The future of oil seemed no less robust in 2003: demand was brisk, crude prices ranged from about $25 to $30 per barrel, and the concept of "peak oil"—the notion that planetary supplies were more limited than imagined, that in the near future production would reach its peak and subsequently contract—was still considered laughable by most industry experts. By invading Iraq and setting up permanent military bases at the very heart of the global oil heartlands, the White House expected to ensure continued control over the flow of Persian Gulf oil and gain access to Iraq's voluminous reserves, the largest in the world after those of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
From an imperial point of view, it was a beautiful dream from which Americans were destined to awaken abruptly. As a start, it quickly became apparent that American technological prowess was no panacea for urban guerrilla warfare, and so a vast occupation army was soon needed to "pacify" Iraq—and then pacify it again, and again, and again. A similar dilemma arose in Afghanistan, where a tribal-based religious insurgency proved remarkably immune to superior American firepower. To sustain hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in those distant, often inaccessible areas, the Department of Defense became the world's single biggest consumer of oil, burning more on a daily basis than the entire nation of Sweden—this, at a time when the price of crude rose to $50, then $80, and finally soared over the $100 mark. Procuring and delivering ever-increasing amounts of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be the principal reason for the wars' spiraling costs, but it certainly ranks among the major causes. (Just the price of providing air conditioning to American troops in those two countries is now estimated at approximately $20 billion a year.)
With oil likely to prove increasingly scarce and costly, the Department of Defense is being forced to reexamine its fundamental operating principles when it comes to energy. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's notion that troops could be replaced by growing numbers of oil-powered super-weapons no longer appears viable, even for a power already garrisoning much of the planet for which "unending" war has become the new norm.
Yes, the Pentagon is looking into the use of biofuels, solar arrays, and other green alternatives to petroleum to power its planes and tanks, but any such future still seems an almost inconceivably long way off. And yet the thought of more wars involving the commitment of vast numbers of ground troops to protracted counterinsurgency operations in distant parts of the Greater Middle East at $400 or more for every gallon of gas used appears increasingly unpalatable for the globe's former "sole superpower." (Hence, the sudden burst of enthusiasm over drone wars.) Seen from this perspective, the decline of America and the decline of oil appear closely connected indeed.
Don't Bet on Washington
And this is hardly the only apparent connection. Because the American economy is so closely tied to oil, it is especially vulnerable to oil's growing scarcity, price volatility, and the relative paucity of its suppliers. Consider this: at present, the United States obtains about 40 percent of its total energy supply from oil, far more than any other major economic power. This means that when prices rise or oil supplies are disrupted for any reason—hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, war in the Middle East, environmental disasters of any sort—the economy is at particular risk. While a burst housing bubble and financial shenanigans lay behind the Great Recession that began in 2008, it's worth remembering that it also coincided with the beginning of a stratospheric rise in oil prices. As anyone who has pulled into a gas station knows, at an average price of nearly $3.70 a gallon for regular gas, the staying power of high-priced oil has crippled what, until recently, was being called a "weak recovery."
Despite the great debt debate in Washington, oil is a factor seldom mentioned when American indebtedness comes up. And yet the United States imports 50 percent to 60 percent of its oil supply, and with prices averaging at least $80 to $90 per barrel, we're sending approximately $1 billion every day to foreign oil providers. These payments constitute the single biggest contribution to the country's balance-of-payments deficit and so is a major source of the nation's economic weakness.
Consider for comparison our leading economic rival: China. That country relies on oil for only about 20 percent of its total energy supply, about half as much as we do. Instead, the Chinese have turned to coal, which they possess in great abundance and can produce at a relatively low cost. (China, of course, pays a heavy environmental price for its coal dependency.) The Chinese do import some petroleum, but considerably less than the US, so their import expenses are considerably smaller. Nor do its oil-import costs have the same enfeebling effect, since China enjoys a positive balance of trade (in part, at America's expense). As a result, when oil prices soared to record heights in 2008 and again in 2011, Beijing experienced none of the trauma felt in Washington.
No doubt many factors explain the startling rise of the Chinese economy, including lower costs of production and weaker environmental regulations. It is hard, however, to avoid the conclusion that our greater reliance on oil as it begins its decline has played a significant role in the changing balance of economic power between the two countries.
All this leads to a critical question: How should America respond to these developments in the years ahead?
As a start, there can be no question that the United States needs to move quickly to reduce its reliance on oil and increase the availability of other energy sources, especially renewable ones that pose no threat to the environment. This is not merely a matter of reducing our reliance on imported oil, as some have suggested. As long as oil remains our preeminent source of energy, we will be painfully vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global oil market, wherever problems may arise. Only by embracing forms of energy immune to international disruption and capable of promoting investment at home can the foundations be laid for future economic progress. Of course, this is easy enough to write, but with Washington in the grip of near-total political paralysis, it appears that continuing American decline, possibly of a precipitous sort, could be in the cards.
And don't think that China will get away scot-free either. If it doesn't quickly embrace the new energy technologies, the environmental costs of its excessive reliance on coal will, sooner or later, cripple its development as well. Unlike Washington, however, the Chinese leadership not only recognizes this, but is acting on it by making colossal investments in green energy technologies. If China succeeds in dominating this field—as has already begun to happen—it could leave the United States in the dust when it comes to economic growth. Ditching oil for the new energy technologies should be America's top economic priority, but if you're in a betting mood, you probably shouldn't put your money on Washington.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.