More Blood, Less Oil
In the 1950s, a petroleum geologist named M. King Hubbert published a series of equations showing that the output of any given oil well or reservoir will follow a parabolic curve over time, with production rising quickly after initial drilling and then losing momentum as output reaches its peak, after which production will fall at an increasingly sharp rate. Using these equations, Hubbert predicted in 1956 that conventional (i.e., liquid) oil output in the United States would peak in the early 1970s—a prediction that provoked much derision at the time but later earned him considerable renown when US oil production was realized to have achieved a record level of 11.6 million barrels per day in 1972, after which it began its long decline. Hubbert was unable to apply his equations to non-US production because of insufficient data, but he did predict that global output would also reach a summit and then begin to fall.
Today the concept of global peak oil is widely accepted in the energy field. The debate is over when this moment will occur. Those who wish to believe that oil supplies are abundant tend to put this date far in the future. The Department of Energy predicted in its International Energy Outlook for 2004 that conventional oil will “peak closer to the middle than to the beginning of the 21st century.” But analysts who don’t work for the current administration are not so sanguine. “The peak will occur in late 2005 or in the first few months of 2006,” writes Princeton geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes in a new book, Beyond Oil. A more conservative estimate, by Mike Rodgers of PFC Energy, puts the peak at 2010 or 2015. If either of these estimates proves accurate, the global oil supply will never climb high enough to satisfy the elevated consumption levels projected by the DOE for 2025 and beyond.
Whether peak oil arrives in 2005 or 2010 or 2015, and whether the maximum level of production turns out to be 90 or 100 million barrels per day, will not matter much in the end. All economies run on energy, and since World War II the most important source of that energy has been petroleum. From 1950 until the present, global petroleum consumption grew from approximately 10 millon to 80 million barrels a day, and as the rest of the world accelerates into industrialization, the next twenty years will likely see a 50 percent rise in demand. No matter when peak oil arrives, global oil production will level off and decline to a rate far below the anticipated world demand of 120 million barrels per day in 2025. True, some of this shortfall may be absorbed by the intensified development of “unconventional” fuels—liquid condensate from the production of natural gas, fuels derived from tar sands and oil shale, liquids extracted from coal, and so on—but these materials are too costly to produce and their manufacture requires too many environmental risks for them to be considered practical substitutes for conventional oil. Tar-sand development, for example, entails the extravagant consumption of natural gas—itself a valuable (and finite) form of energy—to produce the steam needed to drive the oil-laden oars to the surface, and releases substantial climate-altering greenhouse gases in the process.
In any case, the contraction in global petroleum supplies can be postponed for only a few years. We are now in the Twilight Era of petroleum, marked by recurring shortages, frequent price hikes, and political instability. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Twilight will give way to Nightfall, when acute oil scarcity becomes a permanent fact of life. Cheap petroleum is the fundamental premise of globalization—of American dominance, the rise of China, and the harmonious coexistence of various national economies—and that premise cannot be sustained.
The effort to postpone the inevitable has chiefly involved a shift in world oil production from the older, northern industrial countries (and their immediate neighbors) whose oil fields are nearly depleted, to the developing nations of the global South, whose oil production is still on the upswing. While two-thirds of world oil production was concentrated in the North in 1950, today the balance is almost exactly reversed, with approximately two-thirds of world oil coming from the South.
This shift in the locus of oil production has enormous political consequences, as virtually all of the newer producers—mainly countries surrounding the Persian Gulf and in West Africa, the Caspian Sea basin, and the Andean region of South America—are riddled with corruption and subject to recurring political, ethnic, and religious disorder. In Nigeria, for example, ethnic minorities in the oil-producing Delta region are battling entrenched elites in the federal capital of Abuja; in Venezuela, an ongoing struggle between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez has sometimes crippled national oil output; and in Iraq, anti-American insurgents are attacking pipelines and refineries on a near-daily basis. These and other such disturbances are primarily responsible for the current surge in oil prices.
It is possible, of course, that order will be restored in these countries and their oil output increased. But given that most third-world oil countries emerged from the colonial era with feeble political structures and large pockets of ethnic unrest, it is far more likely that this unrest will intensify and spread to other producers, further curtailing the global availability of petroleum. As Alan Greenspan observed in his otiose way, “[T]he current situation reflects an increasing fear that existing reserves and productive capacity have become subject to potential geopolitical adversity.” Such concerns “are not frivolous,” he added, “given the stark realities evident in many areas of the world.”
The advent of this “geopolitical adversity” in the oil-producing regions leads to the other major characteristic of the Twilight Era: militarization of international efforts to secure foreign sources of oil. Rather than rely on market forces alone, the United States and other major consumers are increasingly committed to the use of military force to protect overseas pipelines and refineries, guard extended tanker routes, defend beleaguered oil producers, and otherwise ensure the continuous flow of petroleum. This commitment has already led to the establishment of a large US military presence in the Persian Gulf region and is now being followed by the introduction of American forces in oil-producing areas of the Caspian Sea basin, West Africa, and Latin America. Other great powers, including Russia and China, are behaving in roughly the same way. The stage is being set, in short, for recurring conflicts over access to foreign oil supplies.
The use of force to protect oil is not a new phenomenon. The British Empire—which had long thrived on coal—first viewed oil as a major military priority during World War I, when oil-powered ships, tanks, and planes made their debut in battle. After the war, Britain extended its military reach to the oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, including Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait; the Soviet Union followed a similar path in the Caucasus, then a major producing area. The pursuit of foreign reserves also shaped the strategic plans of oil-poor Germany and Japan during World War II, prompting the former’s invasion of the USSR and the latter’s assault on the Dutch East Indies. The United States got into the act after the war, when it sought to establish a protectorate over Saudi Arabia and to deny the Soviet Union access to the greater Gulf region. In 1980, the protection of Persian Gulf oil was made an explicit goal of US foreign policy when President Jimmy Carter told Congress that the United States would use “any means necessary, including military force,” to block efforts by hostile powers to cut off the flow of petroleum. This doctrine was later among those cited by President George H. W. Bush to justify the first Gulf War, and clearly it remains in force.
But while the Persian Gulf remains the major focus of American concern, it is not the only oil-producing region to provoke this sort of interest: the US military is being gradually transformed into a global oil-protection service.
The process is most advanced in the Caspian Sea basin. The United States first perceived the significance of this area in the early 1990s, when the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia declared their independence from Moscow and sought ties with the West. Eager to lessen America’s dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf, President Clinton supported efforts by US energy firms in acquiring concessions to promising oil and natural gas fields in the region and in constructing new pipelines from the landlocked Caspian to the West. Aware of the region’s inherent instability—a product of longstanding ethnic rivalries and the traumatic legacy of Russian/Soviet imperialism—Clinton also sought to protect these new energy assets by establishing military ties with Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and sending US troops to these countries to perform military exercises. This process has only been accelerated by President Bush since 9/11. It now entails the maintenance of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, along with substantially increased military aid to friendly local governments.
A similar trajectory can be detected in Colombia and Africa. Claiming that the protection of Colombia’s highly vulnerable oil infrastructure from guerrilla attack is an integral part of the government’s drive to restore order in the countryside, the Bush Administration has authorized the deployment of US Special Forces in Colombia to train and advise the government troops now helping to guard the Caño Límon pipeline in the northeast. Other US advisers are working with Colombian forces assigned to protect oil-exploration operations in Putumayo province, another insurgent stronghold; originally these advisers had concentrated on destroying the ties between drug traffickers and guerrillas. Slowly but surely, the United States is becoming involved in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign in Colombia—and it is the protection of oil, not the war on drugs, that appears to be driving the process.
The projection of US military power is less well advanced in West Africa, but equally troubling. At present, there are no American troops permanently assigned to Africa, but US military instructors are helping to enhance the combat capacity of forces in Angola, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and several other nations, and the Department of Defense is scouting for possible base locations in the area. These efforts are typically described as a response to the presence of terrorist groups in Africa, but one Pentagon official told the Wall Street Journal that “a key mission for US forces would be to ensure that Nigeria’s oil fields, which in the future could account for as much as 25 percent of US oil imports, are secure.”
Nor is the United States alone in seeking geopolitical advantage in the major oil-producing areas. Russia, which once incorporated the Caspian basin into its imperial territory, now seeks to reassert its control over the area, using both economic and military means. China, for its part, also seeks to acquire an ever increasing supply of oil and natural gas from the Caspian region, and so aims to establish close ties with the key governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. China has also extended its reach to Africa and the Persian Gulf, in some cases aiding countries, like Iran and Sudan, that the US views as adversaries. As a result, more and more arms are flowing into these areas and the groundwork is being laid for a series of regional oil conflicts. And with oil extraction peaking, the growing demand for oil in the United States, Russia, and China (which increased its oil consumption by 50 percent over the last four years) threatens to turn into growing competition between these great powers. Someone’s economy will have to be curtailed. Who will peaceably volunteer?
Life during the twilight era of petroleum will be unpleasant and occasionally painful, but not unbearable: a time of rising gasoline prices, periodic energy shortages, and local oil wars. The Nightfall Era will be another story. Unless entirely new modes of producing and using energy are developed, this period will be nasty and brutal. Entire industries will collapse, global food production will falter, travel by car or plane will become a costly luxury, and warfare over remaining pools of oil (as in the 1982 Mel Gibson film Road Warrior) will be constant. There is only one way to prevent this dreadful reality, and that is to devote the Twilight Era to the rapid construction of a post-petroleum economy. Nothing we can do is more important.