Musso on Yetiv, 'Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market'

Steven A. Yetiv. Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 272 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-021269-8.

Reviewed by Marta Musso (Cambridge)
Published on H-Energy (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Tammy Nemeth

Few resources in history have been surrounded by as many myths as oil; only the obsession for gold in the mercantile era can perhaps be compared to the quest for hydrocarbons that has predominated since the twentieth century. The presence of a mythology around the contemporary oil industry should not come as a surprise; oil and its products have had a significant impact on international relations since the beginning of the last century, and they still are at the center of industrial systems, economic development, and political structures on a worldwide level. Hydrocarbons are the energy paradigm on which development booms were built in the West, the basis for the race of newly industrialized countries, and the premise of many countries’ postcolonial economy. In spite of this wide scope, however, energy--and oil in particular, as Prof. Yetiv points out in his conclusion--is still grossly misunderstood in the field of international relations. As suggested by its title, Myths of the Oil Boom engages with the popular narrative around petroleum, disproving one by one the many myths around the current oil industry. In particular, Yetiv refutes the “revolutionary” status of the current American oil boom, putting into context the overly optimistic assumptions on the future of energy that came out of the “shale revolution.” The author shows that any positive long-term effect of this accrued domestic production will only be possible through equal efforts to diminish overall oil consumption not only in the United States, but on a global scale.

Yetiv’s work is divided into three parts, each analyzing three macro-aspects of the Age of Oil: markets and prices, the geopolitics of oil, and the wider costs of oil consumption, particularly the environmental one. Each section is divided in three chapters, all titled with the myth the author intends to tackle, such as “The US Oil Boom Should Erase Peak Oil Concerns” and “More American Oil, Less Persian Gulf Intervention.” In the first section, Yetiv describes the mechanisms that influence the prices of crude: the relationship between demand and supply; the role of OPEC and of Saudi Arabia in particular; the supposed power of the US administration to affect gasoline prices. In the second section, Yetiv reconstructs the reasons for US involvement in the Persian Gulf, the oil shocks and the crisis-absorption mechanisms developed by consumer countries after the 1970s; he shows that it is the capability of consumer countries as a whole to reduce oil consumption, rather than increasing domestic production in the United States, that allows consumers to exert power on producer countries. In the third section, Yetiv illustrates the overall costs of oil consumption, beyond what is paid at the pump: economic and geostrategic risks, the links between oil and nondemocratization, and even more importantly, climate change. In the conclusion, he does not deny the importance of the American oil boom, but he shows that it could be effective in the long term only through what he calls a “synergistic strategy”: to accompany the increase in domestic production with serious efforts to decrease American and global consumption as much as possible.

The book has its starting point in the contingency of US shale development, which was welcomed as a revolution in the world’s energy system, making the United States the first world oil producer. Some predicted it would increase energy security, stabilize prices, boost the economy, and reduce American involvement in the Middle East. By the time the book reached the stores, facts had already proven many of these predictions to be wrong, and the shale revolution highly overestimated. However, the American oil boom is for the author only the point of departure to analyze the many issues around the oil industry: price formation and speculation, the rise of OPEC and of the national oil companies, the relationship between the United States and the Middle East, energy security, climate change. While shattering the easy optimism around domestic extraction, Yetiv shows that it is not increased control over production, but decreased dependence upon oil, that will solve the problems that the shale revolution was predicted to eradicate.

Prof. Yetiv supports his thesis by listing all the issues characterizing our current energy system; in doing so, he turns a book written as a counternarrative to the contemporary oil boom into a comprehensive overview of the oil industry. While the style and structure aims to a wider audience rather than to specialists of energy policies, Yetiv does not try to simplify the oil industry; on the contrary, he adds complexity to the discourse, refuting many of the simplifications that drives the narrative of the American oil boom. Overall, Myths of the Oil Boom provides a comprehensive introduction to the problems related to the Age of Oil; it does not examine in depth any of the problems it tackles, but it gives an important overview, addressing the gap in the literature on the fundamental role of energy in international relations. Yetiv is convincing and exhaustive in arguing that international security will never be reached simply through more control over oil supplies, but requires a new quest: that of a different world energy paradigm.

Printable Version:

Citation: Marta Musso. Review of Yetiv, Steven A., Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market. H-Energy, H-Net Reviews. April, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


5 Replies

Post Reply

I thank H-Net for inviting this response to the review of my book. I just have two points to make.

First, as the review correctly notes, the ultimate takeaway of the book is that the American oil boom, while yielding some important benefits, is no replacement for sustainable energy practices. We sometimes forget or don’t understand that producing more oil is not the same as using less when it comes to security. We cannot have long-term energy security by just producing more oil. Producing more oil does not address the fundamental problems of our time which are tied to using oil including conflict, climate change, autocratic rule, energy coercion, and transnational terrorism. While pursuing the oil boom makes sense so long as the world is so dependent on oil, there is a danger that the oil boom will make us complacent about pursuing sustainable energy practices.

Second, with energy so crucial to modern life, and with so many security and economic issues riding on how we deal with energy, we would expect to see many comprehensive studies of oil in our modern world. But that is not the case. While stock market gurus and analysts are almost obsessed with oil, it remains a remarkably neglected feature in the study of American and global security by academics. As I have shown in my Oxford University Press bibliography on the best books on oil, relatively little research exists on oil in the field of political science relative to other subjects as suggested by the dearth of articles in journals. Outside of political science, myriad works do examine specific aspects of our global oil dependency, but little work, much less updated analysis, explores comprehensively subjects such as why we have made little progress on decreasing dependence on oil and what our prospects are for actually meeting our future climate and security goals—the subject of my current book project. As the reviewer also suggests, that general neglect represents a remarkable gap and one that we should try to fill, especially given that in the recent TRIP survey, scholars of international relations identify climate change and other issues related to oil as the most important issues we face.

Steve A. Yetiv
Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations
Old Dominion University

Dear H-Energy,
I'm teaching a course right now on the geopolitics of energy and the environment in Germany, and over the past week or so we have been discussing the very issues concerned in Prof. Yetiv's book. While I did not utilize excerpts from his book this time, I would definitely consider using it if teaching this course again.

There is a very noticeable shift in tone in political science and IR studies on America and global energy before and after 2010. Before 2010 there is much doom and gloom and an almost sense of panic that America was running out of oil and gas and would be ever more dependent on foreign supplies, which would put America in direct competition with the seemingly exponential demand from China. But then the "unconventional revolution" happens, and the tone becomes heady with the possibilities for the future. It is interesting how many analysts and political scientist/IR people in the immediate flush of the boost in unconventional oil and gas production were talking up the possibility of US disengagement from the Middle East, and other elements of the "myths" of the oil boom.

I wonder how much of it reflected an optimistic interpretation of the "Obama Doctrine", or perhaps was rooted in a euphoric sense of relief after the period of peak oil, high prices, and scarcity fears? Perhaps such optimism can only be rewarded (and partially at that) if other countries in the world, particularly in Europe and China, were to have their own unconventional revolution, though this is highly unlikely in the case of Europe. As Prof. Yetiv eloquently points out, such optimism is for the short-term.

Best regards,
Tammy Nemeth
Jacobs University
Editor/Book Review Editor, H-Energy

As a personal note, this book was also particularly interesting to me because I live in Europe, and here the talk about the American shale revolution arrived as a far echo of something vaguely interesting happening in the US. Rather than a revolution, in Europe it had mostly negative connotations because it would slow down investments towards renewable energy sources. Some hailed a possible EU shale revolution, but it was a minority. I was not aware that the debate in the US was so pumped up.

I have been working on the history of energy politics for the past 5 years and I agree that the lack of literature on the matter is quite surprising. I think the problem is that oil is treated as a hot topic not only by the media, but by scholars: big titles on resource control and the resource curse attract the attention more than analyses on energy markets and the power relations of energy companies and international politics - which are also extremely difficult to correctly interpret from the outside. However, my two penny opinion on why there has not been more effort to reduce dependency on oil is that there is so much international power and so much money around the oil industry that it is easier to reason in terms of scrambling to control this system rather than demystify it. Socially we also prioritize a continuous cheap flux of infinite energy, so that even temporary scarcity is perceived like the apocalypse (1973 seems like the end of the world sometimes, even though we are all still here); and the financialisation of oil companies is giving the final blow to alternative investments.

(Just as a final note, historically the U.S. WAS the largest world supplier of oil, until the late 1940s)

Marta Musso
Cambridge University

Dr. Yetiv is correct to lament the lack of solid scholarship on oil and energy issues among political scientists. As for historians, I would strongly recommend the special issue of the Journal of American History on oil (vol. 99, June 2012). Robert Lifset has edited a very useful book on US oil policy in the 1970s. The special issue of the German journal Historical Social Research (vol. 39/4, 2014) is also a good guide to historical studies. Still, the absence of awareness about the importance of energy issues among scholars of most fields is a problem.

I am not sure what Dr. Musso means by "supplier of oil." The United States was the leading producer of oil for most of the 19th century, and, after a brief interval when Russia was the leading producer, again for the first three quarters of the 20th century. Depending on which source one uses, the Soviet Union overtook the United States as the leading producer somewhere in the mid-1970s. Of course, it has since regained the leading spot. I have first year students in my class on Oil and World Power chart the leading producers and consumers from the early 20th century to the present. It is a very useful exercise.

David Painter
Georgetown University

Dear David, thank you for your comment. By "supplier of oil" I mean exporter. The U.S. was the leading supplier to Europe up until the end of World War II; afterward Europe became more dependent on Middle East supplies, which caused several headaches especially in Southern Europe.