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'Fill 'er up' becomes the unlikely battle cry of Car Wars

Have you, like me, been experiencing a sharp stabbing pain in the wallet each time you fill the car up?

Normally I don't register those little fluctuations in the price of petrol. But now, as the meter ticks ever higher before that click-off mechanism on the nozzle activates, one has more time to contemplate the complex geopolitical connection between your guzzling gas tank and the rulers of the global oil economy.

Standing in that bland suburban forecourt, you are briefly but directly plugged into that tumultuous world of occupation, resistance, bombing and execution that might otherwise just be part of the media wallpaper.

There are many factors influencing the cost of a litre of gas, some of them merely the perennial machinations of the oil cartels that can turn supply and demand off and on like the valves on their wells. But shadowing every move by OPEC now is the spectre of the masked extremist and suicide bomber.

After the recent attack by suspected al Qaeda gangsters in Saudi Arabia, for instance, already inflated crude oil prices shot to record highs almost instantly. This was not part of George Bush's game plan. The liberation of Iraq's oil fields was meant to have improved flows to the west and brought down prices. Instead they have increased by 50 per cent.

Depending on who you read, prices are expected to decrease slightly once speculation and hedging against future "uncertainties" diminishes, and what is known as the "terrorist premium" (fill 'er up!) reduces. But that is also predicated on attacks on oil infrastructure and personnel not getting worse or – horror of horrors – actually causing the fall of the Saudi regime. As I write, pipelines are burning in southern and northern Iraq, another group of foreign contractors has been blown up in Baghdad and the markets are responding "nervously".

Now, you might assume governments will begin to act in the interests of consumers when oil supply fluctuations start to bite. After all, inflation's no good for anyone, is it? Perhaps. But there is also the possibility we're living through the early phases of something much bigger than just another temporary "crisis" and which history will record as a turning point.

And that's how we deal with the coming and predictable scarcity of fossil fuels.

You may have already heard of a thing called "Hubbert's peak". Hubbert was the geologist who (along with later analysts who revised his figures) more or less accurately predicted when global oil production would hit its maximum output – around 2006-2010. Once over this peak, with demand steadily outstripping supply, prices will inevitably climb. For a world obsessed with growth and globalisation, the potential consequences are dire – and a little harder to fix than by car pooling in the Auckland rush hour.

China, for instance, is on track to overtake the US, Europe and Japan for new automobile consumption. The only question, if Hubbert was right, is whether the factories making the cars will run out of oil before the cars they make run out of affordable petrol. (Which might, after all, save us all from choking the planet or cooking the climate in the first place, but let's not complicate matters.)

One way to deal with the problem, of course, is to do what the oil-crazed oligarchs of Washington appear to have opted for: draw a map of the world's strategic oil and gas reserves and transport routes, then find excuses to launch wars or counter-insurgencies in the hot spots. From the Straits of Malucca to the Middle East to central Asia to Latin America, the US has been increasing its military presence in oil and energy rich neighbourhoods.

I realise the blood-for-oil explanation is looked on in some quarters as the ultimate conspiracy theory. But, as historian and writer Mike Davis recently suggested, the uncanny congruence of the "war on terror" with the bits of the globe you might stick a drill into or build a pipeline across, certainly doesn't do anything to dispel it.

From the imperial-warrior point of view, such a solution to an impending oil famine is entirely logical - location, location, location in khaki. The net result, though, is to protect the investment and future profits of the cartels and their viziers at the expense of global security, social development and environmental sustainability.

As Davis also points out, "The rising value of an increasingly scarce resource is a form of monopoly rent." If it meant a permanent crude price rise to $US50 per barrel, it would equate to transferring "at least $US1 trillion per decade from consumers to oil producers. In plain English, this would be the greatest robbery by a rentier elite in world history. Someday, Enron may seem like the equivalent of a liquor store hold-up by comparison".

Likewise, someday, the current unpleasantness in the Middle East and elsewhere may seem like merely the opening skirmishes in this century's defining conflict. Car Wars rather than star wars.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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