This week we spoke to investigative reporter Erin Banco about her upcoming book Pipe Dreams: The Squandering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, which will be released on November 27th. 

In Pipe Dreams, Banco revisits events over the past two decades to uncover why the enormous wealth that was supposed to come from Iraq’s and Kurdistan’s oil never got into the right hands. Pipe Dreams details how vast corruption resulted in billions and billions of dollars. 

Check out what Banco had to say. 


FPI: How would you describe Iraq’s relationship with oil and natural gas to someone who has never researched the topic?

The oil and natural gas sector is pivotal to the country’s economy. Most people don’t know this, but the oil and natural gas reserves are controlled by two different governments: the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and the central government in Baghdad. The economy of Iraq is defined by the state of those reserves and how well the international oil companies are producing. Iraq is part of OPEC and the country depends on oil sales for about 95 percent of its public income. Tens of thousands of average Iraqis – whether they’re Kurdish or Arab –are on the government payroll. Their salaries are in many ways determined by how well that oil or natural gas sector is doing and when we saw a dip in oil prices not too long ago, a lot of these civil servants went without pay because the economy – the natural gas and oil sectors – were doing so poorly. Of course there were other factors at play. The government was also trying to manage a refugee crisis and pay for the war against ISIS.


FPIWhen did you first become interested in the energy crisis in Iraq and why did you decide to write a book on it?

I first started covering the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 and at that time, everyone was trying to figure out how this extremist group was making all of its money and they were able to pay its recruits. It quickly became clear that they were using the oil and the black market to sell these reserves, so I started covering the illicit oil sales that were happening in the northern part of the country from ISIS; tracking their internal economy led me to look at Iraq’s oil and natural gas reserves in general. I started uncovering nefarious behavior in the ministries there and ended up, by chance, meeting several people there who became whistle-blower type people, who were financial regulatory enforcement officers in the UK and US who had seen the corruption in Iraq in the oil sector from the war to today. I was given around 1,000 pages of documents chronicling this issues, so I had all of this content and I had to do something, which is when I decided to write a book.


FPI: You report on armed conflict in the region, especially the ongoing battle with ISIS. What is the role of energy the state of this conflict? Do you feel optimistic about the prospects of peace for the region?

 I can only really speak to Iraq, but what I think we need to be paying more attention is what is going to happen to some of the disputed areas in Iraq post-war and post-referendum. It’s going to be interesting to see, once the dust settles, who will maintain control of the disputed territories. This has been an ongoing issue in Iraq for decades. Many of these disputed territories have reserves of oil and during the war with ISIS, the question of control once again came to the forefront of the conversation. When ISIS began taking over swaths of land in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi military moved back from some of these areas and the Kurdish military moved in. The question is: will Bagdad control these disputed areas or will the Kurds control some of these areas? How are they going to split them up? It will be interesting to see the fallout from this.


FPIWhat is your take on the referendum vote for Kurdistan’s independence and how do you feel this will change the power dynamics of the region?

 I think that the referendum vote is particularly interesting, given what is going on in the disputed territories. The idea of the referendum going through was a scary one for some people in the government in Baghdad considering a lot of the oil reserves lie in the Northern region and particularly in the disputed territories. And the Kurdish military now occupies land there. It will be interesting to see if Baghdad and Erbil can work out some sort of deal regarding control of land and exports of oil to the international market.


FPICan you describe your background of reporting on the Middle East and how you first became interested in the region?

I have been reporting since 2011 and I first started my career as a freelance journalist in Cairo about nine months after the Egyptian Revolution; I started covering the transition to a new government. I covered Egypt all the way through the election of President Morsi. I was studying Arabic intensively at the time in Cairo and I had gone to Egypt with the intent of learning Arabic and then to start reporting, but everything that was happening all at once in that part of the world –  it seemed like a good opportunity to get my foot in the door. At the time, a lot of publications were short on staff in the region and were relying on freelance journalists to fill that gap. I ended up starting to write for Newsweek, Daily Beast, the Atlantic, so I wrote at these publications sporadically during my time in Egypt.

 The Syrian Civil War started and I was really interested in starting to cover the refugees issues in Lebanon and Jordan. It seemed like the best way to start covering the war without actually being inside the country. Eventually, I did end up making my way into Syria and that became my beat. The Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, was really what took my interest as a reporter and what I reported on for a couple of years.

 I ended up coming back and going to graduate school before becoming a Middle East correspondent for International Business Times. My reporting experience has been mostly focused on the Middle East, predominantly in conflict zones, reporting on frontlines. Over the years, I have become an investigative reporter, doing deep dives. Now I am pivoting to domestic political and financial reporting.


FPIAny book/film recommendations for people hoping to learn more?

For general reading on Iraq, I recommend Emma Sky’s new book The Unravelling [Check out FPI’s Q&A with Sky] which put a lot of things in context for me. Also, Seymour Hersh wrote a book called Chain of Command, which is also a worthwhile read. For a more detailed history there is a book called Turks, Kurds and Arabs by CJ Edmunds. For more reading on the natural resource curse phenomenon I really like the book Escaping the Resource Curse by Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs as well as several other oil exports. For more detailed information about the Kurdish energy sector, there are trade publications out there that are useful.


FPI: What advice do you have for fellow and upcoming interrupters?

I have often been challenged by men – either my own age or by men who have been in this field a little longer – about whether I have the intellect or resources to write this book. I have often been called out on social media for things like this.

I think the one piece of advice I have for women trying to break through the noise and want to do their work the way they want to do their work, is to find a group of people who support you and rely on them for encouragement and to drown out as best you can – that noise coming from men who might be intimidated by you or men who think they have the only right to report on, for example, the oil sector in Iraq or think that they have claimed that territory.

 I think it is important for young women, especially, to break through that and show that you have something to offer, that you know what you’re talking about, and nothing can stop you.