The Price of Oil
It's all about the price of oil
It's all about the price of oil
Don't give me no shit
About blood, sweat, tears and toil
It's all about the price of oil
Now I ain't no fan of Saddam Hussein
Oh, please don't get me wrong
If it's freeing the Iraqi people you're after
Then why have we waited so long?
-Billy Bragg, The Price of Oil
During World War One the modern armies first discovered their thirst for oil. The war machine had become mechanised. War ships now depended on oil, as did the tanks. Airplanes were just coming into use. Early cars and trucks were being used to move troops and supplies. Strategists recognised not just the military need for oil, but saw that control of oil would be an important strategic advantage even in times of peace. John D. Rockefeller had founded Standard Oil and was the richest person on the planet at that time and civilian use of petroleum products was growing.
After the war the victors divvied up the spoils, creating countries and installing friendly rulers to keep the oil flowing to Europe and North America. Mesopotamian oil had become so important that British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour said to the gathered Prime Ministers of the British Dominions, "I do not care under what system we keep the oil, but I am quite clear it is all-important for us that this oil should be available." Oil had become a strategic resource and control over it was now imperative to be a world power.
In the period between the First World War and the Second World War, politics were played and deals were struck. The resources under Iraq were proven by the British. The western world moved into the Middle East in search of control of black gold and, while there were winners and losers, the inhabitants of the newly formed countries of the Middle East were not consulted. Middle Eastern oil was again militarily important as World War II dawned. So were the oilfields of Eastern Europe and Southern Asia. An embargo on Japan was one of the major causes of the attack on Pearl Harbour. The oil shortage that the embargo caused would have shut down Japanese industry. They sent a threat of war, stating that they would attack US assets in the Pacific, which was ignored by the US. Hitler allied himself with Japan in an attempt to get them to attack Russia from the east which would have forced them to fight on two fronts and allowed Germany to reach the all important oil fields. Japan reneged on the deal and Hitler's forces, fighting on two fronts and short of fuel on both, ultimately lost the war.
In the Cold War that followed World War II, oil was again a major issue. Both the USSR and the United States were very active in the Middle East. Their motive was not to influence the governments for their ideologies, but to influence the governments for their oil. The economic war and the political war had become one.
US oil exploration played a part in Vietnam. Herbert Hoover had prepared a report on oil in the South China Sea back in the 1920s. His research indicated that there was a large amount oil off the coast of French Indo-China. Offshore drilling technology didn't exist at the time, so the report was largely ignored. The technology did exist by the time the US was considering getting involved in Vietnam though. The problem was that US interests had no power in the area and could not use the modern technology of the time to search for oil as a result. That technology consisted of taking readings from explosives set off under the water.
Once the US was involved in the war, largely through the Gulf of Tonkin incident the explosive soundings could be used under cover of the clearing of munitions from war planes returning to their aircraft carriers. The war also gave the US a reason to be there. If there was no "legitimate" reason to be there the government of Vietnam and the French would both have been making claims to the oil and protesting US exploration. Oil is entwined with the war on drugs in South America. The two have become inseparable because the coca fields lay on top of oil fields. Corporate interests from the US need access to that land. While a huge number of Columbian military officers ( more than any other nation) have been trained at the School of the Americas, there is still a general consensus that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism are not related and that neither have anything to do with oil interests.
That consensus is not correct. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization in a February 2002 article titled US Oil Interests in Colombia, "The Colombian army and right wing paramilitaries (illegal armed groups with links to the Colombian army) protect and profit from foreign oil interests in Colombia. Despite a deteriorating human rights situation that the military claims it is too poor to address, the Colombian army spends nearly one quarter of its resources on defending oil installations. And credible reports document security contracts between oil companies and paramilitary groups. Those who are 'protecting US interests' in the region are doing so ruthlessly. Paramilitaries target local indigenous activists, and the labor leaders working in the oil industry have been among the most violently repressed in the world. Illegal armed groups are responsible for hundreds of murders and thousands of disappearances, many of which are directly linked to the protest of oil exploration and extraction activities."
That was two years ago though. Columbia has been moved to the back burner since the war in Afghanistan, where one of the first plans to show up was a pipeline to a port so the oil in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan could flow to tankers headed to North America. John Maresca, Vice President, International Relations, of Unocal Corporation certainly made a forceful argument when he spoke to the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and asked them to, "...support repeal or removal of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act." His goal was to facilitate, "The need for multiple pipeline routes for Central Asian oil and gas."
Russia has had a long-standing interest in the Caspian fields for themselves. The Russians are no slouches when it comes to taking the resources of others to fulfill their own needs and spread their influence. A US-sponsored pipeline through Afghanistan would further reduce Russia's influence in the area, a long-standing US goal.
The US is presently in Iraq for oil. Not just Iraqi oil, but control of the oil in the area. The plan is for long-term dominance of the oil in the area. The recent handing back of Iraq to the US-approved Iraqi government did not give Iraq back its sovereignty or control over its oil.
Every conflict since World War One has been influenced by oil in some way. The current crisis in Sudan is largely driven by oil. As conflict increases over control of the oil fields civilians who live on the land above the oil are violently driven out. New roads are put in to access the oil carrying troops who attack the villagers. The oil companies are fully aware of the devastation being caused by their presence since the beginning. Canada's Talisman Energy and Sweden's Lundin Oil were forced to pull out of Sudan under pressure from human rights groups.
The complicity of the oil-related companies in conflicts over oil is nothing new. US Vice President Dick Cheney could yet face an indictment for actions taken by Haliburton in Nigeria while building a gas liquification facility for Shell Oil. Haliburton was bribing officials. Protestors were shot by police when they protested against the Shell facility.
There are many other examples. The Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International websites are full of examples of countries where the presence of oil has led to upheaval. Every developing nation where oil is discovered suffers from the exploitation of that resource. Governments fall, civil war breaks out, people are forcibly removed from their land and few see the wealth that the oil brings. The sudden discovery of oil in a developing nation is not a chance to better the lot of that nation's people. It is a path to violence. In a world where it finally dawning on us that our dependence on oil has caused great environmental harm we should be highly suspect of any leader that would tolerate wars and human rights abuses in the name of oil. Electing leaders who would not only tolerate such things, but actively participate is something citizens of democracies should avoid at all costs. Canada just went through an election where the leader of the opposition supported the war in Iraq. The leader of the party that continues to lead the country has been less than outspoken in his opposition of the war. The United States is currently in the midst of an election campaign. Their incumbent president fully supports the war in Iraq and has strong ties to Project for a New American Century, a group that sent a letter to Bill Clinton urging that Saddam Hussein be removed from power because he could endanger the USA's supply of oil from the Middle East.
The world deserves more from North America. We deserve more from ourselves.
Reverend Blair was raised in Saskatchewan and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He comes from a long line of social activists and cried on Tommy Douglas before his first birthday. His column appears biweekly on Vive le Canada.