Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

'Peak Oil' -- what we know

Is "peak oil" the real reason behind the "war on terror" and the subjugation of Iraq? Here in the wilderness we have no idea. The theory is not off the deep end on its own merits: All oil wells peak, and eventually production starts declining. According to the theorists, world oil production is facing a "perfect storm" of peaking, and the resulting decline in production threatens to ramp up energy prices stratospherically, leading to economic chaos for those nations that don't have their hands on the spigot, and perhaps war to possess such a spigot.

There are those who insist that the Bush administration has known about this problem and has tried to aggressively pursue by military force a cheap source of oil, starting with Iraq. The "war on terror," they say, is about preventing Osama bin Laden not only from blowing up downtown D.C. but also from blowing up oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia, which sits on a quarter of the world's known oil reserves.

Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal wrote a piece last September that focused on peak oil and one of its leading proponents, Dr. Colin Campbell of Ireland. Ball's premise was that the theory is attaining more credence in the mainstream:
[S]uddenly Dr. Campbell is receiving mainstream attention. In the past few months, he has spoken before a joint committee meeting of the British House of Commons and addressed about 200 J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. investors by conference call from Ballydehob. This month two officials from AB Volvo, the truck and engine maker, visited from Sweden. His theory, if right, would force vehicle makers to revamp their lineups.

Also this month, PFC Energy, a respected Washington energy-consulting firm, released a report essentially endorsing Dr. Campbell's gloomy prediction. PFC puts the peak a bit further out than Dr. Campbell does -- sometime between 2010 and 2015. But Michael Rodgers, the PFC senior director who coordinated the report, agrees with Dr. Campbell that the precise year of the peak is less important than the conclusion that it is coming.

Mr. Rodgers says PFC officials debated whether to stake their reputation on the side of those whose pessimistic predictions have been wrong before. But they concluded that the decline in global oil discoveries has become so pronounced that the industry can't count on technological breakthroughs to bail it out in time.
Also taking this seriously is the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a think tank focusing on energy security, with a roster of advisers that includes former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, and Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser to President Reagan.

Farther left, Michael Klare, a professor of world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., came to the same conclusion in a recent article in Mother Jones magazine:
The onset of this new energy crisis was first signaled in January 2004, when Royal Dutch/Shell -- one of the world's leading energy firms – revealed that it had overstated its oil and natural gas reserves by about 20%, the net equivalent of 3.9 billion barrels of oil or the total annual consumption of China and Japan combined. Another indication of crisis came only one month later, when The New York Times revealed that prominent American energy analysts now believe Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, had exaggerated its future oil production capacity and could soon be facing the wholesale exhaustion of some of its most prolific older fields.
But Klare's analysis turns dire, noting that the Bush administration, at least publicly, is taking a rather odd turn on this issue:
It is here that the performance of the Bush administration should come in for close scrutiny. In response to the earlier energy crisis of 2001, the President appointed a National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to analyze America's energy predicament and devise appropriate solutions. The NEPDG issued its final report, the National Energy Policy (also known as the Cheney Report), in May, 2001. How the group arrived at its final assessment is a matter of some speculation, as the administration has refused to make its deliberations public, but its conclusions are incontrovertible: rather than stress conservation and the rapid development of renewable energy sources, the report called for increased U.S. reliance on petroleum. And because domestic oil production is in an irreversible decline, any rise in American oil usage necessarily entails an increased reliance on imported petroleum.
Klare expounds on this in his book "Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (The American Empire Project)".

There is no shortage of self-described whistle blowers on the left who believe that the war on Iraq is the first step in a strategic global plan: secure the oil facilities of what was the leading anti-American oil producer in the Middle East (although, as every American should know, Saddam Hussein was a dear friend when he was fighting Iran). But mainstream journalists -- even investigative journos such as Greg Palast, Seymour Hersh and Michael Moore -- have not come forth with any treatise on this issue.

Nor is there a "smoking gun" -- the neocon think tank known as the Project for the New American Century urged President Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1998 for security reasons, but mentioned oil only once.

The only grist for this conspiracy mill is the supersecret conference on energy that Dick Cheney organized in the spring of 2001. Were the assembled oil executives told that the U.S. was considering an war on Iraq as a military response to peak oil? That this war would be precipitated by a pretext that might include a terrorist incident? That authorities would look the other way when they had intelligence that such an attack was imminent?

Here in the wilderness, we have no idea about the answers to any of these questions. What we do know, however, is that they exist. And they would seem to merit at least as much investigation from our watchdog press as a third-rate land deal in Arkansas.

Is it about oil? Really?

The memory of banners proclaiming "No Blood for Oil" looms large with antiwar protesters who rallied in the streets of the world's cities during the run-up to Gulf War II. They alleged that a war to conquer Iraq was less about overthrowing an evil dictator, defeating terrorism and finding WMD (which we now know did not exist) than it was about preventing a key oil supplier from using the liquid platinum as a weapon.

The Bush administration, despite George W.'s proximity to the oil industry -- and that of many of his most trusted associates, including Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice -- denied that this was so. It was about introducing democracy and bringing stability to millions of oppressed people, and changing the way that part of the world treats its people and spawns suicide bombers.

As combat began, and an apparent lightning American military victory devolved into the violent quagmire that exists today, world press coverage moved away from the question of what's oil got to do with it, do with it, and concentrated on the day-to-day chaos and the prospect of elections at the end of next month.

But a nagging essential question remains: Why was the Bush administration so hell-bent on an attack on Iraq post-9/11? Yes, terrorism come to American shores was an awful thing, and the conception of a United States population exposed to suicide bombers and worse clearly demanded a strategic as well as a tactical response. But why stake all on a military-based plan to redraw the map of the Middle East?

Cynics claimed that the religious weirdies in the administration were clearing the way for Armageddon, which would herald the messianic age. But could there be another, more empirical reason Bush and his cohorts are risking the entire pot on stabilizing the Middle East? A reason they're not telling?

I am not one to jump on conspiracy theories; it is far more likely, though less intriguing, to believe that plain security incompetence, sheer dumb luck and Lee Oswald's marksmanship landed two bullets into the brain and neck of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, not cohorts from the Mafia, the CIA or whomever. Other conspiracy theories, however, deserve further investigation. For example, several people were warned not to fly on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and author Salman Rushdie. Believe them or not.

Other claims are not as quick to dismiss. Peak Oil, for instance.

This theory is based on the geological fact that every oil well will peak in its production and then decline. People who believe in peak oil, including a number of geologists, claim that there is a perfect storm on its way in which worldwide oil production will peak, forcing demand to soar stratospherically and resulting in armed conflict as the haves, faced with a lack of energy, desperately try to keep the have-nots from restricting their energy. Many predict this to happen before the end of the decade.

So, according to this theory, the petroleum insiders on Bush's team, well aware of peak oil, urged the president to secure a cheap source of energy as a strategic goal. That was why the conference on energy headed by oil magnate Cheney was kept secret, they say: so no discussions about peak oil would leak and panic the populace.

And that, conspiracy theorists say, is why Bush is so hopped up against terrorism: not because Osama bin Laden could kill thousands of Americans with a dirty bomb, but because he could cripple key oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia, which sits on one fourth of the world's oil reserves.

And that, they say, is why Bush started a war in Iraq: To secure the largest oil-producing nation in the region that A) had not reached peak production and B) was still anti-American. (Iranian production peaked in the seventies, oil experts say, and the rest of the Arabian Gulf oil-producing bloc is with us.)

Are the conspiracy theorists right? Here in the wilderness we haven't a clue. But we know the story has not been reported in the mainstream press, and has been relegated to the realm of alarmists and conspiracy nuts. We'll try to examine all this in the days ahead.