’t read it, but, given the energy industry’s importance in American foreign policy over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same characters show up at the expense of openness and democracy.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, And The Richest, Most Destructive Industry On Earth. Hardcover, audiobook and ebook formals. 406 pages. Published by the Crown imprint of Penguin Random House. Available locally or through online stores.

3 Comments For This Article

richard burcik

The world-famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper, insisted that to be a valid scientific theory any hypothesis must be falsifiable. This includes the widely held conjecture of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. In short, a single set of scholarly findings that is not explained by the premise of man-made global warming which is attributable to the burning of fossil fuels can falsify this entire body of scientific speculation and this has recently occurred. Last summer the third of three peer-reviewed scientific papers that were conducted by three separate groups of expert investigators from three different universities and which have been published in eminent peer-reviewed scholarly journals have found no evidence to support the assertion regarding human-induced climate change. Instead, all three groups independently found that the warming that has happened was almost entirely attributable to galactic cosmic rays that affect the quantity of the Earth's low hanging clouds. These expert investigators call this canopy or blanket the "umbrella effect". The bottom line is that the entire climate change hysteria has now been falsified and is untrue. These three experimental results have conclusively shown that the IPCC and its computer simulation models (GCMs) are not valid.

David Rothman

Thanks very much for your comments, Richard, but even under Trump control, NASA says the following on its Web site (link below):

"Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources."

It will be interesting to see if Trump orders the NASA page killed off or modified.

Also see the paper linked below from the American Physics Society. APS says: "While natural sources of climate variability are significant, multiple lines of evidence indicate that human influences have had an increasingly dominant effect on global climate warming observed since the mid-twentieth century." Notice? "Multiple lines”?

On another matter, I'd love to know who backed the authors of the climate-related articles yourself you mention without Web links. Corporate and/or think tank connections? Full climate change credentials--not just, for example, economists or engineers?

Also, from an ideological or business perspective, do you personally have a dog in this fight? Are you the same retired economist who has written the following on the Marion West site? "Each day, I read an almost endless array of pro-socialist and anti-capitalist articles in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Then I ask myself: 'How could so many bright, well-informed authors be so apparently unaware of the actual realities concerning the history of socialism?'”

Since fair's fair, please know that I myself am an FDR fan believing that government at times needs to undertake initiatives like Social Security but that private enterprise normally works well with proper regulations in place such as adequate minimum wage requirements and SEC protections. William F. Buckely, Jr., wrote two "On the Right" columns in favor of my vision for well-stocked national digital libraries. Conservatives can be right!

Anyway, if you are who I think you are, the very best of luck going after the real threats to prosperity, honest capitalism and democracy--like Putin and his fanatically socialist sidekick, Igor Sechin. And do read the Maddow book. She documents how badly Putin's greed and control-freak ways have badly hurt the Russian economy. As a capitalist, you really should be warning people about Donald Trump's Putin-friendly ways, just as I'm confident that WFB would if he were still alive. Perhaps you can also berate Trump's ex-KGB buddy for thinking that excessive reliance on oil can be a shortcut to sustainable prosperity for Russia.


--NASA Web link: https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

--American Physics Society link: https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/15_3.cfm

--Merion West link: https://merionwest.com/2019/07/02/letter-to-the-editor-in-reply-to-mcman...

Robert Nagle

To address the first comment:

No, "falsifiability" does not automatically invalidate a theory because of uncertainty. Also, from a policymaker's point of view, one doesn't need 100% certainty to formulate a rational policy.

Second, there are multiple lines of evidence supporting anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The data is messy, but the trends persist.

Third, you mention studies, but there are no citations? How on earth can one explore scientific ideas without concrete details?

Fourth , about cosmic rays, the scientists at skeptical science write,

Hypothetically, an increasing solar magnetic field could deflect galactic cosmic rays, which hypothetically seed low-level clouds, thus decreasing the Earth's reflectivity and causing global warming. However, it turns out that none of these hypotheticals are occurring in reality, and if cosmic rays were able to influence global temperatures, they would be having a cooling effect.