Friday, November 18, 2011

Post #83 - Fuels: Fossil and Fissile

"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell in it." (Psalm 23:1)

When Japan decided to bomb Pearl Harbor, it has been said, oil played a significant part (the United States limited oil exports to Japan, almost totally reliant on imported oil, in 1941 in response to the Japanese invasion of China, leading Japan to invade the oil-rich Dutch-held Indonesian islands). To say that the present crisis is “all about oil,” as many critics of the administration have alleged, would be dangerously simplistic. This commodity is, however, likely more important than any other single economic factor in the equation of Middle East stability, progress, confrontation and disintegration -- certainly a vital element in any understanding of global geopolitical trends. David Goodstein, a professor of physics at California Institute of Technology and author of Out of Gas: the End of the Age of Oil says “"The oil crisis may not hit until the next decade or the one following, but it will hit."

But it will not hit first in the United States if we have anything to say about it. And of course we do have much to say; the American forces stationed in the region and the carrier task-forces gathered in the Persian Gulf speak loudly for our interests. But we may eventually be forced to make some hard choices about what drives our national mission and our international relationships. One cannot “serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). As Emerson said, "The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a man will worship something – have no doubt about that, either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart – but it will out. That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming."

Official U.S. Government official documents (here a 1995 Pentagon website policy statement) do not leave much doubt about what is driving policy:

"The broad national security interests and objectives expressed in the President's National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Chairman's National Military Strategy (NMS) form the foundation of the United States Central Command's theater strategy. The NSS directs implementation of a strategy of dual containment of the rogue states of Iraq and Iran as long as those states pose a threat to U.S. interests, to other states in the region, and to their own citizens. Dual containment is designed to maintain the balance of power in the region without depending on either Iraq or Iran. USCENTCOM's theater strategy is interest-based and threat-focused. The purpose of U.S. engagement, as espoused in the NSS, is to protect the United States' vital interest in the region - uninterrupted, secure U.S./Allied access to Gulf oil."

That may have been written in an era of greater candor; a June 2007 article by Paul Reynolds, BBC News Online world affairs correspondent, called Oil and Conflict: A Natural Mix, noted:

"Just how far the United States was prepared to go for oil was shown by the recent release of documents from the British National Archives. An intelligence assessment by the British government in January revealed that in 1973 Washington drew up a plan to seize oilfields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi to counter an Arab oil embargo against the West.
"...The intervention by the United States and its allies over Kuwait in 1991 was in large part motivated by a need to secure oil and also to prevent Saddam Hussein from expanding his access to it. And, although the more recent war with Iraq had other motives as well, oil was a factor as the US Vice President Dick Cheney, warning of Iraq's ambitions, said in August 2002: "Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East [and] take control of a great proportion of the world's energy supplies..."

Our very efforts to secure oil for our future cost massive amounts of oil. Based on government figures, the U.S. military consumes around 350,000 barrels of oil each day, according to a February 17, 2007 article in the independent web publication This is the energy cost of the armed forces; there is also the cost in terms of your own energy: about one-third of our income taxes go for military expenditures -- approximately equal to the military expenditures of all other governments in the world -- with no signs of any reduction in the near future. (In contrast, only about 1% of each income tax dollar goes to “humanitarian aid, diplomatic missions and international cooperation.”) Profits are up war-contractor companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

A article titled “The New Axis of Oil” (The National Interest, July 2006) by Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation (formerly senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council) and Pierre Noel of the French Institute of International Relations, explored the interactions between the U.S.-Iran crisis and world oil markets. Leverett and Noel wrote:

"While Washington is preoccupied with curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, avoiding policy failure in Iraq and cheering the “forward march of freedom,” the political consequences of recent structural shifts in global energy markets are posing the most profound challenge to American hegemony since the end of the Cold War...
"...At the center of this undeclared but increasingly assertive axis [of oil] is a growing geopolitical partnership between Russia (a major energy producer) and China (the paradigmatic rising consumer) against what both perceive as excessive U.S. unilateralism...the real significance is being seen in the ongoing frustration of U.S. objectives on the Iranian nuclear issue. This will likely be a milestone in redefining the post-Cold War international order – not merely because Iran is likely to end up with at least a nuclear-weapons option, but because of what that will imply about the efficacy of America's global leadership...
"As the Western powers consider what sort of action against Iran they might collectively support, it is clear that their options in the Security Council are severely limited by Russian and Chinese resistance to the imposition of sanctions or other strongly punitive measures...Russia has come to see Iran as an important geopolitical partner in its efforts to rollback U.S. influence, not only in Central Asia but in the Caucasus as well....For its part, China's approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is directly linked to its assessment of its requirements for energy security...
"Beyond speculating whether Iran might cut off oil exports in response to sanctions or military action, commentators tend to overlook the implications of the current controversy's outcome for the geopolitics of global energy. How the nuclear issue plays out will largely determine Iran's future as an oil and gas supplier. Iranian oil production relies heavily on a small number of old, “super-giant” fields, where output has plateaued and could soon start to decline. These old fields need massive infusions of investment and technology to increase their recovery rates. Iran is not Saudi Arabia and cannot make the investments itself...Similarly, Iran needs large-scale investment and technology transfers to develop its gas-exporting potential."

Iran does not enjoy the advantages we do of a highly-developed base in manufacturing, service and information industries, a vast internal market for our output, and military superiority. If our leaders spend so much time and thought on assuring America's energy future, why should we think it odd that Iran's leaders would be concerned about their natural resources, their technological options or their independence from outside sources, and the impact of those factors on their national security (if not national survival)?

Ultimately, of course, an "oil economy" has no future. It has been pointed out that we used energy from the wind, sun, animals and rivers for centuries to satisfy the needs of our homes and enterprises; only about two hundred years ago, we became addicted to oil (the supply of which is unfortunately finite, since it takes the earth a very long time to make oil). We are now on the downhill side of that supply curve, even taking into account new methods of prying the viscous stuff out of the earth. Christopher Flavin, president of World Watch and an expert on global energy, has written that “oil prices soared from $24 per barrel in early 2003 to a peak of $70 per barrel in September 2005…oil production has been falling in 33 of the world’s 48 largest oil producing countries, including 6 of the 11 members of OPEC. In the continental United States, the world’s oil pioneer, production peaked 35 years ago at 8 million barrels per day, falling to less than 3 million barrels per day now.”

But, as long as energy primarily means fossil fuels there are huge sums of money to be made, and wealth to be protected. It has become axiomatic that the Middle East equals oil, but countries in other regions, such as Venezuela or Russia, also gain both power and vulnerability from their standing as suppliers of natural resources. American and British oil interests long benefited from their exploitation of the mineral wealth that lay beneath the mostly barren landscape of Iran. (Iran still has the second-largest untapped oil reserves in the world.) With his move to nationalize Iran's mineral assets, Dr. Mossadegh sealed his own fate; the United States could not afford to yield its economic interests, choosing instead to yield in the area of governance, abandoning democracy in favor of a more cooperative and accommodating autocracy. When Iran began to talk a few years ago about establishing an oil bourse (like a commodities exchange) that would not be based on the U.S. Dollar, but on the Euro, it was assured of very rough sledding ahead. (One might speculate as to whether the current economic crisis in the Euro zone could have been forestalled by such an innovation.) As Russia and Iran now discuss the possibility of a natural gas “OPEC” (Russia has the largest reserves of gas in the world, Iran the second largest), U.S.-Iran relations can be seen deteriorating once again.

We should note in passing that petroleum is not "the only game in town" in the Middle East. The fact that Russian, Iran and Qatar possess almost 60% of the world's reserves of natural gas -- the fuel that is being touted by the industry association as "the way out of" our dependence on foreign energy sources -- while the United States has only three per cent, only underscores what the oil crunch implicates.

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