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Book club: Oil 101

Ricky Ghosh drills down into this big read
Commercial awareness
Book reviews

Oil has been seeping into everyone's minds this year; the wounds of the BP disaster off the Gulf Coast are still raw, and prices are rising ever higher, due in part to financial speculation. Morgan Downey's tome of over 440 pages on the subject describes itself as "a clear, concise guide", focusing on the "nuts and bolts" of the business. So I was expecting an brisk overview, with few wasted words.

After many gruelling hours, I can report that Oil 101 is anything but. In basic terms, the oil industry digs holes, find crude, boils it, extract products and transports them to petrol pumps and consumers. Description of this process here takes things to the next level, and way, way beyond. It starts with the industry's roots in the search for a replacement for whale blubber for lamps, tackles exploration and refining, and ends with more than 100 pages devoted to details of product types and petrochemistry.

The book should be regarded as compulsory reading - but only if you're an oil industry professional, which becomes obvious after the first ten pages or so. As a New York-based commodities trader, Downey certainly knows what he's talking about. His book has been praised by the Financial Times, and business press is peppered with his opinion on the oil markets. That said, unless you have a burning ambition to design the next generation of oil rigs, or are particularly interested in the detail of the refining process, my first instinct is to say save yourself several headaches and steer clear of this book. Those who are interested purely in the financial side of things could, however, take a look at the last four chapters, where Downey applies financial concepts such as the Black-Scholes model, and various hedging strategies specifically to oil markets.

On reflection, there are perhaps some parts of the book which the amateur reader may find interesting. Downey's discussion of OPEC offers a fascinating insight into how commodity cartels operate. He also considers oil's future - at current consumption rates, the world will run out by the end of this millennium. But his faith that we will eventually make a leap to "Another, as yet untamed, source of energy" is arguably over-optimistic.

If, perhaps having spent a few too many hours petrol sniffing, you want to know everything there is to know about oil, this is certainly a book worth having on the shelf. However, if you are just looking for an overview, this isn't really for you. If you insist on reading it, my advice is to focus on the second half.


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