Multinational oil companies: evil incarnate or oversized lumbering oafs?

Powerful and menacing, or doughy, dull-witted, and gigantically clumsy?

Powerful and menacing, or doughy, dull-witted, and gigantically clumsy?

Some helpful readers have pointed out what energy views are like from other parts of the world. These are valuable viewpoints, because without an endless travel plan it’s hard to know what things are really like way over there somewhere else. The notes got me thinking about another viewpoint that exists in the energy world, one that impacts virtually every person on the planet, and one that people don’t often understand even if the beasts are right in front of them. I’m talking about the world’s large multinational oil companies, and what it’s actually like inside the belly of the beast. It might be fair to assume those machines are ruthless, heartless, and single-mindedly profit driven. The truth is that they are more like unbelievably giant buffoons, working their hearts out to please their masters, but their limbs are so big they do more damage than good as they flail around the globe.

I’ve had the “pleasure” of working for a few of them. I recall working at one about seven years ago that had over 100,000 people in the email registry. It was great fun scrolling through that sucker for weird names. Oddly enough, that sort of pastime wasn’t discouraged. Well no one flat out instructed me to look for weird names, but my boss told me when I started that 80 percent of my job would be figuring out who the right person was to talk to, and that I should spend my first two weeks reading organization charts. The man did know his bureaucracies.

He wasn’t kidding. I worked on some trading deals that had tax consequences (what doesn’t I suppose). To keep a fairly straightforward project moving, we had to speak with five separate tax departments in three countries, each with its own bureaucracy, and each of these held a quagmire of internal personalities each determined to leave his mark on, well, something, in order to justify their existence. I had days where a significant accomplishment was sending a single email; to send one meant researching each prior email on the chain to see exactly who was included at each successive email, because each email had a wide distribution list, and each subsequent email drew in a new platoon of tax weirdos, so it was necessary to develop a sort of matrix of who-knew-what at each act of the play before crafting an update and hitting send. Having done that, my nervous email was now distributed to, who knows, hundreds of other matrices with permanent evidence that I had positively acknowledged something in the direct presence of this unique band of brothers. And sisters.

Anyway, that is but a fond memory, but the point is: some people on the other side of the world see these multinational behemoths set up shop in their neighborhood and proceed to do pretty much whatever they want. Many governments of various levels are just happy they’re there. The minions diligently making all this development happen are so wrapped up in their own internal worlds of relative madness that they have no idea what the interface with the locals looks like, means, or will lead to. Various committees will pay attention to various local matters, but within the context of the big machine making money, that stuff is like flowers painted on the side of the stage at a strip club.

Sadly, as has been pointed out by some excellent readers, the faceless interface between local foreign populations and the potent development skills of a big oil company don’t work very well. Local economies and environments get trampled, because someone in a matrix of regulatory groups on the other side of the world has read the local manual on what exactly has to be done to operate there, and usually no more.

In North America, we tend to get uppity and flex our muscles to halt any developments that we see as intrusive or harmful, particularly if they mess with the unofficial god of the North American consumer: property values. As has been pointed out to me, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have that muscle or audacity. Yet.

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