A Clean Tech Expert Uncovers the Story of Her CIA Spy, Oil Industry Father

A tale about one woman’s quest to find the connections between her clean tech work and the dealings of her father.

A Good Spy Leaves No Trace

Anne E. Tazewell

Over the past 17 years, Anne E. Tazewell has raised over $15 million to fund clean energy and alternative fuels programs—all with a goal of freeing the United States (and the rest of the world) from our addiction to fossil fuels. Working in her role as a clean energy expert at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at NC State University, she has funded electrification and charging programs, biofuels filling stations, hydrogen, and much more. 

I know some of this because she was the first neighbor I had after moving from England to Carrboro, NC. What I didn’t know, however, was that her connection to the story of America and oil goes much further back. It turns out that her father was a CIA agent and oil industry consultant in Egypt and the Middle East in the '50s and '60s. This was right around the time of the overthrow of a democratic leader in Iran, the explosion of oil wealth among the Saudi Royal Family, and planned assassinations in Iraq. 

That’s the story she sets out to tell in her new memoir, "A Good Spy Leaves No Trace." Here’s how the book blurb describes the content: 

A Good Spy Leaves No Trace is part ghost story, part secret political history, part call to action and part family memoir. It is an investigation of loss, love, oil, and the alternatives, a story both personal and political. At its heart, A Good Spy is a multigenerational account about family. It is about using the alchemical power of family and forgiveness to heal.

As the blurb alludes to, Tazewell’s task was made considerably harder—not just by government secrets and red tape—but also the fact that before his death she was largely estranged from her father, who left the family in Beirut when she was six years old. The resulting narrative, then, is less a comprehensive, factual account of CIA shenanigans, and more an emotional tale about one woman’s quest to find the connections between her own pacifism and clean tech work, and the murkier dealings of her father. 

As author John Perkins put it in advance praise for the book, a dedicated environmental, anti-war, anti-fossil fuels activist daughter of a military-industrial-complex, oil company mercenary soldier, she weaves a tale that is a microcosm for the dualities that confront our world today.”

And this is what I found so interesting in the book. While many of us try our best to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to start modeling alternatives, we are also deeply trapped within a system that makes kicking the habit either impossible or so prohibitively difficult that very few will manage it. Tazewell’s book demonstrates that this was no accident—the full force of many governments was dedicated to helping the cheap oil keep flowing—but also explores the possibility many of those involved in these efforts believed they were doing the right thing. (Tazewell posits that seeing the power of oil in the defeat of Nazi Germany may have convinced her father of the importance of securing its supply.) 

In this excerpt from the book, she describes how the journey to uncover her father’s secrets influenced the way she views these power structures: 

“There is no grand conspiracy by a few who want to control the world. Rather, we have a system that has been manipulated by a few to create advantages favoring one choice over another, say, fossil fuels over renewable options—a system of entrenched interests that rewards selfishness and exploitation over the good of the whole. And as individuals, we have been lulled into believing we can buy our way to happiness. 

Tazwell offers a compelling meditation not just on just how badly the deck has been stacked against clean energy, but also the fact that this is less about the cartoonish villainy of a few specific individuals—and more about the damaging, out-of-date, and deadly worldviews of militarism and American exceptionalism that was widely and deeply felt by so many, and which ultimately shape our energy and transportation systems to this day. 

When asked whether writing the book had also changed the way she thinks about the task ahead of us, Tazewell shares: “I don’t think the quest to learn more about my father, and the subsequent discoveries of all the nefarious undertakings of the CIA in the Middle East of the 1950s and ’60s to gain more control of its oil, changed how I think about the challenge of getting off fossil fuels. To discover—in a very real personal and political sense—how oil has played such a critical role in our success since WWII and how policy decisions were critical to the expansion of Middle East oil during my father’s era was an affirmation of something I already had discovered through my own career as a clean energy expert.” 

And that "something," she said, was the sheer scale of the control (both covert and overt) that the oil industry has over our government, and our democracy, here in the United States. Following on from that thought, she was careful not to suggest that individual actions don’t matter. In fact, she says our personal lifestyle choices are still very important, as they send signals to policymakers and markets alike. She says it’s absolutely critical, however, to win the policy fight if we’re to make any real progress.

“You gotta make it easy for individuals and organizations to make a change from business as usual. That is why good policy moving us in this direction is paramount. Personally, I think a carbon tax and dividend is the way to go because it would raise the cost of fossil fuel thus incentivizing the use of low carbon alternatives," Tazewell says. "However because of the undue influence of money on our political system, at this point in time, we are far more likely to get end user incentives like tax credits to usher in expansion of EVs.” 

 "A Good Spy Leaves No Trace" is certainly not your typical climate or clean energy book. It doesn’t end with a list of actions you can take to green your carbon footprint, and it doesn’t offer a detailed account of the ins and outs of solar, or electric vehicles, or carbon financing. Instead, it takes a very personal (and sometimes painful) story and uses that to explore how—like it or not—our fates are deeply intertwined. And that we have no choice but to recognize our past, and to interact with powerful and sometimes damaging forces in the hope of shaping them toward a far less destructive future.