Deadly Dependence

Why US petroleum policy is really about global domination

by Albert Huebner

Toward Freedom magazine, Fall 2004


The importance of petroleum to the present US economy can't be overestimated. It provides about 40 percent of total energy, and a whopping 97 L percent of all the fuel used for transportation. It's no surprise, then, that every recession since World War II in the US and beyond has come on the heels of a global oil shortage and the accompanying surge in price. The shocks of 1973-74 and 1979-80, for example, resulted in sharply higher prices, as well as broader inflation and worldwide recession.

Few lessons were learned from these experiences, and those were quickly forgotten. In 1975, Congress required automakers to begin improving the fuel efficiency of cars. Miles per gallon nearly doubled in a decade and automotive engineers acknowledged that substantially more improvement was possible. But, beginning in the mid-80s, this incentive vanished, and fuel efficiency today is at its lowest level in two decades.

The accomplishments of President Reagan were lauded interminably upon his death in June. But his admirers forgot to mention that when the Great Communicator took office in 1981, his earliest acts were to decimate the newly-formed Solar

Energy Research Institute and eliminate essential solar- and alternative-energy tax credits. This renewed the policy of virtually ignoring efficiency and renewables and focusing on conventional fuels. The fact that petroleum production in the lower 48 states had peaked by 1970 and was steadily decreasing attracted no interest.

Alaskan oil took up the slack for a while, but that peaked in 1990 and its production is also dropping. Meanwhile, consumption of petroleum is steadily increasing in the US, and, as a result, the importation of foreign oil already enormous keeps growing. Making a difficult situation worse, the demand of other oil-consuming countries is rising rapidly, and that of developing Asian nations, notably China is skyrocketing.

Daily world demand today is 12 million barrels higher than it was a decade ago, an increase equal to the combined production of Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a further complication, there are indications that the global production of oil may reach its peak relatively soon, whereupon the price will rise and never settle back down. If this comes to pass, unprecedented global economic chaos will follow.

In the face of these threats to global prosperity and security, a reasonable person would expect a National Energy Policy (NEP) to advocate a fundamental shift in energy use. Instead, the NEP issued in May 2001 known as the Cheney Report, after its principal author calls for an expansion of the US oil economy and greater dependence on foreign oil.

It's unclear whether Cheney should be considered the principal author. Members of the petroleum industry were so deeply involved that they may have written large sections. Cheney isn't telling, but the vice president is still so much a member of the industry that he may not have needed much outside help.

Commercial gain by vested interests is certainly one pillar supporting the NEP But Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, suggests another: The National Security Strategy (NSS), announced shortly after the NEP, declares that US policy will be to dominate the world through absolute military superiority and wage preventive war against any possible competitor. The Bush administration views its NEP as essential to this strategy. As Mare concludes in Blood and Oil (Henry Holt, 2004), the result will be the "endless and endlessly bloody task of policing overseas oil zones." He makes a convincing case that, despite the outrageous cost in blood and in money, failure is inevitable.

The US Department of Energy expects that global output of oil will have to grow by 45.3 million barrels per day in the coming years, up sharply from current estimated world production of about 75 million barrels per day. According to the Bush-Cheney plan, increased production in the Persian Gulf countries will supply about half of the increase. The rest will chiefly come from non-Gulf nations known as the "Alternative Eight": Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and Angola.

Klare has tabulated how much these countries produce and consume, yielding the amount available for export. To reach the administration's goal for them, they would have to increase production enormously without increasing their consumption at all. But there is a plethora of obstacles to this rosy scenario.

Many of the Alternative Eight are developing countries with growing populations; their domestic demand for oil is certain to increase. Most have been beset by governmental corruption on a grand scale, or by political unrest, civil war, or ethnic conflict, in each case interrupting petroleum production. In a few, oil fields long in production seem to be nearing exhaustion.

The Gulf alone, with two-thirds of the world's proven reserves, has the capacity to meet the burgeoning demand, at least for a while. With each passing year, however, the Gulf will account for a larger proportion of total world production; consequently, the US will become increasingly dependent on its oil.

As the drive toward invading Iraq accelerated, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared, "This is not about oil, and anyone who thinks that is badly misunderstanding the situation." This was a lie, of course, one piece of evidence being that advancing US forces gave highest priority to securing the massive oil fields in Kirkuk and Basra and to cordoning off the Ministry of Petroleum in Baghdad, while the rest of the city fell into chaos.

Yet, the invasion of Iraq was only partly about trading blood for the oil that fills US drivers' SUVs. Without "an abundant and reliable supply of oil," Klare writes, "the Department of Defense could neither rush its forces to distant battlefields nor keep them supplied once there," reducing the NSS to a paper tiger. Although it's too early to call this plan of world domination through military superiority a failure, it hasn't had much success in stabilizing the supply of oil. At this writing, pipelines in Iraq, with the world's second largest reserves, are under frequent attack from homegrown insurgents and jihadists from other countries; thus, oil production is a fraction of what it could be. The petroleum infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, with the largest reserves, has become the target of choice of the royal family's increasingly aggressive enemies. Could Osama bin Laden have hoped for more?

If current US policy, supplemented by the horrors at Abu Ghraib prison, has been an effective recruitment tool for terrorists, it's done nothing to curb the imminent, and extremely menacing, global petroleum crunch. Klare calls for a paradigm shift on energy, a complete rethinking of basic attitudes, as a prerequisite to implementing a rational policy that will be effective in mitigating scarcity. He's right. But that can't happen until the US electorate undertakes a broader paradigm shift, one that leads to an administration seeking not to dominate the world, but to bring a better life to its people.


Albert Huebner teaches at California State University, Northridge.

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