Sep 1 1993

Petroleum Broadcasting Service?

Big Oil Keeps Its Eye on 'The Prize'

In The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, the eight-part series which aired in January 1993, PBS promised to reveal the real history of petroleum politics. But despite its impressive scope, and the wealth of archival film footage, the series is little more than an official oil company history with high production values.

The eight-hour series purports to explore “the struggle for wealth and power that has always surrounded oil,” but as it moves from oil’s discovery to its place in the present age, the interpretations of Big Oil’s behavior become increasingly benign.

The one-sided approach is predictable, given the conflicts of interests in the series’ origins and financial backing. The major corporate underwriter, PaineWebber, has ties to the oil industry. Its subsidiary, PaineWebber/Geodyne Resources, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is engaged in oil exploration and production.

The Prize is based on the book of the same name by Daniel Yergin, who served as the production’s historical adviser. Yergin is president of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consultant to major oil companies and OPEC governments.

One-Sided Sources

Each episode of The Prize is framed by Yergin’s corporate-oriented analysis, which is echoed by the views of oil industry executives and other official sources. Out of approximately 85 interviewees in the entire series, 24 are current or former oil company executives, 25 are government officials from the U.S., OPEC or other allied nations, and some 23 are conventional business historians and conservative think-tank analysts, none of whom are critics of the oil industry.

Given the one-sided sourcing, it’s not surprising that in discussing, for example, the “future of oil and the hydrocarbon society,” the series argues that the solution is more oil, not less. While not even addressing the prospects for alternative energies, the emphasis is on how “gasoline is becoming cleaner,” so “it’s very difficult to see an alternative,” in the words of Sir Peter Holmes, chair of Royal Dutch Shell, who, along with current and former heads of Arco, dominates the discussion.

By focusing our attention on colorful personalities and historical trivia, The Prize obfuscates many of the larger issues. The first episode, “Our Plan,” helps rehabilitate Standard Oil by turning J.D. Rockefeller’s drive for monopoly into an inevitable outcome of economic progress. “Grandfather was a pioneer in the frontier of capitalism,” says David Rockefeller, whose apologetic comments grace the screen throughout the segment.

Stories Still Untold

While the episode “War and Oil” promised “the untold story” of oil and World War II, it actually skips over oil’s most controversial role: the close collaboration of U.S. oil companies with fascism and the rise of Nazi Germany. After the war, to cite only one instance, U.S. Army investigators revealed that Standard Oil had provided the German chemical combine I.G. Farben with “$20 million worth of aviation fuel and lubrication oil” used in the Battle of Britain by the German Luftwaffe.

Likewise, when it comes to covering the CIA’s role in the overthrow of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossedegh in 1954, the episode “Crude Diplomacy” revives the old canard about protecting Middle East oil from Communism. The real issue, of course, was Mossedegh’s nationalization of British oil concessions. But the behind-the-scenes role of the oil companies stays behind the scenes.

The segment “Power to the Producers” describes the rise of OPEC as occurring “at the expense of Western oil companies.” There is no discussion of how the U.S. industry exploited the “oil crisis” and cashed in with superprofits–not to mention banks like Chase Manhattan, which profited from the billions of petrodollars deposited by the Shah of Iran and the Saudi monarchy.

Only in the final segment, “The New Order of Oil,” which claims to address “rising concern for the environment” and the “balancing economics of the hydrocarbon way of life,” is there even one critic of oil–a few token comments by Greenpeace scientist Jeremy Leggett about recent Western oil company exploration in Siberia. But narrator Donald Sutherland assuages viewers, reminding them of the “high Western environmental standards” the Soviets had been lacking.

Made at a cost of $6 million,including $700,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Prize squandered an opportunity to take a candid look at the fascinating intersection of oil and politics. But given the project’s backers, that’s hardly surprising.