The Permanent Energy Crisis

On the costs and consequences of the United States' dependency on foreign oil

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Welcome to the permanent global energy crisis. Though experts differ on when the precise moment of "peak oil" (also known as the end of cheap oil) will come, few deny that it's on the way. Already, supply is tightening, even as demand surges, pushing the price of oil (and gas at the pump) skyward. Increasingly, countries are scrounging the world for additional supplies and competing for a declining pool of essential petroleum, most of it located in politically unstable corners of the developing world—in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia. In the coming years the United States, which consumes 25 percent of the world's oil, and whose economic and military might are utterly dependent on it, will increasingly be drawn into a geopolitical struggle over dwindling supplies with other "great powers," especially China. American foreign and military policy, already inextricably intertwined with energy imperatives (see Iraq), will be driven more and more by the need to keep oil flowing to the U.S.

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The above is the broad argument of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum, by Michael T. Klare. For all the periodic high-sounding talk of energy independence, he writes, Washington has in fact made little serious effort to wean the United States from oil. Instead, our government has recklessly set the nation up for more dependence, more U.S. military entanglements overseas, and, consequently, less security for Americans at home and abroad.

There is a way out of this—what Klare calls a "strategy for energy autonomy and integrity"—but it will take leadership from government and sacrifice from citizens, and some enlightened long-term thinking from both. Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, and author of Resource Wars, among other books. He's also a frequent contributor, via Tomdispatch, to MotherJones.com.

Mother Jones: You argue that in the 21st century resources, rather than ethnic, civilizational, or religious differences will increasingly be at the root of conflict.

Michael T. Klare: Yes. I think this is true both of internal and interstate conflicts. Two of the bloodiest wars under way in the world today—in Congo and Darfur—have arisen from the stress caused by rising population, a scarcity of resources, and climate change, which have exacerbated traditional ethnic differences, pushing people into conflict with one another. There are ethnic differences involved, of course, and I'd never say that a war is exclusively driven by resources, but they are a major factor.

As for international conflict, the focus is particularly on energy. I think there’s a growing panic in the major industrialized countries about the future availability of oil and natural gas, which are absolutely essential in modern industrial societies. And this is causing the United States, Russia, China, and Japan and other large industrial countries to try to gain control over foreign sources of oil and natural gas, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. I wouldn’t say we can expect direct conflict between these countries in the immediate future, but they are supporting local allies, often militarily, and this creates the conditions in which a local conflict can escalate into something very much bigger.

MJ: This is almost a reassertion of the great power politics of old.

 

MTK: Absolutely. I see this being very similar to the period before World War I, where you had a group of contending empires—the British, French, Prussian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires—all competing with one another for control over colonies and the resources those colonies brought them. A lot of the skirmishing that lead to World War I occurred in these colonial areas, in Africa and in the Balkans, and this triggered a war between them.

MJ: So resources will be at the core of much conflict, and oil in particular. What's special about oil?

MTK: Oil is essential for a modern, industrial society. It's unique, first of all, because it’s the primary source, at 40 percent, of the world’s entire supply of energy, and it’s irreplaceable in the transportation field; it provides 98 percent of world transportation energy.

Oil is also essential for military operations. No other substance, no other raw material, is so vital for the prosecution of warfare, than petroleum. And the United States being the world’s only global power, is totally dependent on petroleum. The Department of Defense is the world’s leading petroleum consumer. And the U.S. couldn’t play a military role in different areas like Iraq and Afghanistan without huge quantities of oil. So a shortage or disruption in oil would not only damage the U.S. economy; it would undercut American military supremacy.

For that reason, oil in the United States is treated as a national security matter, not just an economic one. No other substance has that character, such that the president of the United States has said—in this case it was Jimmy Carter in 1980—that oil from the Middle East is essential to the United States, and therefore we’ll use any means necessary to protect it, including military force.

MJ: You argue that we've already entered a permanent energy crisis? What do you mean by that?

MTK: We are in a state of a permanent energy crisis, and it will last indefinitely—until there is a solution to it. And no solution right now is in sight, so this is a permanent feature of our landscape. It arises from several factors. One we’ve mentioned: U.S. dependence on oil for its economy and military power. The second problem is that the global supply of oil is going to decline because we’ve used up a good deal of the easy-to-get oil. We're going to reach a point in the not-too-distant future when it is impossible to keep increasing the daily supply. People call this the moment of "peak oil" production. There’s debate about when that moment will arise, but there's no question that it's coming. Everybody is going to be scrounging the world looking for additional supplies and competing for a declining pool of essential petroleum. Making matters worse, most of the world’s remaining pool of oil is in the developing world, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America, and Central Asia, and these are areas that are inherently unstable. And so we’re becoming more dependent and competing with other countries for access to a diminishing pool of oil in fundamentally dangerous areas. That’s a sure recipe for disaster.

MJ: There was what you called ‘a fork in the road’ in 2001 where the Bush administration, despite having explicitly acknowledged that there was some kind of an energy crisis, "chose dependency."

MTK: We had an energy crisis, remember, in 2000 and in 2001, with electricity black outs in California, natural gas shortages in the Mid West and oil shortages in the Eastern part of the country. And this was a major theme in the 2000 election. And President Bush said his highest priority—this was before 9-11, before terrorism became the focus—was to address the energy crisis. He said we need a fundamental change, a top-to-bottom review, and he gave the impression that he was ready to contemplate rather substantial innovations. But he picked Dick Cheney, an oil man, to run this review, and Cheney chose only to consult people in the oil industry, primarily Kenneth Lay and people from Enron. No environmentalists.

What they essentially decided—secretly, because the administration has refused to make public any of the minutes of these meetings—was to perpetuate the existing energy system for another 20 years at massive public expense, rather than to consider the proposals coming from the environmental community to shift very rapidly towards energy alternatives. And now, five years later, as a result of that decision, the United States is in worse shape than ever before. We’re even more dependent on imported oil. No progress has been made in developing energy alternatives.

MJ: And Hurricane Katrina brought that fact into pretty stark relief, didn't it?

MTK: Yes, because Katrina destroyed or damaged the oil facilities in one of the most promising new areas for oil production, which is the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Those facilities in the deep waters were hit the hardest by Katrina, and they have not recovered since. The more we look into the future we see that all the other potential sources for new oil are in dangerous areas, whether because of climate or the environment, or politically. And Katrina, I think, was a turning point in that since it threw into relief the fragility of the international energy system, and it shows us that we can have no confidence that things are going to get better in the future.

MJ: The Bush administration calculated in 2001 that a campaign to wean the country from oil dependency wasn't a political winner.

MTK: Right. In 1975 and 1976, we faced an energy crisis, President Carter told everyone they had to tighten their belts and lower the thermostat and wear sweaters. He wore a cardigan on a national TV speech! And at the time people found this to be too depressing and distasteful, and so they voted him out of office. So there is a kind of belief that the public is not willing to undertake any measures that would require them to change.

MJ: Do you see any sign of a shift on that score?

MTK: Yes, I do. I think, beginning with Katrina and continuing to the present—gaining momentum even—the public is now moving ahead of politicians. There are many signs, polling data in particular, that the public does grasp the magnitude of the problem and is now prepared to make sacrifices and changes. And this, I think, is going to have a significant political effect in the coming elections.

 

MJ: One possible response to the permanent energy crisis is to diversify, meaning getting oil from a range of different areas, to reduce the dependency on oil from the Persian Gulf. But you don't buy that.

MTK: This was part of the strategy adopted by the administration in 2001. They recognized the U.S. would become more dependent on imports if we were going to continue to rely on oil as our main source of energy, but to try to reduce vulnerability to crisis in any one area they favored the strategy of diversification. The problem is that all the alternatives to the Middle East are just as dangerous. They include Africa, the Andean region of Latin America, Central Asia, North Africa—all places prone to corruption, internal warfare, and conflict. And so the logical conclusion of this strategy is what I call the globalization of the Carter doctrine, the notion that the United States has to send troops all over the world to protect oil—not only in the Middle East, but in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia. And that's the policy the administration has carried out.

MJ: And anyway, isn't it the case that no matter how much the U.S. diversifies, we'll still be largely dependent on Persian Gulf oil?

MTK: That’s absolutely right, because nowhere else has that much oil. And even if the U.S. doesn’t get it’s own oil from the Persian Gulf, we’re still dependent on Persian Gulf oil because that’s the major source of supply for Japan and Western Europe. If they weren’t able to get more oil from the Persian Gulf, then they would be coming to the places that we rely on—Nigeria, Latin America and so on, and that would hugely increase the competition and the price. So, for world oil prices to remain relatively low—they seem high today, but they could get a lot, lot higher—is for the Persian Gulf to churn out more and more and more oil every year.

MJ: It’s also hard to imagine that the US would have gotten involved in Iraq if there didn't happen to have massive oil reserves.

MTK: Absolutely. But bear in mind that the invasion of Iraq was not an unprecedented event; it really was the natural extension of a conflict with Iraq that began on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied Kuwait, which was a major oil supplier to the United States, and threatened Saudi Arabia, the leading foreign supplier to the United States. So when George Bush, Sr. announced U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf conflict in 1990 it was explicitly to protect oil, the oil of Saudi Arabia. And that lead to a massive deployment of American forces to the region, to the acquisition of more military bases, and later to the quarantine of Iraq. The invasion can’t be separated from all of that broader conflict, which is a conflict, at its root, about oil—not just about the oil of Iraq, but about dominance of the entire Persian Gulf region.

MJ: What role do you think oil and energy are playing in U.S. policy toward Iran?

MTK: You have to view Iran, like Iraq, as part of the large Persian Gulf region. Under U.S. policy—[enshrined in the Carter doctrine]—stability in the greater Persian Gulf region is essential to U.S. national security, because of its oil supplies, so anything that threatens stability in the Persian Gulf is a threat to America’s national interests. That's how Iran is seen in Washington—as a potential threat to American dominance of the Persian Gulf. We’re really talking about a geopolitical contest in which oil is the ultimate prize. That is the primary issue between the U.S. and Iran here—the power struggle over who will be dominant in this crucial region.

That having been said, Iran is believed to be the second largest producer of oil and the second leading producer of natural gas. Under the current U.S. policy, because of this power struggle, American oil companies can’t do business with Iran. So I think the ultimate goal of the U.S. administration in Iran is regime change, to put into power a pro-Western government that will eliminate the strategic challenge to U.S. interests and, at the same time, allow the lifting of sanctions and allowing American oil companies to do business with Iran.

MJ: Any opinion on the chances of a military strike by the U.S.?

MTK: Knowing how the U.S. government has worked in the past, I imagine that President Bush has on his desk a national security game plan that has a host of options—Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, Plan D. They probably all have code names. But Plan A is to continue things as they are—diplomatic pressure. Plan B, I think, is precise, limited attacks on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities, like the Israeli attack on the Osirak Reactor in Baghdad. Plan C would include covert operations aimed at stirring up a rebellion in Iran that would overthrow the clerical government. And Plan D would be more full-scale military operations. This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m sure planning like this is underway.

MJ: How do the same dynamics that apply to oil relate to natural gas?

MTK: There’s a great deal of similarity between oil and gas in the sense that it’s a finite commodity. And increasingly the United States and other users are going to have to go to the few sources that remain, and those include primarily Russia, Iran and Qatar. These countries between them have about 50 percent of the world’s natural gas supplies, which obviously makes them very important from a geopolitical standpoint. The U.S. has established very close ties with Qatar; we have military bases and troops there. The Europeans are becoming very dependent on Russia, and now India and China want to draw on Iran’s natural gas. And that enters into this great game we were talking about before, the jockeying for position.

Natural gas might be the spark in a war between China and Japan, because there’s believed to be a lot of natural gas in the East China Sea, the body of water between the Chinese mainland and the Japanese islands. And those two countries have yet to agree on where their maritime boundary exists. China claims most of that water, almost right up to the Japanese islands, and the Japanese argue that the border between them should be in the middle line between them. China is beginning to extract natural gas right up to the line claimed by Japan, even going into what the Japanese consider their territory. This has provoked military posturing, the kind where you send out planes and they buzz ships, and the ships make threatening moves. No shots have been fired yet, thank goodness, but it’s easy to see how a clash at sea between Chinese and Japanese ships and planes could lead to a real war between them.

MJ: The trends are pointing toward greater and deeper and more problematic U.S. involvement, often military involvement, in all sorts of parts of the world. Can we expect evermore U.S. basis in these parts of the world, ever-closer military ties with these countries?

MTK: Yes to all of the above. The U.S. is already well established in the Persian Gulf. We have a very elaborate military infrastructure there. We have a growing military infrastructure in Central Asia in the Caspian. And Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is talking about acquiring more bases in that area, possibly in Azerbaijan, Georgia or Kazakhstan. So there it’s well underway.

The place I think is the most interesting in this discussion, and that hasn't received the attention it deserves, is Africa. The world is becoming very dependent on oil from Nigeria and Angola and Equatorial Guinea, and now from Libya. And this is an area of great instability—ethnic, religious, political. It’s mixed up in places with Islamic fundamentalism. But the greatest threat comes from ethnic unrest, particularly in southern Nigeria where the local people, who are the victims of oil production, of all the oil spills and environmental damage, receive virtually none of the benefits of the oil production. All that goes to the elites in Abuja, the capital. And they’re now fighting a low-level insurgency against the central government. In the process they're seizing oil facilities, they’re sabotaging oil facilities, they're kidnapping oil workers, including Americans. The U.S. is looking at creating a capacity for intervention in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa, looking at the establishment of bases, training with Nigerian and other local forces, providing military aid, developing military ties.

MJ: In the book you propose an alternative energy strategy to the one we're operating under, one you call a strategy of "autonomy and integrity." What do you mean by that?

MTK: The phrase that is most often used in this discussion is "energy independence." And the administration talks about ‘energy independence’ from the Middle East, by which they seem to mean, exclusively drilling in Alaska and other protected environmental sites. So, I want to avoid that word, because I think it’s become a sham expression to cover up a failed policy.

So by ‘autonomy’ I mean having the freedom to say no to the Saudi Royal family when they ask for more American troops; having the power to say no to military intervention; and the ability to repudiate the Carter doctrine—the commitment to use force to protect oil—which has to be our ultimate objective. The only way to achieve this is by diminishing our reliance on petroleum altogether. I think there’s a growing recognition of that fact in this country—that Alaskan or Gulf of Mexico oil is not going to save us. If we keep on using more oil each year, it’s not going to work. We have to reduce each year the amount of oil we use. So it’s a combination of demilitarizing our oil policy, cutting back on our consumption of oil and gaining more freedom in international affairs.

MJ: What will that take?

MTK: Some combination of conservation and fuel efficiency to reduce our consumption of petroleum. This means driving vehicles that are much more fuel-efficient or using improved public transit facilities. We also need to develop more alternatives, and more rapidly than we are, to look at the potential for biofuels, for biodiesal and hydrogen as future energy sources.

MJ: How optimistic are you that public opinion will come around to accepting a certain level of sacrifice?

MTK: Fairly optimistic. This is the one thing that makes me hopeful—that the American public is beginning to grasp all that we’ve been speaking about, both from a national security and an environmental perspective. These two things are coming together. I think the public is very reluctant to get involved in more foreign wars, especially in the Middle East. And they understand, implicitly, that we go to war in the Middle East because of oil. And if we don’t want to go to war in the Middle East, then we have to do something about the oil problem. And I think that view is gaining ground in the U.S. And at the same time concern over global warming is growing, which also leads to reduced petroleum use. I do see these two things coming together, and I do think they’re altering the political landscape in this country.