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The era of oil wars has begun

The era of oil wars

Growing competition for oil may escalate to something as hot and dangerous as nuclear proliferation

Gordon Brown meeting Britain's oil chiefs to discuss higher North Sea output to bring down prices is prompted by oil prices hitting a record high of $135 a barrel, twice as high as a year ago and a staggering 12 times higher than a decade ago. The well-sourced website is now predicting that petrol will reach 1.50 a litre by September, just 4 months away. Jeff Rubin of CIBC World Markets is forecasting "oil prices almost doubling over the next five years". That would mean $270 a barrel by 2013. It perhaps explains why the government is now strongly backing BP to get a big new slice of the oil drilling licences soon to be issued in Iraq, and astonishingly has now also made clear it intends to annex a third of a million square miles of the seabed off Antarctica to pre-empt any rights to the oil it may contain. The fight for oil has begun in earnest.

But is there the oil to go round? The authoritative International Energy Agency foresees an oil supply crunch within 5 years forcing up prices to unprecedented levels and greatly increasing western dependence on Opec. And the oil industry itself in its own report Facing the Hard Truths about Energy, produced by 175 authorities including all the heads of the world's big oil companies, for the first time predicted that oil and gas may run short by 2015.

The geopolitical implications of this gathering crisis for world oil supply 2010-15 are immense. The risk of further military interventions and conflicts in the Middle East is clearly high. Total world oil reserves are estimated at 2.5-2.9 trillion barrels, of which half has now been already consumed, while half of the 51 oil-producing countries reported output declines in 2006. Non-Opec production is expected to peak and decline within the next five years, driven mainly by burgeoning demand from China and the US, together with restricted output from Iraq. Then in the following five years Opec's diminishing spare capacity will probably become increasingly unable to accommodate short-term fluctuations, depending on how fast world demand grows and how extensively Opec invests in new capacity. The latter may well not raise production capacity high enough or quickly enough, whether for political reasons or because internal decision-making is too slow or the security environment too hostile.

There are of course exits from this doom-stricken scenario, though none is at all credible. First, discovery of major new oilfields could alter the picture. However, though billions have been spent on the search for new fields, discovery peaked in the mid-1960s and the last big ones were found in the 1970s. Only Iraq has undeveloped super-giant oilfields at West Qurna, Athabascan tar sands (from Alberta, Canada), extra-heavy oil (from the Orinoco belt in Venezuela), oil shale, and mature source rocks. But the almost insurmountable problem is recoverability, whether poor quality oil (extra-heavy oil), poor quality reservoirs (oil from source rocks), or both (oil shale). Worse, production may be uneconomic because of a very low net energy gain, ie it requires almost as much energy to extract the oil as is made available for subsequent use. And the enormous hike in greenhouse gases generated could produce a turbo climate change effect that would wipe out any benefit from a global post-Kyoto agreement.

But even if supply constraints are ineluctable as the explosion of Chinese growth coincides with falling non-Opec oil production and the beginnings of a slow but remorseless slippage in Opec capacity, the coming crisis could still be eased by significant demand restrictions. Clearly there is substantial room for energy-saving when half the energy generated every day is wasted and when propulsion of an average car is only about 20% efficient, heating of a standard oven only 25%, and electricity generated in some power stations only some 35%. The question, however, is whether improvement can be secured globally on the level and timescale required to push back the crisis more than a few years. Equally, taking the CO2 out of fossil fuels, especially coal, may be crucial, but a decade at least is needed even to test the carbon capture technology in pilot projects, let alone begin to mainstream it. But the most direct means of constraining world demand would be the proposed Rimini protocol, which prescribes that oil-importing countries cut their imports to match the world depletion rate (ie annual production as a percentage of remaining global reserves) now running at about 2% a year. Of course, the fundamental political problem remains that the most powerful oil-hungry countries will not agree. If not Kyoto, why Rimini?

What is most disturbing of all is that the big powers, so far from seeking major adjustments of their energy policies on either the supply or demand fronts or making a major switch into renewables, are actually massively intensifying their competitive struggle short-term for the limited oil reserves left. Despite an unwinnable war in Iraq, the US is still constructing at least five large permanent military bases there in order, according to evidence given to a US Congressional Committee, to control access to Gulf oil, including in Saudi and Iran. As one neocon recently put it, "one of the reasons we had no exit plan from Iraq is that we didn't intend to leave". The US is also trying to force through a new Iraqi oil law that would give western, primarily American, oil multinationals control of Iraqi oilfields for the next 30 years.

The US maintains 737 military bases in 130 countries under cover of the "war on terror" to defend American economic interests, particularly access to oil. The principal objective for the continued existence and expansion of Nato post-cold war is the encirclement of Russia and the pre-emption of China dominating access to oil and gas in the Caspian Sea and Middle East regions. It is only the beginning of the unannounced titanic global resource struggle between the US and China, the world's largest importers of oil (China overtook Japan in 2003). Islam has been dragged into this tussle because it is in the Islamic world where most of these resources lie, but Islam is only a secondary player. In the case of Russia, the recent pronounced stepping up of western attacks on Putin and claims he is undermining democracy are ultimately aimed at securing a pro-western government there, and access to Russian oil and gas when Russia has more of these two hydrocarbons together than any other country in the world.

The struggle has also spilled over into West Africa, reckoned to hold some 66 billion barrels of oil typically low in sulphur and thus ideal for refining. In 2005 the US imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than from Saudi and Kuwait combined, and is expected over the next 10 years to import more oil from Africa than from the Middle East. In step with this, the Pentagon is setting up a new unified military command for the continent named Africom. Conversely, Angola is now China's main supplier of crude oil, overtaking Saudi Arabia last year. There is no doubt that Africom, which will greatly increase the US military presence in Africa, is aimed at the growing conflict with China over oil supplies.

As Joe Lieberman, former US presidential candidate, put it, efforts by the US and China to use imports to meet growing demand "may escalate competition for oil to something as hot and dangerous as the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union".


The Guardian, "The era of oil wars", 28 June 2008.


The Debate: Oil and the conquest of Iraq and Afghanistan

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