Posts Tagged ‘Oil’

Going to war for oil doesn’t make any sense

October 9, 2014

infographic.ime.oil.gas

One of the justifications for going to war in the Middle East is to make sure we Americans have access to oil.

During the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker said the issue was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”  He didn’t explain, but what I and other Americans took him to mean that if Saddam Hussein cut us off from the oil of Kuwait, our industrial machine would falter.

But there was no danger of that happening.  Saddam Hussein was perfectly happy to sell Iraq’s oil, and would have been perfectly happy to sell Kuwait’s oil.

oilcorridorThe oil-producing nations have just as much need to sell their oil as the oil-consuming nations have to buy it.

U.S. interventions in the Middle East have reduced American access to oil, not secured it.  The sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, the continuing sanctions against Iran and the new sanctions against Russia have been intended to prevent these nations from selling their oil and natural gas.  The invasion of Iraq destroyed much of that nation’s oil-producing capability, which is only now recovering.

All this made oil and gas prices higher, not lower.

The only time U.S. access to Middle East oil was cut off was during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.  But the embargo was broken without military action.  It was broken by the international oil companies who sold the oil to whoever wanted to buy it.  [1]

Since then there has never been another threat to U.S. oil imports.  The most strongly anti-American leaders, Libya’s Qaddafi and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, never refused to do business with the United States.  Politics was one thing; business, another.

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U.S. power failure in the Middle East

August 14, 2014

ISIS-Iraq-AttackSince the 1950s, I have watched the decline in the United States relationship with the nations of the Middle East.

The U.S. government has grown progressively less inhibited in the use of direct military force in the Middle East, and less concerned with international law and world public opinion.  Despite an expanded military presence in the region, the U.S. government has become progressively less able to influence events there.  Successive U.S. military interventions have been an education to our enemies in how to fight us, and they have learned their lessons well.

Looking at the many U.S. interventions (many of which I thought were a good idea at the time), I don’t see how the USA would have been any worse off if we had left the Middle East alone.

  • During the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. government supplied favored governments with military and other foreign aid, and engineered at least one coup, against the Mohammed Mossadegh government (which was legally elected), but reined in Britain, France and Israel when they attacked Egypt.
  • In the Reagan administration, the United States began committing acts of war against Middle East countries — bombarding villages in Lebanon in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; bombarding Libya in retaliation for President Qaddafi’s involvement in the terror bombing of an airliner
  • In the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. for the first time invaded and occupied a Middle East country, in order to set up a more acceptable government.  This followed nearly a decade of low-level war—blockade and bombing—under the administration.  The target was Iraq, whose government had never threatened the United States.
  • The Obama administration is talking about intervening in conflicts within Middle Eastern nations, to make sure the side most favorable to the United States wins.  This is a hard choice, because so many of the factions, however much they hate each other, are agreed they don’t want foreign control of their countries.

An evolution also has taken place in the enemies of  the United States.   In each generation, the new leaders are fiercer, more savage and more implacable than the ones that went before.   I think Americans today would be pleased to deal with the likes of Mohammed Mossadegh and Gamel Abdel Nasser, and even Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Assad seem moderate and reasonable compared to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

We Americans value freedom of religion and equal rights for women, but Christians and other minorities were persecuted less under Nasser and Saddam, and women enjoyed greater opportunities, than they do in Egypt and Iraq today.

Our enemies, unlike us, have grown more effective.  What our government has been doing with its interventions has been giving our enemies lessons in how to fight us.  They have learned they can’t fight us on the battlefield, on our own terms, as Saddam Hussein tried to do.  Instead they have improved on classic guerrilla tactics, in which the enemy’s strength is used against him.

The Pentagon and the CIA know how to topple governments, overtly and covertly.  But they can’t topple a movement such as ISIS, any more than Israel can topple Hamas, because they are mass movements, not governments.  Kill or capture the leaders, and more leaders emerge to take their place.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that in terms of the goal of obtaining access to oil, the United States government would have done better to stay out of Middle East conflicts.

The Japanese and Chinese, whose governments have been neutral, are just as free to buy Middle East oil as Americans.

U.S. access to the oil of the Middle East has been threatened only once—during the Arab oil embargo of 1973.   The embargo was in retaliation for U.S. meddling in the Middle East, and was ineffective anyway.  There also was a brief oil shortage in 1979 following the interruption of oil production in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah.

But broadly speaking, the oil-producing countries need to sell oil as badly as the United States and other oil-consuming countries need to buy it.  Not even the anti-American government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela cut off oil sales to the United States, because that would have hurt Venezuelans as much or more than it would have hurt us Americans.   Economic self-interest, in some circumstances, can be a powerful force for good.

Of course prior to 1991, the U.S. government had a negative as well as a positive goal.  The negative goal was to keep the Soviet Union from gaining control of the governments and resources of the Middle East.  Maybe the Soviets would have gotten bogged down in quagmires of their own without the United States doing anything, and maybe not.  There is no way to know for sure.   I can understand why American policymakers wouldn’t want to stand aside and find out.

U.S. policy today could be interpreted as having the goal of being able to deny the Chinese access to the oil of the Middle East.  I have no evidence that this is the goal, but if the Chinese government thinks otherwise, this would explain why they are building up an ocean-going navy and demanding control of the sea lanes around China.

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The passing scene: Links & comments 7/11/14

July 11, 2014

Oligarchy Blues: Without fair elections and a viable legislative process at the federal and state levels, the republic no longer exists by Michael Ventura for the Austin (Texas) Chronicle.

This writer sums up what’s wrong with the USA very briefly and very clearly.  I highly recommend reading this.  Like Ventura, I don’t have a complete answer for what to do, but, like him, I think it is necessary to break free of the assumption that the alternatives that the political system offers are the only possibilities that exist.

In Fever Dreams Begin Irresponsibilities, Texas Edition by Hendrik Hertzberg for The New Yorker.

The Texas Republican Party is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Enemies like these make Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton look good.

Fighting for Oil by Michael Klare for TomDispatch.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

It’s no coincidence that the world’s various “trouble spots” torn by “age-old conflicts” happen to be rich in oil and natural gas.

The legacy children of the Honduran coup by Dan Beeton for Aljazerra America.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

It’s also no coincidence that the unauthorized child migrants sneaking into the USA come from countries such as Honduras, with its U.S.-backed military dictatorship, and not from democratic countries such as Nicaragua.

The French Do Buy Books – Real Books by Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times.  [Hat tip to Laura Cushman]

France and some of the other European governments forbid on-line booksellers to offer big discounts on book prices.  As a result, French people pay more for books, but independent bookstores are much more plentiful.

The fall of a superpower by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Brazilians assumed that being Brazilian made them inherently superior in World Cup football  and were shocked at their team’s defeat by Germans.   But superiority in anything is never inherent.   Excellence takes continual hard work and hard thinking, and, even then, there’s no guarantee that a smart, determined competitor won’t out-do you.

A device that converts plastic back into oil

April 25, 2014

This video has been making the rounds for four years or more, but I just learned about it when my friend Bill Elwell called it to my attention.  It seemed to me to be too good to be true, but evidently the plastic-to-oil converter, made by the Blest Co. in Japan, is for real.

Here are some links to articles giving details.

Man Invents Machine to Convert Waste Plastic Into Oil and Fuel on hoaxorfact.com

Plastic to Oil $$ by Alternatives Journal, “Canada’s environmental voice”

Plastic to Oil Fantastic on Our World.

Converting plastic back into oil by Snopes.com

 

Digging up our coal, oil and gas for export

March 22, 2014

Kos-Fracked

I don’t think many Americans are aware of how much of our coal, oil and natural gas production is for export.  In particular, I don’t think Americans are as aware as we should be that the pipeline to carry bitumen from tar sands fields in Alberta to oil refineries in Texas is for the benefit of Canadian exporters, not (except very indirectly) American consumers.  The tar sands production is being piped south to Texas because other Canadian provinces are unwilling to take the environmental risk of having it piped east or west.

In and of itself, anything that reduces the U.S. trade deficit is a good thing, not a bad thing.  We need to import things from abroad, and we need to pay for them with exports.  Now we pay a price for this, which we did not have to pay for oil exports from Texas in the 1950s.

The easy-to-get coal, oil and natural gas has been pretty much used up, and so we need hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, mountaintop removal to dig for coal, deep water drilling for oil and the Alberta tar sands to get at what fossil fuels are left.

All these methods involve risks to human health and the natural environment, but that’s a price that can’t be avoided until alternatives are found and energy consumption is reduced.

An advanced nation should not depend on exports of raw materials, and imports of high-tech manufacturing goods, but that is the U.S. situation today.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/business/energy-environment/an-oil-industry-awash-in-crude-argues-over-exporting.html?_r=0

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/24/coal-s-new-exporteconomyleavesacloudofdustoverlouisiana.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/03/140320-north-american-natural-gas-seeks-markets-overseas/

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text

As the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake, and eat it too.

A nation can’t have reserves of fossil fuels, and burn them up or sell them all for export, too.

Hat tip to Bill Elwell for the cartoon.

Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

March 20, 2012

In 1956, the brilliant maverick oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production in the United States would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970, and world oil production would peak in about 50 years—that is, sometime around 2006.

M. King Hubbert's 1956 prediction of world oil

He extrapolated the rate of growth in oil production and the rate of discovery of new oil reserves, and based his prediction on when new discoveries failed to keep up with growth.   His chart of the rise and fall of oil production is called Hubbert’s Peak.  He had another chart, showing how nuclear energy could be a source of energy for many centuries.  You could call that Hubbert’s Plateau.

Hubbert’s prediction was accurate in regard to the United States.  Oil production in the Lower 48 states did peak around 1970 or so.  Many smart people believe that oil production in the Middle East has peaked or is about to peak.  But, as Daniel Yergin pointed out in his recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, worldwide production of liquid fuels continues to increase.

Actual world oil production

What Hubbert failed to take into account, Yergin wrote, were two things—(1) price and (2) technology.  The world gets its oil from sources that were unavailable in 1956, and uses liquid fuels other than oil.   Energy companies drill for oil deep in the ocean.  “Tight oil” and “tight gas” are extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale deep within the earth.  Oil can be extracted from Canada’s tar sands.  More than four-fifths of liquid fuels—and, according to Yergin, you have to speak of liquid fuels rather than just crude oil—are extracted by advanced techniques that were unknown in Hubbert’s day.  The increase in world oil production probably owes more to chemical engineers than it goes to oil geologists.

In a way, Hubbert was right.  Production of the easy-to-get oil has peaked.  What Yergin calls the “unconventional” sources are available if you are willing to pay a high enough price—a price not only in dollars, but in the risk to the human environment, and in the amount of energy it takes to extract the new energy.

Hubbert's Plateau: nuclear energy as the solution

Yergin says there are enough reserves of “unconventional” energy to last for centuries at (here’s the problem) current rates of use.  The problem is not so much that someday the world have have used up more than half its supply of fossil fuels, as that if the rate of consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase year by year, it will someday catch up with production.  Yergin is aware of that, and is a strong advocate of energy conservation and development of renewable resources.

I don’t claim to have a good answer as to what should be done.  I think that it is amazing that deep water oil drilling or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas are possible at all, without expecting they can be carried out with 100 percent reliability and zero damage.  My inclination is to postpone use of potentially harmful processes as long as possible, in the hope that better technology will reduce risk and in the expectation that future generations will need these resources more than my generation does.

At the same time, I drive a car powered by gasoline and I heat my house with natural gas.  I wouldn’t like to try to get along without the first, and I don’t know how I would get along without the latter.  This is more important to me than the hazards and costs of energy development.

Click on What’s Wrong With Peak Oil for an article by Daniel Yergin in the Wall Street Journal.

Click on Is Yergin Correct About Oil Supply? (an opinion the Wall Street Journal did not run) for a rebuttal to Yergin by Gail Tverberg on her Our Finite World web log.

Click on The Oil Drum for a web log devoted to peak oil and energy issues.

Below are some maps (not taken from Daniel Yergin’s book) indicating where future oil and natural gas may come from.

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Oil and world power

March 19, 2012

Oil was the key to world power during the 20th century.  It still is.  Reading Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power reminded me of just how much military and political power rest on oil.

The power of the 20th century British Navy rested on oil.  In the years leading up to World War One, the British Navy went from coal to oil because of the German naval buildup.  The British wanted something that would give their navy an edge.  Oil would give British ships greater range and speed than coal-fired ships.  But while the United Kingdom had coal mines within its border, it had no oil.

Britain needed a secure source of oil.  The British government decided for that purpose it needed to control the oil of Persia (now Iran).  This involved stopping the emerging Persian democratic movement, and installing a dictator with the title of Shah, and giving the British government control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, then BP), which held the British concession.  This drama was replayed in 1953, when U.S. and British intelligence services helped overthrow another democratic movement and installed the previous Shah’s son, with consequences that were felt in 1979 and to this day.

It was oil supplies from the United States, not Persia, that sustained Britain during the two World Wars, a reason why the “special relationship” was so important to the British government.  Yergin wrote that about 90 percent of Allied oil in the Second World War came from the United States.

The German army was severely handicapped by lack of oil in both world wars.  The main oil-producing European country prior to the discovery of North Sea Oil was Rumania, which was allied to Germany in both World Wars.  But the oil of Rumania was insufficient.  One of Hitler’s motives for attacking Russia in 1941 was to seize the oil of Baku; that is why he ordered his generals to break off the siege of Moscow and move south.  Yergin said the German army might have succeeded in Russia or North Africa if it hadn’t literally run out of gas.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 after the United States threatened an oil embargo.  They hoped to cripple the United States naval forces long enough to seize the oil of the Dutch East Indies, and might have succeeded, according to Yergin, if they had launched another wave of attack and destroyed the oil tanks storing the U.S. Navy’s fuel reserves in Hawaii.   Instead the U.S. was able to mount submarine attacks to such a degree that most of the oil never reached Japan.

Russia under the Tsars, the Bolsheviks and their successors was always one of the world’s top oil and gas producers.  Whatever their government’s failures in economic policy, they always had that to fall back on.

Access to oil—specifically, to oil as a source of aviation fuel—is essential to U.S. world power.  Today the power of the United States rests on the U.S. Air Force, as much as British power rested on the Royal Navy.  Supremacy in the air gives U.S. forces the power to invade and occupy small countries almost at will, although not necessarily with success.  The U.S. Navy has nuclear ships, but the U.S. Air Force requires aviation fuel.  Someday there may be an alternative to gasoline for hand-based vehicles, but the Air Force will always need a secure source of oil to avoid being grounded.

When you think about the need for oil and access to oil, many world events are easier to understand.