- - Wednesday, July 27, 2016



By Peter B. Doran

Viking, $28, 337 pages

The “ambitious rivals” of Peter Doran’s subtitle are Marcus Samuels, an East London merchant who built his father’s seashell business into Shell Transportation and Trading Company, and in the process developed the first modern oil tanker, capable of navigating the Suez Canal, and Henri Deterding, “a take-no-prisoners oilman” who created Royal Dutch, building on holdings in Dutch colonial outposts.

After bitter competitive battles, writes Peter Doran, energy expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis, with both men fighting through Asia, Russia, Baku and into the United States, they agreed to a truce, teaming to form Royal Dutch Shell. The common enemy was John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Company was cornering the world’s oil market by manipulating prices and systematically driving rivals out of business.

(One such casualty was a would-be independent Pennsylvania oil-refiner, Jack Tarbell, whose daughter Ida, a reporter for McClure’s magazine, would write the articles and best-selling “History of the Standard Oil Company” (1904), that would be instrumental in bringing on the anti-trust actions aimed at breaking up the company that broke her father.)

Mr. Doran documents the case for condemning Standard’s anti-competitive business practices. But there might be a problem with portraying John D. Rockefeller as the villain of the piece. The company certainly operated according to his principals of thrift and profit, as dictated by the company ledger. But by the turn of the century and into the 1900s, when the action takes place, Rockefeller was largely inactive in the management of the business.

By 1896 he’d stopped going to the office, and in 1896 he’d quietly retired, remaining as president in name only, reportedly at the request of his successor, John Archbold, who many hold responsible for the cutthroat pricing strategy.

In a chapter titled “Wealth Beyond Measure,” Mr. Doran shows us a decidedly non-villainous Rockefeller in retirement in Florida, developing a passion for golf, enjoying automobile rides with attractive young ladies, “belting out hymns with gusto” in the Ormond Union Church, and performing numerous acts of philanthropy.

Nor did he forget his Ohio roots. “On his final day on earth in 1937,” writes Mr. Doran, “one of Rockefeller’s last acts was to pay off the mortgage of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland.”

Meanwhile, over this period, he grew steadily richer, thanks to the great Standard Oil breakup, which resulted in the formation of numerous independent companies under the Standard rubric. Most of them still thrive today, under new names like Exxon and Mobil, although BP has swallowed two, Standard of Ohio and Standard of Indiana, later Amoco, then briefly BP Amoco.

“At the peak of his fortune,” writes Mr. Doran, “[Rockefeller‘s] net worth would have amounted to roughly $357 billion today.” In other words, neither rivals nor the federal government could actually break Rockefeller or topple his empire. But his rivals did succeed in opening up the international world of petroleum to competition.

In Henri Deterding and Marcus Samuel (later First Viscount Bearsted), Peter Doran brings to life two of the men from the days of the Great Game who made oil central to the growth of international trade and commerce, and ultimately the development of world civilization as we know it.

Mr. Doran captures the risk and adventure characteristic of so much of business conducted at the turn of the last century in countries or regions torn by wars and revolution, none more hostile than the oil-bearing regions of the world — many of them the same regions continuing to produce today, and on which we’ll continue to rely on until we develop real-world, workable alternatives.

With the increasing realization that today’s fashionable alternative energy forms simply waste money and aren’t up to the job, Mr. Doran points to the possibilities already being realized in producing low-carbon natural gas from shale rock.

The possibilities, he believes, are endless. Enough shale gas is potentially available in the world, he writes, “that the twenty-first century stands at the threshold of a new, revolutionary change in transportation and power generation.”

This crossover, he concludes, “would resemble the transition from coal to oil that served as the backdrop for Royal Dutch/Shell’s fight with Standard a century earlier.”

John D. Rockefeller would approve. And so would his rivals.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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