When Oil, Corporate Greed and Exploitation Collide


If there was gold in them thar hills, there must be black gold in them thar oceans.

That might have been the operating motto powering Texas-based Kosmos Energy when it went drilling for petroleum off the coast of Ghana a decade ago. In 2007, they hit a gusher, tapping into a huge oil reserve—now the aptly named Jubilee field—leaving Kosmos-nauts as well as Ghanaians with visions of barrels of petro-dollars dancing in their heads.

But before Ghanaians and their government fantasize about their own colorized remake of the Beverly Hillbillies in the Sahel, they only need look next door to Nigeria to see what happens when a poor, undeveloped African nation strikes it big in oil: There will be blood... as well as greed, corruption and war. 

In the new season of PBS’ award-winning POV documentary series, filmmaker Rachel Boynton’s Big Men (Monday, Aug. 25) stands lean and tall, digging into a cautionary tale that merges Fortune magazine with Joseph Conrad at his grimiest. The end product is a refined, methodical probe into wildcatting capitalism and corporate neo-colonialism, but one that nonetheless runs a little dry in bedrock analysis.

Boynton takes her cameras and crew from the streets of Ghana and the deltas of Nigeria to the slick boardrooms of New York City; from America’s entrepreneurial one-percenters to Africa’s wretched of the earth. Shot over five years, her 95-minute chronicle is a hefty accomplishment, giving viewers a multifaceted, fly-on-the-wall probe into how the gears of 21st-century Third World turbo-capitalism work—and the grease that keeps it all running.

If Boynton has a protagonist, besides Ghana itself, it’s Bill Musselman, a straight-shooting, old-school oilman who spearheaded Kosmos’ African explorations as CEO. The upside to Boynton’s considerable access to Musselman and other Kosmos execs is their chatty, off-the-cuff comments; the downside is the relative rarity of provocative questions or research that dig deeper than her objective style permits. Yet for all of Musselman’s amiability— even when Wall Street bears begin biting in Great Recession 2009—he revealingly spouts off when a Norwegian official argues that the best way to prevent Ghana from being exploited is to heavily tax the multinational drillers. Like any good free-marketer in our regressively Ayn Randian era, Musselman views taxes as bad business, if not sludge.

At the beginning of Big Men, Boynton quotes U.S. capitalism high priest (or witchdoctor) Milton Friedman, who sermonized that the “world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” The Chicago School economist scarcely qualified his “I got mine” mantra, but Boynton pours out examples of the destructive absurdities of such a crude individualist credo. We’re taken to oil-rich Nigeria, where greedy and corrupt elites have so wildly pursued their interests at the expense of their country that they’ve created a brutally stratified, stagnant land of haves and have-nots. This is a place where the destitute villagers secretly sabotage pipelines just to be hired back to repair them, and where armed militants in ski masks set hellish fires to oil refineries. (It’s also worth mentioning that Nigeria is where poverty and despair ignited the barbaric Islamic backlash of Boco Haram.)

Big Men’s title comes from an observation of a Ghanaian tribal leader who says that “everybody wants to become a big man" and get fat from a diet of oil money. The ultimate question that Boynton poses is if Ghana can break the Nigerian (and Mideast) mold by democratically sharing the wealth from its share of that oil money—some $444 million in 2011 alone.

But the deeper question, and not only for Ghanaians, is who exactly owns the Earth’s diminishing natural resources, and how much they should profit by them. Musselman and venture capitalist Jeffrey Harris claim that the great risks involved in exploring for oil justifies their enormous takes on the back end. But what’s the bottom line and who really pays when a corporation (BP, anyone?) recklessly befouls our precious waterways and coasts for generations to come? And don’t the Jubilee field and discoveries like it just keep gasoline relatively cheap, prolonging our bottomless addiction to fossil fuels and the amoral corporate pushers that pump them?

The answers from Big Men are sizeable but they don’t always measure up to the well of questions Boynton implicitly raises. To wit, how’s this for a toxic gusher: Kosmos Energy CEO Brian Maxted was a monstrously big man in 2011, fueled by $58 million in salary and stock options.

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