Pipelines to Power
by Chris Richards
New Internationalist magazine,
... Oil makes the difference between living
in a developed or a developing world. I heats houses, provides
fuel for cars and machinery, and lubricates the generators that
produce electricity. As a primary energy producer, oil creates
power. And oil pipelines bring that power to the people. How can
any other conclusion be reached?
Because through oil pipelines flows political
and economic power, not just an energy source. And that power
is working against, rather than for, the people in the countries
where the pipelines run.
Oil is economic power: a rich resource
that can be traded for income to forge a better life for people
in desperately poor oil-producing nations. Yet as soon as the
oil comes whooshing up from the ground, corporations with offices
in other countries and interests all over the world take control
of the resource by pumping it into a pipeline. Immediately the
slithering steel snake swallows the oil, it is separated from
the people who've called it their resource. In a gushing one-way
stream of billions of barrels of oil every day, the pipeline plots
a clear course for the oil away from its country of origin towards
the tankers and refineries of those companies which profit most
In Africa, Latin America and Central Asia
- where many governments are desperate for a stable source of
income - oil is being extracted and land is being 'rented' for
pipeline corridors on terms that are far more favourable to oil
companies than to the oil-producing countries. Taxes are waived.
Environmental and corporate laws are flouted, changed or avoided.
'Profit-sharing' agreements are struck so that countries don't
get to share in the profit until after corporate investors recoup
both their costs and a 'fair' return on their investment which
can be one, even two decades after the oil starts flowing.
Consequently, as the oil flows away down
the pipeline and out of the country, so do the profits. In 2002,
five oil corporations made the list of the top fifteen largest
companies in the world, with Shell and ExxonMobil the globe's
third and fifth most profitable companies. In the same year, 4
of the 5 top oil-exporting countries failed to rate a place amongst
the top 60 in the UN Human Development Index (which ranks nations
according to their people's life expectancy, education and real
income).'While BP's chief executive Sir John Browne is looking
forward to an annual pension of $1.97 million, the majority of
people in one of the world's largest oil-exporting nations, Nigeria,
are getting less than a dollar a day. And the proportion of Nigerian
households living below the dollar-a-day poverty line has actually
grown, from 27 per cent in 1980 to 66 per cent in 1996.
In Middle Eastern countries like Saudi
Arabia, health, education and benefits available to the people
smooth discontent about the unfair distribution of oil wealth.
But in poor countries with unstable democracies, too little oil
money comes back to benefit the people and is instead being spent
on maintaining political and personal power of the ruling elite.
A good example is provided by Africa's
Chad-Cameroon pipeline - through which oil started flowing three
months ago. The World Bank Group justified its $93-million commitment
to the project by trumpeting its poverty-reducing potential -
so desperately needed for Chad. In an embarrassing turn-around
in November 2000 the World Bank admitted that Chad's Government
had spent an estimated $4.5 million of oil-related money on arms
to fight its civil war.
Blood in the pipeline What the Chad Government
has done is not new. Governments in Sudan, Colombia and Angola
have also been turning oil-revenues into weapons to use against
minorities seeking a more equitable share of economic and political
power. The resulting armed struggle plays out on the pipeline,
as opponents bomb the route to cut off the flow.
The figures about how many have died in
pipeline conflict around the world lack precision: one of the
reasons that these events continue to occur is that there are
few on the ground actually counting. Thus, in clearing the way
for oil fields and pipelines in Sudan, tens of thousands of civilians
have been killed or displaced in the south of the country. This
area is the base of the Sudan People's Liberation Army - the Government's
strongest opponent in a 20-year civil war.
Just as pipelines arm conflict, they also
create it. As Michael Renner, one of a number of writers now reviewing
conflict caused by resource exploitation, observes: 'In case after
case, an array of burdens - ranging from the expropriation of
land, disruption of traditional ways, environmental devastation,
and social maladies - are shouldered by the local population,
'who are typically not consulted at all about oil extraction and
transportation. In Nigeria - in addition to the unfair distribution
of oil revenues - Renner points to enormous network of oil pipelines
crisscrossing communities as a continual source of conflict. The
rusted pipelines have ruptured, spilling 2.5 million barrels of
oil over the land and waterways of the Niger Delta. Widespread
sickness and environmental destruction have resulted.
The earth bleeds Provoked by such corporate
disregard for those who live around the pipelines, the Ogoni people
of the Niger Delta staged mass protests that succeeded in shutting
down Shell (the main oil operator in the country) in 1993. The
military dictatorship responded with a campaign of violence that
provoked ethnic groups to attack each other. Some 2,000 Ogoni
were killed and 80,000 uprooted as a consequence. So many activists
now try to cut off the flow of oil that Nigeria has a special
force to police the lines.
The steel shell tubing of the pipelines
is designed to keep the oil secure - beyond the reach of its political
and environmental opponents. But, as the pipes wend hundreds,
often thousands of kilometres through the land of friends and
foes, their length works against them. Laid in one line the world's
pipelines could run around the Equator more than five times -
providing ample sites for conflict. On just nine pipelines now
operating or under construction in politically volatile areas,
an estimated total of 14,872 kilometres is vulnerable to 'rebel
or terrorist attacks.
Sabotage is also a threat to the proposed
last 12 years has experienced two armed struggles for territory
and independence in an area within 130 kilometres of the proposed
pipeline - has already lined the route through its land with military
posts. Another killing corridor appears inevitable.
What is particularly obscene about this
is that oil corporations - knowing the history of and potential
for devastating death-tolls and displacements on their pipelines
- go ahead and build them anyway. Maybe this should not surprise.
As the song goes, money is their blood.
More surprising is that countries and
financial institutions throughout the world are prepared to support
such bloody enterprises.
Surprising, that is, until world oil supplies
are placed in the picture. Because oil is running out. And that
means that countries and companies will be increasingly prepared
to overlook death and destruction to maintain the flow.
The great oil auction opens
Experts disagree about when oil supplies
will start running down. At the start of this century, BP's boss
Sir John Browne predicted that current level of production might
be maintained for 30 or 40 years. Others say that supplies are
about to peak or are already in decline.
One thing is certain: oil is a finite
resource, and it will run out. Without imports, Britain's total
reserves are enough to satisfy just 7.5 years of its peoples'
present consumption, with the US having people's voracious appetite
for a mere 3 years.
These reserves will disappear even more
quickly if, as predicted, world consumption increases by nearly
55 per cent between 2000 and 2025.9 Significantly, in the developing
world oil consumption is expected to grow at two or three times
the rate of the industrialized world in the next two decades.
From 1997 to 2020 the oil that will be consumed by China alone
is estimated to increase by 150 per cent.
While oil supplies are going down international
demand is going up... and so is the competition. Already pipelines
are being taken to ever-increasing lengths to get at the oil on
which industrialized economies and societies so heavily rely.
As supplies start to dwindle, and the price of oil starts to rise,
companies will find profit in places previously considered - because
of their geography or political situations - impenetrable.
US professor of peace and security studies
Michael Klare predicts the emergence of a new geography. 'Attracting
the greatest interest,' he says, 'will be places that harbour
particularly abundant supplies of vital materials.' Possessing
two-thirds of known future oil reserves, the Persian Gulf region
(which includes Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait) is most
likely to experience the interest of oil competitors. The Caspian
Sea Basin (which includes the Central Asian states of Azerbaijan,
Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) is next, with a fifth
of the world's total reserves.
There is now an extensive US military
build-up in both regions. US companies and those of its allies
are now being given the rights to extract the oil and lease the
land over which their pipelines can run. These pipelines will
map out strategic allegiances. For countries not playing on the
US team the consequences will be significant.
Israel is in. Shunned by the Middle East
for its position on Palestine, Israel has been buying its oil
from Russia. Soon this may no longer be necessary. Diplomatic
sources now indicate that the Bush Administration will not support
lifting UN sanctions on Iraq unless Saddam's successors agree
to supply Israel with oil."
Whatever the new regime decides, a taste
of the fate that awaits such a move has been provided by the re-opening
of the pipeline between Iraq and Turkey: it was bombed two days
after the oil started flowing through it.
By contrast, Russia and China are being
excluded from the potential oil wealth of the Caspian region.
After fierce competition between Russia and the US for oil rights
in the former Soviet states, post-11 September aid and military
assistance given by the US to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan seems to have worked. China - which will be the
main competitor of the US for supplies in the next two decades
- now appears unlikely to receive the guarantee from Kazakhstan
that it needs to justify its plans to build a 2,880 kilometre
pipeline from the Kazakh oil fields.
Strategic alliances flow with the oil
As a consequence, two former enemies are now forming their own
alliance: an agreement writ large on an oil pipeline. Russian
President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced
in May this year that a $2.5-billion pipeline will be built to
take Russian oil through Siberia to China (profiled on page 23).
At the same time, the two leaders declared greater co-operation
in trade, criticized the US go-it-alone attitude in international
affairs and called for a multipolar world order.
For the Caspian region, Michael Klare
paints a picture of separatist conflict and rising tension between
the oil-rich and poor. 'To protect vital pipelines against recurring
attack and sabotage, regional leaders will be forced to deploy
their armies along vulnerable sections for indefinite periods...
[It] is also possible for such contests to experience sudden escalations
leading to deeper involvement by outside powers."
Which brings us to the prospect of further
wars. The shortest and therefore the most economical route for
the US to get oil from the land-locked Caspian Basin is a pipeline
south to the Persian Gulf through Iran. The US presently has executive
orders and legislation in place to impose sanctions on any company
(US or otherwise) that develops Iran's oil fields. It will not
support such a route unless there is a regime change in Iran.
Indeed, the US is explicit that the protection
of pipeline routes (rather than the protection of people) is a
prime reason why its 'war on terror' is being waged. In its May
2002 report, the US Office of the Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism
has classified more than half of the international terrorist attacks
committed during 2001 as being directed at a single pipeline in
Colombia. In keeping with this 'new world order', the US military
is redefining its role to include oil pipeline security. As a
consequence, US troops are now in Colombia training that country's
army to provide pipeline protection.
Russia too has already shown itself prepared
to use military force to keep open the routes it needs. Its refusal
to grant independence to the republics of Chechnya and its neighbour
Dagestan in 1999 was widely seen as motivated by the desire to
control a route - and the transit fees that go with it - from
the Caspian oil fields to its tankers in the Black Sea. Estimates
of civilian deaths in Chechnya alone, since this round of fighting
broke out in 1999, are as high as 20,000.
There are of course ways to deal with
an impending oil crisis other than by force. In rich countries,
people have been able to use their growing wealth to opt for ever-increasing
oil consumption and dependence: gas-guzzling cars and bigger houses
that require more energy for heating, cooling and lighting. So
much can be done to stop - even reverse - these trends.
Like accelerating the supply of alternative
energy, committing money and effort to renewable sources - as
Germany is doing, now on track to generate 25 per cent of its
electricity with wind by 2025. Like discouraging car transport,
building up public transport, taxing car use by the kilometre,
encouraging bikes, town-planning away freeways.
These changes will require a bold shift:
challenging what we consume and overthrowing present thinking
about what goods and services are needed for a decent standard
of living. They are changes that must happen when oil supplies
start their inevitable downward slide. So why not now?
The car - consuming about a third of all
oil supplies - is the best place to start. For if the oil from
the pipelines is no longer poured out in such gushing volumes
into petrol tanks, oil company profits will fall significantly.
And that fall in profit will deliver a message in a language that
both business and governments are likely to understand: securing
oil supplies through conflict, death and war is morally and economically
bankrupt, and piping the blood of the Majority World down the
lines is no longer the price we will pay for our oil.