The best books about the oil industry

Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by how power and money work, and hopeful that we can change the world for the better by subverting both. In the 1990s, when I started travelling to, and writing about, Russia, I became aware of how completely oil and gas completely dominated Russia’s economy, its power structures, and its people’s lives. I learned about how oil, gas, power, and money relate to each other, and for 14 years (2007-2021) wrote about those interconnections as a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. 


I wrote...

Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

By Simon Pirani,

Book cover of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

What is my book about?

Coal, gas, and oil have been the main fuels used by society since the industrial revolution. But more have been burned in the last 50 years than in the rest of history. Most alarming of all, fossil fuel consumption has grown fastest in the last three decades, since scientists confirmed that it is the main cause of potentially devastating global warming.

Burning Up traces fossil fuels’ relentless rise since the mid-twentieth century. It dispels explanations that focus on individual consumption, and shows that fossil fuels are consumed through technological, social, and economic systems – and that all these systems must change. This is a history book that speaks to the climate crisis, the greatest crisis of our time.

The books I picked & why

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Cities of Salt

By Abdelrahman Munif,

Book cover of Cities of Salt

Why this book?

I love novels that view the world through the eyes of cultures that are different from my own. In Cities of Salt, we see the arrival of US oil companies in the Middle East through the eyes of one of the oasis communities that lived there, in relative peace and isolation, before the oil wells were drilled. The narrative traces how men and women’s lives are first interrupted, and then disrupted, confounded, and corrupted by the oil industry and the vast sums of money it generated. The novel is the first of a trilogy, set in a kingdom that is never named. The fact that Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004) was an oil economist, deprived of his citizenship of Saudi Arabia and driven into exile for his political views, gives us a big clue about which country he was thinking of.


Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta

By Ike Okonta, Oronto Douglas,

Book cover of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta

Why this book?

In 2003 I went to Nigeria to write a report on oil companies’ “corporate social responsibility” in the Niger Delta. There was, and is, no such responsibility. The companies finance corrupt officials, wreck communities, and allow oil spills to poison millions of people’s drinking water. Under the Abacha dictatorship in the 1990s, they colluded with violent suppression of protest against their activities, culminating in the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the “Ogoni Nine”. This book showed me how Shell’s naked exploitation of people and their land worked, the systems of power that supported it, and how these evolved over time. One of the authors, Oronto Douglas, has passed away, but both participated in communities’ self-defence in the face of these systems. Their book is passionate, engaged, and razor-sharp analytically.


Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq

By Greg Muttitt,

Book cover of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq

Why this book?

The frightful violence of the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 was followed by a long, complicated war of stealth by the international oil companies. They sought access to Iraq’s oil reserves, the world’s third-largest, from which they had been ousted by nationalisation in the 1970s. Most western journalists simply could not be bothered to follow the complex interactions between the companies, the oil ministry, and civil society. That made reading this forensic investigation by Greg Muttitt, a committed campaigner for oil industry transparency, all the more satisfying.  


Oil, Water, and Climate: An Introduction

By Catherine Gautier,

Book cover of Oil, Water, and Climate: An Introduction

Why this book?

As a non-scientist, I love reading books written by scientists in language that the rest of us can understand. This is one of the best – and it addresses many of the most urgent questions scientists will keep worrying about through the 21st century, about the interaction between oil production and use, the atmosphere, the oceans, and freshwater systems. Catherine Gautier writes in a clear, accessible style. She is well aware that we can not fence off the study of physical phenomena such as climate change and contamination of water sources from the study of society, economics, and politics.  


Private Empire: Exxonmobil and American Power

By Steve Coll,

Book cover of Private Empire: Exxonmobil and American Power

Why this book?

The team that is ExxonMobil and the US government is like a two-headed dragon, raging across the world, grabbing resources, bullying governments, trampling on people’s livelihoods, and dragging us all closer to disastrous climate change. But there’s something grimly satisfying about reading this account of their evil deeds. It makes you realise that we have found them out. Steve Coll has followed every lead, checked every detail, and pinned down his subjects, in US journalism’s finest traditions. 


4 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in fossil fuels, the Middle East, and environmentalism?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about fossil fuels, the Middle East, and environmentalism.

Fossil Fuels Explore 11 books about fossil fuels
The Middle East Explore 76 books about the Middle East
Environmentalism Explore 104 books about environmentalism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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