Environment & the World

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Hubbert’s Peak and Oil

Filed under: Books, Energy, Geology, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 10:10 pm

I recently read the book Out of Gas by David Goodstein, which reflects upon energy use especially in light of the coming oil shortage. One thing this book got me thinking about was Hubbert’s Peak and when we really might start to feel the pain of declining oil supplies. Goodstein makes the point that Hubbert’s Peak followers and the major oil companies (using BP’s data as representative) essentially agree that we only have about 40 years of oil supply left at current consumption rates.

If I understand correctly, Goodstein argues that the major oil corporations and the Hubbert followers disagree on the point of crisis. According to Hubbert’s peak, societies will start to spiral into an energy crisis once we pass peak oil production. Passing the peak would be the turning point when supply can no longer keep up with our energy needs–leading to higher prices and shortages. In contrast, the energy corporations seem to argue that we can rest assured about our oil supplies until we’ve pretty much pumped out everything we can.

In thinking about this issue, there are at least three points that deserve further discussion and analysis.
1. Is Hubbert’s view correct that oil supplies will start to fall short of demand once we pass the peak?
2. How much proven reserves of oil are there?
3. What are our contingency plans in the face of an oil shortage?

Hubbert’s view has credibility to it. He correctly predicted that U.S. oil production in the lower 48 states would peak around 1970, which is exactly what happened. Furthermore, the Hubbert curve also adequately characterizes the production curve of individual oil wells. The general trend of oil production appears to follow a rising curve which tops out once half of the oil has been extracted. After that peak, production declines. It therefore doesn’t require a big stretch of the imagination to assume that global oil production would follow the same pattern.

Another way of looking at this point would be to ask whether it is plausible that we can keep raising production to meet increasing demand until we’ve exhausted our oil supplies. It might be; but it also might not be very realistic. Declining oil reserves necessarily mean that certain oil fields will dry up or will start to yield less. Increasing our production in tandem with a growing global thirst for oil means that new oil fields will have to be brought on-line faster than existing ones dry up. The challenge, however, is that new oil fields lie in remote regions and pumping more oil from existing regions would require costly new technologies as the oil becomes harder to extract. The large capital investment in technology, discovering new fields, and bringing them on-line imply that oil-reliant economies might already experience more pressure (at least in terms of cost) well before we’ve extracted the last drop.

The second point is also contentious because the limited time frame in which our oil-thirsty economy can survive depends on the amount of proven reserves. The OPEC 2005 Bulletin estimated that there are 1.15 trillion barrels of proven reserves left in the world (pdf, p.45). The U.S. Energy Information Administartion estimated world oil reserves in 2006 at 1.29 trillion barrels of oil (pdf, p.28). At current global consumption (excel spreadsheet) rates of about 84 million barrels of oil per day this means we have 42 years of oil left in the earth.

The problem with the above calculation is that it assumes that global consumption of oil will remain at present levels in the future and that the proven reserves of oil will also remain the same. In reality, both of these numbers are dynamic. A look at global demand statistics for oil reveals that they rise every year. EIA estimates show that by 2025 global oil consumption could be at about 115 million barrels per day (p.26).

On the other hand, the size of proven reserves could increase for a while (pending new discoveries). The same EIA document estimates that by 2025 we will have 2.96 tillion barrels worth of proven oil reserves in the world (p.29), however it is not clear whether that number takes into account the additional amount we will have consumed by then. In Sept. 2006, an official at Aramco (the Saudi oil company) stated that 4.7 trillion barrels of oil remain. As the Wall Street Journal points out, though, “3.5 trillion of the roughly 4.7 trillion barrels of oil Mr. Jum’ah is counting on will depend on the development of new technologies… He also factored in 1.5 trillion barrels from nonconventional sources, such as Canadian tar sands.”

Estimating future reserves is quite a hotly contested matter, nor is it straightforward. An increase in proven reserves does not translate into prolonged bliss for the oil economy. Advanced extraction techniques and nonconventional sources would most likely be more costly and energy-intensive, so prices could rise and we’d be getting less net energy per barrel produced. Furthermore, some people have taken a more cynical view of proven reserve statistics. High jumps in reported oil reserves have led some to suspect certain countries have over-reported the size of their reserves for political/economic gain.

All this begs the question, what is our backup plan? What happens if oil fields dry up faster than expected, or if we face another oil embargo? Or even, what’s our plan once oil runs out? The U.S. has built a transportation infrastructure that relies almost entirely on oil products, and it’s just not clear at this point what would happen when gas prices spike even higher and when the shortages begin. How will millions of people commute to work? What sacrifices will we be forced to make when gasoline costs rise even more? What about airfare? Road trips? Our three-car garage lifestyle? Higher transportation costs will also affect the prices for products we buy, most of which are shipped 10 to 1000 miles to reach our store shelves.

No matter what view you take on peak oil, it’s clear that our way of life as we know it will no longer be possible if we continue to build economies and lifestyles dependent on ever rising appetites for oil. Oil consumption does not need to grind to an instantaneous screeching halt, however we need Plan Bs and Cs and we need to develop alternative energy sources that will make our economy more resilient in the face of oil supply shocks. After all this fretting, I haven’t even made mention of the climate change angle, an issue intimately connected to, and one that will only be exacerbated by, ever more voracious oil consumption. In a scathing dose of reality, James Howard Kunstler describes our attitude towards the oil dilemma as sleepwalking into the future. Indeed, it is time to wake up.


Monday, February 5, 2007

President Hu’s African tour

Filed under: China, Development, Politics — Cathy @ 12:13 pm

Chinese President Hu Jintao is currently in Sudan, as part of an 8-nation tour of Africa.  Hu’s visit to Africa follows quickly on the heels of November’s China-Africa Summit in Beijing, emphasizing China’s growing role in the region.

China, which purchases 60% of Sudan’s oil exports, has a huge influence in the region and has been widely criticized for blocking the UN Security Council from taking a more active role against the Sudanese government actions in Darfur.  For the last several months, it has been unclear whether Sudan will be willing to allow 20,000 UN peacekeepers into Darfur.  It is too soon to say what will come of Hu’s visit to Sudan this weekend, but some are optimistic that the Chinese will use their influence to promote an end to the violence and closer cooperation with the UN (largely due to increasing international pressure on China).  Hu reportedly urged the Sudanese president to bring more rebels into the peace process (http://www.wilmingtonstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070203/NEWS/702030347/-1/State).  However, Hu made no reference to Darfur in the statement he released after meeting with Sudan’s president.  (http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/26864.html)

Before Sudan, President Hu visited Zambia where, according to the Chinese newspaper The People’s Daily, he announced an aid package that includes some debt relief, increasing the number of zero-tariff Zambian exports to China, and money for a stadium, hospital, and two schools (http://english.people.com.cn/200702/04/eng20070204_347422.html).  However, western papers are quick to point out that not all Zambians are appreciative of this aid.  According to the Economist, African governments like China because China’s aid money (which Hu has promised to double over the next 3 years) comes without any “political conditions”, i.e. insistence on reducing corruption or improving human rights improvements.  But the Economist further points out that anti-Chinese sentiment is rising among the general populace:

“In Zambia, where China has big copper-mining interests, a candidate in last year’s presidential election promised, if elected, to chase out Chinese investors after lethal riots at a Chinese-controlled mine. In Nigeria, Chinese oil workers and engineers have joined Western counterparts in being kidnapped and ransomed by insurgents in the country’s Niger Delta region. And there have been protests in South Africa and Zimbabwe against cheap clothing imported from China.” (http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8649776)

Indeed, Zambia’s chief opposition party was prevented from attending any events associated with President Hu’s visit; the party has made no secret of its displeasure at increasing Chinese involvement in Zambia (http://somalinet.com/news/world/Africa/7201). 

Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of the Union ’07 & Energy

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:21 pm

I thought it would be worth discussing the President’s take on energy and the environment in his State of the Union speech. Here’s the relevant portion of his speech:

“Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

“It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

“We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

“To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

“Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

“America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)”

Watching the live delivery and generous applause during this section of the speech was more exciting than processing it and reading all the reactions.

-Recognizing “global climate change” and the need to confront it.
-Reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
-Reducing gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
-Strengthening fuel economy standards.
-Supporting more ethanol, hybrid technology, wind and solar power.

-Clean coal, clean diesel
-Nuclear power
-Doubling capacity of Strategic Petroleum Reserve
-“Alternative fuels” (coal to gas?)
-Not enough decisive action

Some reactions:
The Sierra Club is unimpressed.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the fuel economy proposals, but remains cautious and says more needs to be done to address global warming.

Steven Mufson at the Washington Post and Dave Roberts at Grist examine the energy proposals from the State of the Union ’07 point by point leaving us with little for which to cheer.

With the President increasingly supporting some political action on energy issues and a Democratic majority in Congress there is still a possibility for some positive developments. With the Democrats largely eager to push for progressive energy policies they might meet the President half way this year and finally get something done.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Congress Okays More Drilling

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 1:46 am

This past weekend both the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (S. 3711). This legislation makes 8.3 million acres available for new oil and natural gas production projects.

The Act also contains other provisions, the inclusion of which enabled the Act’s proponents to frame it in a positive, progressive light. As a “consolation” (or a slap in the face depending on your viewpoint) for environmentalists, the Act allocates funds from drillling revenues for coastal wetlands restoration, hurricane protection and flood control projects in the Gulf States in addition to funds for parks and green space preservation in all 50 states. Thanks to these provisions, the Act manages to rationalize, on the surface, increased oil exploration and extraction in as a win-win solution. Along the same lines, the bill comes off as a benevolent boost for efforts to help protect Gulf states from future hurricanes and especially as a much-needed source of rebuilding funds for Katrina-stricken Louisiana. It also justifies the drilling in terms of creating new jobs and helping the U.S.A.’s energy security.

On that latter note, D-LA Senator Landrieu’s press release on the bill reads: “The area is projected to produce enough natural gas to sustain more than 1,000 chemical plants for 40 years, and enough oil to keep 2.7 million cars running and 1.2 million homes heated for more than 15 years.” These statistics fail, however, to convey that the U.S.’s voracious appetite for hydrocarbons means that all this new oil and natural gas would serve more as a light hor d’oeuvre than a serious fix for our petro cravings. At a consumption rate of over 20 million barrels of oil per day, all of the oil that this bill makes available would only satisfy a meager 2 months worth of the U.S.’s oil needs. Simiarly, with U.S. natural gas consumption at about 22 trillion cubic feet per year, the 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas believed to be in this area would only meet an equivalent of one quarter of a year’s worth of U.S. natural gas demand. Of course, the oil and natural gas from this area would not be pumped out in such a short period of time, nor would this area ever constitute the sole source of hydrocarbons for the U.S. at any point in time. Nevertheless, these general calculations illustrate how minute these sources are compared to the total U.S. demand.

In a completely unsurprising move, President Bush praised the Act and will likely sign it into law swiftly. Ironically, even though the President has professed that this country is addicted to oil, signing this new law will do no nothing to wean us off the addiction. In fact, the sort of short-term, pseudo-petro-security this Act provides will only assuage our fears over the looming oil shortage, distract us from urgency of the matter, and will exacerbate our global warming emissions in the time being.

The Sierra Club opposed this bill, arguing that it makes more sense to improve car fuel efficiency and invest in wind and solar power. Indeed, it would have been much more fruitful for Congress to look into ways to improve energy efficiency and to reduce our humongous rate of fossil fuel consumption. Small-scale energy efficiency projects rolled out across the entire country could easily save more energy than we would ever pump from this area in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, Congress could have seized this opportunity to show some really innovative and inspiring leadership. Instead of providing Gulf states with funds, generated from additional fossil fuel extraction, to protect the environment and guard against future hurricanes, Congress could have authorized financial incentives for new solar and wind energy projects in these Southern states, the tax revenues from which could serve the same end goal.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

SoCal Cities Pass on More Coal

Filed under: Energy, Politics — amirj @ 8:17 am

Before the what-are-you-thankful-for trope gets too far behind us, here’s something to consider. Just in time for Thanksgiving, a group of Southern California cities decided they’ve had enough with dirty coal power plants. To make it official, they decided not to renew their contracts for coal power, and instead to look to renewable energy sources to power their future.

“Officials in Pasadena, Anaheim and several other large cities notified the Intermountain Power Agency this week that they would not be renewing their contracts for cheap, coal-fired power.

Those contracts expire in 2027. That leaves the cities two decades to secure the alternative energy sources they’ll need, from wind farms to desert solar power.

The moves could put the region in the forefront nationally of the commercial use of alternative energy in coming years, but researching and building the infrastructure to replace coal-fired power will be a costly, risky business.

‘All of these technologies are still in their infancy,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water & Power. ‘We’re still looking at the fact that right now, the Intermountain plant is 65 percent of our energy.'”

I suppose this announcement is something to be thankful for. Oh, and about the risky business stuff–I’m not too worried. If there’s political will, I’m confident we’ll find a way. With its abundant sunshine, it shouldn’t be too hard to generate plenty of solar power in SoCal.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

2006 Gas Mileage: U.S. Still Fails

Filed under: Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:16 pm

The EPA and Dept. of Energy yesterday released gas mileage stats for 2007 model vehicles, giving us yet another opportunity to reflect upon the sad state of our nation’s fuel economy. Before delving into the depressing details, here’s the better side of things: the EPA’s top 10 Fuel Economy leaders for 2007.

Rank          Manufacturer/Model                MPG

1              Toyota Prius (hybrid-electric)      60/51
2              Honda Civic Hybrid                      49/51
3              Toyota Camry Hybrid                  40/38
4              Ford Escape Hybrid FWD             36/31
5              Toyota Yaris (manual)                34/40
6              Toyota Yaris (automatic)            34/39
7              Honda Fit (manual)                    33/38
8              Toyota Corolla (manual)             32/41
9              Hyundai Accent (manual)            32/35    
                Kia Rio (manual)                          32/35 
10            Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD              32/29
                Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD      32/29

Source: http://www.epa.gov/fueleconomy/overall-high.htm

While some of us would probably prefer to walk, bike, or take public transportation over driving all the time, we realize that the former are not always possible and therefore applaud Toyota and Honda for bringing to the market cars that can surpass 50 miles per gallon. The rest of the cars in the top 10 also deserve credit, even though the list leaves something to be desired. In an age of complicated petropolitics, rising gas prices, and increasing oil scarcity shouldn’t the top 10 most fuel efficient cars, at the very least, all top 40 miles per gallon? And shouldn’t the best of the best start to approach 100 mpg?

This past July the EPA released a report on fuel economy trends since 1975 which wasn’t exactly full of good news. The estimated national average gas mileage for 2006 was an unimpressive 21.0mpg. Mind you, “This average is the same as last year and in the middle of the 20.6 to 21.4 mpg range that has occurred for the past fifteen years, and five percent below the 1987 to 1988 peak of 22.1 mpg.”

Despite all the technological advances, 20 years have passed since the US reached peak fuel economy, and we can’t even match that level. Shame on us! We now have hybrids, cars that can run on biodiesel and ethanol, and BMW will soon introduce a hydrogen car, but as a nation we’re still guzzling more gas and doing so less efficiently than we did in 1987. For a nation that is bemoaning higher gas prices and whose gas money has financed (and still does) nations that are overtly hostile to it, our behavior is extremely hypocritical.

Aside from financially and politically hurting ourselves, we have also failed to meet our own standards. In 1975 Congress passed legislation that created the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The goal was to double car fuel economy by 1985. That goal was 27.5 mpg. Not only did we fail to reach it in 1985 (remember, peak fuel economy was reached in 1987 at 22.1mpg), more than 30 years after the passage of that legislation and 20 years after our own missed deadline we have still failed ourselves.

Breaking down the 2006 21.0 mpg statistic into its components, we can see what the real culprits are. From the EPA report, “For model year 2006, cars are estimated to average 24.6 mpg, vans 20.6 mpg, SUVs 18.5 mpg, and pickups 17.0 mpg. The increased market share of light trucks, which in recent years have averaged more than six mpg less than cars, accounted for much of the decline in fuel economy of the overall new light-duty vehicle fleet from the peak that occurred in 1987-88.”

We can only blame SUVs, vans, and pickups so much though. Today, thirty years after CAFE, at 24.6 mpg our smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient cars have still failed to reach our own gas mileage standards.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Toxic Waste Shipment Pollutes Ivory Coast

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Politics, Waste — amirj @ 8:25 pm

Slate has a great article by Jeremy Kahn about the politics of international toxic waste transport in light of a recent shipment of toxic waste that was improperly dumped in the Ivory Coast and resulted in the hospitalization of tens of thousands of locals.

“On Aug. 19, a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by a Greek firm and chartered by a leading Dutch commodities broker docked in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. The ship unloaded between 400 tons and 600 tons of toxic petrochemical waste, which was summarily dumped in open-air sites around the city and poured into the sewer system.”

Kahn points out that this incident is merely one example of a broader scheme in which developed countries export their toxic waste to developing nations. While the export is often conducted under the condition that the developing nations will treat this waste, or properly recycle it, the waste often goes untreated. As a result, many citizens of developing nations literally become sick just by drinking water or breathing air that is polluted by trash from economically developed nations. Kahn discusses the Basel Convention–an international “treaty governing the shipment of hazardous waste,” and the role of the U.S.A. in this international waste trading regime. Kahn rightly laments the fact that despite the gravity of events like the one that just occured on the Ivory Coast, Western media mostly fails to report on these issues. Not that this blog is a significant media source, but here’s our little contribution to spreading the word.  

9/26/06 Update: This story is starting to gain some international attention. Eight people have died in the Ivory Coast as a likely result of exposure to the toxic waste, and things are starting to heat up. From the International Herald Tribune:

“Hospitals in Abidjan have provided free consultations to 80,000 people, many of them complaining of nausea, headaches and breathing difficulties caused by the fumes… [The Dutch Company that commissioned the shipment] Trafigura’s director Claude Dauphin and another executive were jailed in Ivory Coast last week and charged with poisoning and breaking toxic waste laws after they went to the country to distribute medicines and assist authorities with an investigation.”

Greenpeace has blockaded the ship, which is now docking in Estonia, that dumped the toxic chemicals in the Ivory Coast. From Greenpeace News:

“At 17.00 local time, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise moved slowly towards the poison ship. Bearing a banner warning that “Toxic Trade Kills” the Arctic Sunrise dropped anchor at 18.00 local time, some 100 metres away, effectively barring the ship from leaving port. Our demands: Estonia should impound the ship. The European Commission, acting for the European Union, should ensure that the ship is held until a full criminal investigation is carried out and those responsible for the illegal waste export, and ensuing deaths, are brought to justice. … The fact that the toxic waste was dumped openly on the streets of a city is shocking enough. The fact that the waste was delivered by a ship chartered by Trafigura LTD (controlled by Dutch firm Trafigura Beheer BV), who claimed they thought the waste would be ‘properly treated’ in a poor African nation raises serious questions about why they sent it to Africa.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

Beckett Talks Climate Change at UN General Assembly

Filed under: Climate Change, Politics — amirj @ 1:40 pm

British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Margaret Beckett devoted a good chunk of her speech at the 61st UN General Assembly to climate change, urging the world to cooperate in addressing it. Here’s an excerpt from her speech.

“If we don’t act on climate change, we risk undermining the very basis of the prosperity and security we are seeking to achieve. That is why we must recognise that talk of having either a successful economy or a stable climate is a false choice; we must work together to find paths for economic growth which protect our climate.

The truth is that we already have much of the technology we need to move to a low carbon economy. But we must now deploy it very much more rapidly. What we do in the next ten years will count the most.

It is the developed, rich world which bears a large responsibility for the present level of greenhouse gas emissions. But it is the poorest in our global commuinity — those least able to bear it — who will bear the brunt of climate insecurity. We all need to do more–but the rich world should continue to lead the effort, applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibility which must continue to be our guide.”

You can read her entire speech. The part about climate change begins on page five, paragraph 17. 

Thursday, September 21, 2006

25 x ’25 Renewable Energy Plan Gets a Boost

Filed under: Energy, Politics — amirj @ 3:00 pm

Taking a step closer to actualizing the vision that Al Gore outlined in his recent NYU speech, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee approved today the 25 x ’25 resolution. This resolution expresses the sense of Congress that the U.S. should produce 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. The resolution boasts bi-partisan sponsorship, and will now go to the House for a vote.

H.Con.Res. 424 states,

“Expressing the sense of Congress that it is the goal of the United States that, not later than January 1, 2025, the agricultural, forestry, and working land of the United States should provide from renewable resources not less than 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States and continue to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed, and fiber.”

There’s some pretty good language in the resolution. It goes on to recognize that these resources can help ensure a sustainable energy system, that this initiative would improve national security and provide affordable energy for all citizens, that it would create economic growth and develop new jobs, and that it would reduce our dependence on imported energy.

The 25 x ’25 resolution has broad support. The Apollo Alliance, Environmental Defense, Ford Motors, General Motors, the NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists are among dozens of national organizations, foundations, and corporations that have endorsed the plan. The 25 x ’25 coalition even has a website with lots of information, press, a full list of supporters, and updates on implementing the vision.

Of course, the resolution isn’t perfect. As it stands now, it’s nonbinding and lacks funding appropriations to achieve this goal. Nor does it include any penalties, benchmarks, or any sort of plan to implement the 25 x ’25 goals. All this doesn’t mean it’s useless, though. Sometimes it’s good to have a goal work towards; and if the U.S. Congress throws its weight behind this goal, it gets the real sense that this is the direction towards which the country will move. Finally.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Global competition for oil

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics — Cathy @ 11:16 pm

Just read a long and interesting article in Der Spiegel on oil politics:


Basically the article talks about how, sooner or later, the U.S., China, and India are going to clash over oil and natural gas resources.  Already, China’s demand for oil has led it to support the current Iranian regime; President Ahmadinead rightly notes that “the West needs us more than we need the West.”  Africa is another hotspot, with both the United States and China pushing for oil development along the West African coast – regardless of the corruption and consequences for human rights.

The article’s main conclusions are that: China, the US and India will have trouble securing the oil resources they need in the coming century, the EU’s energy security is uncertain, Russia is likely to be a winner if it can stabilize its government, and Brazil and Sweden will be fine.  Brazil has a well-developed biofuel economy and Sweden is developing one, with the goal of being independent of oil by 2020.  More investment into alternative transportation fuels would probably be a wise idea for the U.S., China, and India too.  The United States certainly has the resources for a significant biofuels industry based on crop residues.  China might as well, although China also has significant coal reserves; converting coal into liquid fuels and sequestering the carbon would probably be a better alternative than the current path of propping up corrupt and unstable governments for a source of energy that is damaging the climate.

 It is not surprising that the role of oil as a driving force in African poverty and political corruption (at least in some parts of Africa) rarely surfaces in public debate.  While oil does indeed bring money into many African countries, it often ends up fueling corrupt and brutally repressive governments, such as that in Nigeria.   As the article points out, “The standard of living has declined for most of the population in corrupt states such as Nigeria, Algeria and Gabun, for example.”  China gets 5% of its oil imports from the Sudan, with the consent of its genocidal government, so it’s no surprise that the Chinese are not anxious to have that government toppled (China has been blocking the imposition of UN sanctions against Sudan).  If oil exports were less of a driving force, not only would there be less corruption, but I suspect that the rest of the world would be able to turn a more objective eye to problems in Africa.  After all, it is rather difficult to make serious progress in promoting transparent governance and reducing poverty when our oil dollars are simultaneously funding the corrupt regimes.

  (There is more detail on the East Africa’s role in the global oil scene in a previous Spiegel article: http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,389138,00.html)

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