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World War III more likely from oil grabs than radical Islam

Recently, with midterm elections just two months off and the war in Iraq more unpopular than ever, President Bush has begun to reframe the war on terror as a "war on Islamic fascism." But clever rebranding aside, and with all respect due to our brave troops, by now everybody knows that invading Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with oil.

Of course, ongoing civil unrest has kept America from getting much oil out of Iraq even after Bush announced "Mission Accomplished" in 2003. But whatever Iraq's problems, its location provides a base for U.S. operations near the largest remaining oil reserves on earth at a time when instability in the Middle East has reached an all-time high.

If there's a palace coup in Saudi Arabia, or if Al-Qaeda blows up pipelines and refineries there or in any of the other Gulf states, American boots on the ground in Iraq will help the U.S. respond quickly. Washington must also hope that its presence in Iraq will deter Iran from blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most crucial waterway for oil tankers.

Given the administration's role in Iraq, as well as efforts to bolster oil regimes around the world who are their friends (Nigeria and the Central Asian republics) and to topple those who aren't (Iran and Venezuela), it is clear that the Bush White House has chosen to deal with fears over oil supply using the blunt instrument of military force and coercion.

"More than half of the U.S. defense budget goes to protecting energy coming from unstable areas of the world," a leading federal energy official told United Press International.

Sending in the troops to protect our oil under their sand is the strategy that writer Richard Heinberg has called "Last One Standing," the path of military competition with other nations for control over the world's remaining oil resources.

On this path, Heinberg wrote in his 2004 book Powerdown, as the economies of the world's major powers, including the U.S., Europe and China, begin to feel the pain from higher oil prices, their governments will fight ever more damaging resource wars against each other in an attempt to grab the remaining oil. This, in turn, will increase the pain on their economies, and encourage these powers to fight even more desperately, until somebody or everybody collapses.

But things don't have to end like this, according to Heinberg. Instead, we can choose to take a more rational and promising path, that of powerdown, where nations would agree to share the world's remaining petroleum resources while at the same time voluntarily reducing their own oil use gradually over time until nobody really needed much oil anymore.

Heinberg's new book, The Oil Depletion Protocol, offers more detail on why the world should follow the powerdown path and how this could be done while at the same time addressing global warming and softening the impact on the world's oil-dependent economies from peak oil.

Over a decade of speaking and writing, Heinberg, who teaches at left-leaning New College of California in San Francisco, has built a loyal following among adherents of peak oil. This is the idea that world petroleum production will soon reach its historic high point and then begin to decline. Inconveniently, oil depletion will hit just as the booming economies of China and India cause demand for oil to spike, creating a growing gap between supply and demand, which should send prices up.

Since oil is the world's most important energy source today - powering over 90 percent of the crucial transportation sector - peak oilers say that running out of cheap oil will mean more than just pain at the pump for drivers.

Peak oil will mean higher costs for anything that is shipped anywhere by plane, train, container ship or truck. That includes nearly all of the goods sold in America today. Cheap imports from China will no longer be cheap. There will be even higher costs for the plastics and chemicals made from petroleum products, as well as the food grown with natural-gas-based fertilizers and oil-based pesticides.

With The Oil Depletion Protocol, it seems that Heinberg is trying to reach a broader audience of policymakers, business leaders and the general public a his plan to "avert oil wars, terrorism and economic collapse."

Is peak oil now ready for prime time? And is his proposal too idealistic?

Developed by oil-depletion guru Colin Campbell, a geologist for British Petroleum and founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, headquartered in Ireland, the oil-draw-down plan calls for world governments to agree on how much oil they'll import in the future much as they agree on issues of tariffs and trade quotas today. The key part is that nations will promise to import less and less oil each passing year.

"The Protocol itself is so simple that its essence can be stated in a single sentence: signatory nations would agree to reduce their coil consumption gradually and uniformly according to a simple formula that works out to being a little less than three percent per year," writes Heinberg.

Rather than letting whoever can pay the financial and military price scramble to get the oil they need by paying prices set daily on major petroleum exchanges as is the case now, nations would formally commit to produce and to purchase no more than a certain maximum amount of oil.

"Colin Campbell, in his proposed Protocol," Heinberg writes, "has suggested a formula based on depletion rates that would work as follows: importers would reduce their imports by the world oil depletion rate, while producing countries would reduce their rate of production by their national depletion rate."

This might sound like Soviet-style command and control to people who believe that the free market is always the best way to allocate valuable resources. But Heinberg says that it's just good planning.

"Without the Protocol, as oil production declines prices will almost certainly rise, though probably in unpredictable increments. Prices will become more volatile. It is just as clear that uncontrollably and unpredictably rising oil costs (and energy costs in general) will damage the global economy."

That's just what happened in the 1970s, during the OPEC embargo, which led to the worst economic slowdown since the Depression. Heinberg attributes the damage not only to high energy prices, but to a rollercoaster of price spikes and collapses that made prices unpredictable, and therefore made it impossible for businesses and consumers to plan their future energy use.

Today, with more cars on the road and more goods shipped around the world, if an oil shortage hits and we wait for the market to ration oil by price or for the government to impose price controls as it did for a period in the 1970s, the consequences for the economy could be much worse.

Heinberg quotes the so-called Hirsch Report - a study commissioned by the Department of Energy in 2005 that has achieved iconic status among peak oilers - to the effect that there could be "increased costs for the production of goods and services, as well as inflation, unemployment, reduced demand for products other than oil, and lower capital investment. Tax revenues decline and budget deficits increase, driving up interest rates."

And today, unlike 30 years ago, we have to worry about global warming and terrorism. Importing less oil would mean burning less and thus emitting less carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. It would also mean funneling less money to corrupt oil-regimes and particularly those in the Arab world, which tend to leak funds to terrorists.

With the Protocol, oil prices would be more predictable, which would allow businesses and consumers to plan their energy use in advance. "Knowing how much fuel they will have available, and at approximately what price, nations would be able to forge strategies for a gradual transition to a petroleum-free future," Heinberg writes.

While Heinberg offers predictability about oil prices as a way to preserve economic stability in a world with less and less oil, his plan is not without pain.

That's because he doesn't think that technology will enable us to just switch out oil for ethanol, electric cars and hydrogen while we continue to enjoy the American lifestyle as we have known it for 50 years.

The problem is that it's not simple to replace oil. For example, Heinberg points out that one gallon of gas provides the same amount of energy as more than a month's worth of hard human labor. And for this service, "we are accustomed to paying only a few dollars at most." It is unlikely that any substitute for gasoline will provide the same energy in a convenient liquid form at such a low price. Yet, our whole industrial society is built on gasoline and other oil products that are cheap because they're easy to pump and easy to ship. "In all, oil represents the essence of modern life," he writes.

"Now, as the availability of petroleum enters its inevitable decline, we must find ways to adjust - not only by identifying alternative fuels, but by curtailing many of the activities enabled by this remarkable substance."

Vice President Cheney has famously said that "the American way of life is not negotiable," and few people these days have had the courage to disagree, perhaps because they fear that tough talk on cutting back or conserving resources would be unpopular with the public.

Heinberg does not share this fear, and he writes that we'll need to cut back on such mainstays of the American lifestyle as traveling by plane, driving personal cars, living in low-density suburbs, growing food on factory farms and importing most of our manufactured goods. But Heinberg thinks that the pain of readjusting to a lower-energy world will be much less than the pain of enduring decades of oil wars followed by an economic collapse comparable to the Great Depression or even worse.

Much of the discussion of the rationale behind peak oil in the first half of The Oil Depletion Protocol will be familiar territory for those familiar with this concept, but they should find the rest of Heinberg's book, which outlines ways that industrial societies can reduce energy use and implement the Protocol, encouraging.

But to avert oil wars, terrorism and economic collapse, it will take more than a core group of peak-oil activists. Heinberg writes that it "will require the coordinated efforts of industry, governments at all levels, and the general populace throughout the world. This will be a daunting challenge, to put it mildly."

And the good news is that business leaders, government officials and citizens interested in energy and politics will find in Heinberg's book an accessible and compelling introduction to the frightening problem of peak oil followed immediately by a simple and workable solution.

American readers might find Heinberg's constant mention of kilometers and liters for every mile and gallon he covers a bit distracting, and it will remind them that his publisher, New Society, is based in Canada. But this should not prejudice readers against Heinberg's diagnosis or his prescription, which are more appropriate to the U.S., as the world's largest energy user and biggest player in today's oil wars, than to any other country. The world is reaching peak oil mostly because of America's gluttonous consumption, and if any nation is to get beyond the oil peak without a "century of chaos," as Heinberg puts it, then the U.S. will have to be part of the solution.

Environmentalists are the usual folks that the public hears telling them to cut down on oil, but Heinberg is much savvier. While green groups rage against global warming, most fail to account for the impact of peak oil, naively hoping that the "magic elixir" (another of Heinberg's terms) of clean energy will save the world from climate disaster with no need for sacrifice or a change in lifestyle.

To his credit, Heinberg considers both peak oil and climate change, and he does so in a refreshingly nuanced way. He shows how intentionally reducing our oil use on a planned schedule will help fight global warming, but he also recognizes that there will be a need for an agreement like the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions along with the Oil Depletion Protocol.

"Without such an agreement, many nations would be tempted to replace their reliance on oil with an increased use of coal," Heinberg writes. "The transition away from petroleum is essential, but it must not be undertaken in a way that would result in climate chaos."

Unfortunately, like many peak-oil writers, Heinberg relies too often on the Hirsch Report to support his conclusions, making his research appear limited. But this should not distract from the many other excellent sources Heinberg draws on.

All in all, Heinberg makes a better case that our current predilection for oil wars will cause World War III than the Bush administration does that some vague ideology of Islamic world domination has become the fascism of our day.

And that's the most encouraging news of all. A war against a nebulous ideology, like the constant fight against the elusive Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell's 1984, can last forever. But an oil war can only last as long as we keep demanding more oil. If we choose to follow the rational path of the Oil Depletion Protocol, peace could be as close as tomorrow’s headlines.

Author information
- Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse, New Society Publishers, 194 pages, paperback, $16.95.


Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on this story at letters@augustafreepress.com.

(Published 09-04-06)

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