Oil, Security, War
The geopolitics of U.S. energy
by Steve Kretzman
Multinational Monitor magazine,
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
describes itself as a "professional forum for study of defense
and international security."
Located in the heart of London, RUSI is
an incubator for the latest defense establishment thinking. It
is no great surprise to enter and find Robert "Bud"
McFarlane, formerly Ronald Reagan's national security adviser,
addressing a crowd of officers and bureaucrats.
The surprise last October was his message-greater
security for Great Britain and the United States will be achieved
not by building and deploying more aircraft carriers and tanks
in the Persian Gulf, but by increasing energy efficiency and automobile
fuel economy at home.
National security would best be served,
McFarlane argued, by focusing on reducing domestic demand for
oil. Focusing on the supply of oil will prove "ultimately
inadequate," concluded McFarlane, who once worked for the
man who removed solar panels from the White House.
This is not your father's clean energy
movement. At the symposium McFarlane addressed, there was little
discussion of climate change or other environmental impacts of
oil addiction. There was even less discussion of the human rights
issues that have plagued oil projects from Nigeria to Colombia
and Burma. The issue for McFarlane and the others at RUSI was
simply national security.
After discussing various aspects of the
costs of oil addiction, including the political and economic costs
of maintaining security of supply, participants in the symposium
then argued the case for a transition from oil as the principal
source of portable fuels.
McFarlane and the RUSI may represent the
future of national security approaches to energy, but they are
not the present.
In fact, the Bush-Cheney administration
is perhaps the ultimate expression of the "oil equals security"
mindset. The administration's geopolitical strategy-based in significant
part on the threat or actual use of force-in large part revolves
around the perceived need to maintain access to oil reserves,
particularly in the Persian Gulf, but around the world as well.
BENEATH IT ALL
To understand the politics of oil, it
is important to understand both the geology and the industry.
The world is definitely not running out of oil. Over the last
25 years, known reserves of oil have increased by almost 70 percent.
If all new exploration for oil and gas were to stop tomorrow,
the wells would not run dry for more than 40 years.
The amount of oil available is not simply
a function of geology, but also of economics, technology and politics.
Identified, or proven, reserves refer to oil and gas that have
been discovered and remain in the ground, but could be extracted
quickly and economically using today's technology.
Additions to reserves can take place as
technological advances allow access to previously uneconomical
oil, as has happened over the last decade with deep offshore technology,
horizontal drilling and the increased use of advanced seismic
mapping technology. Reserves growth also occurs during the production
process, through the extensions of old fields or the discovery
of new pools (fields) of petroleum.
The price of oil or gas also has a significant
impact on reserves estimates-as price goes up, the higher cost
of extraction from smaller, more marginal finds becomes more economically
viable, and those fields are added to proven reserve estimates.
Possible reserves figures, which are cited
as an indication of how much oil a region might hold for the future,
are even more speculative-although recent technological improvements
have improved the reliability of these figures.
To further complicate the matter, both
companies and countries have financial incentives to either over-
or underestimate the amount of reserves in their possession at
any given time. It is a complicated business, and outside the
United States, there are no agreed standards for reserves calculations.
In The New Economy of Oil' recently published
by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the authors put
forth the useful concept of thinking of all the oil in the world
as an iceberg. Visible above the water line are those reserves
that are proven, and economically viable to extract today. Beneath
the water are the much more vast reserves of conventional and
unconventional sources of oil that will become economical as the
price goes up and the technology evolves.
THE SAUDI ADVANTAGE
But while much of the world's oil may
be beneath the metaphorical water line, two-thirds of it are in
the Persian Gulf. As long as the world is dependent on oil, it
will be dependent on the Persian Gulf. Production varies from
year to year, as the United States might import more oil from
Venezuela, Canada or Mexico-but over the long run, it is the Persian
Gulf nations that are sitting on the motherlode.
And one country, Saudi Arabia, holds just
over one quarter of all the oil in the world. Saudi Arabia has
proven reserves of 264 billion barrels of oil, and possible reserves
that are estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration
to be as high as one trillion barrels. The Saudis have the world's
largest production capacity, and the largest excess production
capacity. On a daily basis, Saudi Arabia currently produces 8
million barrels per day.
Perhaps more importantly, it is the only
country that can, on short notice, produce an additional 2 million
barrels a day. This means that when disruptions in supply occur-for
example, when the Venezuelan oil industry shuts down- the Saudis
are the only ones who can pick up the slack.
For these reasons, the oil market revolves
around Saudi Arabia. For U.S. geopolitical strategists, this dependence
on Saudi Arabia is a major vulnerability which fundamentally shapes
U.S. military policy.
0IL = SECURITY
On October 20, 1973, Saudi Arabia exercised
the power it wields based on its dominant oil position, declaring
an embargo of oil shipments to the United States in retaliation
for assistance to the Israeli military. Other Arab nations quickly
joined the embargo. They lifted the embargo in President Bush
greets troops at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo
March of the next year - but the power
of the threat of that weapon has shaped U.S. energy and security
policy since that time.
Three years later, President Carter's
secretary of defense, Harold Brown, testified before Congress
that "there is no more serious threat to the long-term security
of the United States and to its allies than that which stems from
the growing deficiency of secure and assured energy resources.
In January 1980, the lingering fear F
generated by the embargo, combined with events such as the Iranian
Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, led U.S. strategists
to draw a line in the sand.
In his last State of the Union address,
Jimmy Carter stated that any "attempt by an outside force
to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as
an assault on the vital interests of the United States,"
and pledged to defend that interest by "any means necessary,
including military force."
Five weeks later, the United States Rapid
Deployment Joint Task Force ( RDJTF ) was formally established
at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. By the time Ronald Reagan
took office, the RDJTF included 100,000 Army troops, 50,000 Marines,
and additional Air Force and Navy personnel. In January 1983,
the RDJTF became the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), which 20
years later is overseeing the buildup of U.S. troops around Iraq.
GLOBAL WAR FOR OIL
Two decades after the establishment of
USCENTCOM, the U.S. military has clearly positioned itself to
assert the Carter Doctrine on a global scale.
In March 2001, newly appointed Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham unveiled the Bush/Cheney administration's
process to create a new National Energy Strategy "founded
on the understanding that diversity of supply means security of
supply." In actuality, this strategy had been in place for
more than a decade. Although energy planners know that there is
simply not enough excess oil in the world to displace the central
role of the Persian Gulf nations, they have sought to maximize
sources of oil from elsewhere in order to diminish the power of
the Gulf states.
Alternative oil suppliers immediately
become, by definition, strategically important in the U.S. military
calculus, and there is a striking correlation between the presence
of oil and the deployment of the U.S. military globally.
* In Somalia, just before pro-U.S. President
Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, nearly two-thirds of
the country's territory had been granted as oil concessions to
Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips. Conoco even lent its Mogadishu
corporate compound to the U.S. embassy a few days before the Marines
landed, with the first Bush administration's special envoy using
it as his temporary headquarters.
* The Andean countries of Colombia, Venezuela
and Ecuador together produce about 20 percent of the oil imported
by the United States, more than two million barrels a day. Venezuela
is often the top supplier of oil to the United States. Observers
have long suspected that the oil in this region was a central
motivation for the U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. In
2002, the Bush Administration allocated $98 million to deploy
60 to 100 Special Forces troops to train a "Critical Infrastructure
Brigade" of Colombians for the explicit purpose of protecting
an Occidental Petroleum pipeline.
* In the Caspian region, which may contain
as much as 200 billion barrels in oil reserves, the U.S. military
has been actively working to combat terrorism-and to secure possible
pipeline routes for the export of Caspian oil. In March 2001,
the United States pledged $4.4 million in military aid to oil-rich
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
Mira Ricardel said the aid was "to counter threats such as
terrorism, to promote peace and stability in the Caucasus, and
to develop trade and transport corridors." Azeri President
Heydar Aliyev more specifically intermingled fighting terrorism
and protecting oil pipelines, stating, "Guaranteeing the
security of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan and the Baku-Tblisi-Erzurum
oil and gas pipelines is an integral part of our struggle against
* In February 2001, Washington said it
would provide the country of Georgia with $64 million in military
support, and promised to dispatch 180 Special Forces "advisers"
to train up to 2,000 Georgians in anti-terrorism techniques. According
to an Interfax News Agency report, the Georgian Defense Ministry
said that "servicemen trained under the U.S. Train and Equip
program might help provide security for the [ Baku-Tblisi- Ceyhan
] pipeline. "
* In 1997, BP and Halliburton (headed
at the time by Dick Cheney) proposed the Trans-Balkan pipeline
(TBP) that would provide another export route for Caspian oil
via tanker to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast and through Skopje
in Macedonia to Vlore, a port in Albania. Two years later, U.S.
forces in southeast Kosovo began construction of Camp Bondsteel-
which has become the largest new military base since the Vietnam
War. In December 2002, ExxonMobil and Chevron Texaco both announced
they were considering participation in the Trans-Balkan pipeline.
* From Nigeria in the North to Angola
in the South, West Africa holds in excess of 33 billion barrels
of proven oil reserves, already supplies 15 percent of U.S. oil
imports, and could supply one quarter of U.S. imports by 2015.
In June 2002, a report from the private but well-connected "African
Oil Policy Initiative Group" recommended that the United
States declare the Gulf of Guinea a "vital interest,"
and that the United States "should strongly consider the
establishment of a regional homeport, possibly on the islands
of Sao Tome and Principe. Fradique de Menezes, the President of
Sao Tome and Principe, announced in
August 2002 that the United States had
agreed to build a U.S. naval base in his country, though the Pentagon
denies any such plans.
IRAQ, OIL, WAR AND SECURITY
If "security of supply" is indeed
the Bush-Cheney administration's goal, "securing" Iraq's
oil goes a long way towards achieving it. Iraq holds the world's
second largest reserves of oil, 11 percent of the world's known
reserves. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates
Iraq's possible reserves at 220 billion barrels, or approximately
80 percent of current proven Saudi reserves.
One concern in any invasion scenario is
that war will lead to a temporary reduction in supply, as Iraqi
operations go offline. Iraq sells approximately 2 million barrels
a day on the global market under the "Oil for Food"
program, and temporary loss of these supplies might send oil prices
skyrocketing. Three quarters of Iraq's daily production comes
from just two fields-Kirkuk in the north, and Rumaila in the south.
Robert Ebel, energy program director at the Washington, D.C.-based
Center for Strategic & International Studies, has suggested
that if U.S. Special Forces were to seize these two fields in
the opening moments of a war, 75 percent of Iraq's oil could continue
to flow onto a jittery oil market-thus keeping prices from spiking
In a post-Saddam Iraq, the country would
quickly be in a position to dramatically increase production.
If sanctions were removed and new drilling technology was brought
in by U.S. companies, Iraq's production could rise from less than
3 million barrels a day currently to 6 million or perhaps even
8 million barrels a day by 2010.
If a post-Saddam Iraq's production increases
as expected over the next decade, Iraq will be an insurance policy
against Saudi Arabia. Increased Iraqi production will certainly
lessen the power of Saudi Arabia to manipulate the global oil
market, and could even serve as a buffer in event of an unexpected
loss of Saudi supplies.
U.S. oil companies will almost certainly
benefit from a "regime change" in Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi,
the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (the most prominent
opposition group), has said that "American oil companies
will have a big shot" and that he favors the creation of
a consortium of U.S. oil companies to develop Iraq's oil.
U.S. officials have consistently and vehemently
denied that oil is a motivation in the buildup to war. On "60
Minutes," Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld was asked if
the war was about oil and responded, "Nonsense. It just isn't.
There are certain things like that, myths that are floating around.
It has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil."
But almost no one takes that claim seriously.
Whether oil is the most important factor in going to war, or merely
one of many considerations, it is plain that the U.S. obsession
with Iraq is due in significant part to the country and region's
For Bush and Cheney, national security
clearly involves using the military to control the global diversity
of oil supply needed by the world's largest oil consumer, the
United States. This view makes sense if you believe that there
are no viable alternatives to oil.
Thirty years ago, when the oil embargo
shocked the United States, or 20 years ago, when the Carter Doctrine
was just taking hold, alternative energy was in its infancy. Today,
however, auto companies are mass producing hybrid cars, and prototype
hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are being driven in California. Testifying
before Congress recently, former CIA Director James Woolsey spoke
out strongly in favor of alternative energy technology, noting
that "there is no incompatibility between being a hawk and
being a green." While that may be true, it is hard to imagine
that the U.S. global strategists would perceive vital national
interest in the Persian Gulf or in a half dozen other places around
the world if the country were fueled by solar power or hydrogen
fuel cells. If the energy is limitless, the supply will always
Steve Kretzmann is campaigns coordinator
with the Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Energy and Environment