A Low Blow: The Real Political Economy of War and Oil

In his July 9 Counterpunch piece, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh attempts to disabuse us of the notion that the United States’ blatantly illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq is mainly about oil. In Hossein-Zadeh’s view, this interpretation is not just wrong, but “is designed to divert attention from the main forces behind the war, the armaments lobby and the pro-Israel lobby.”

As part of his effort to build that argument, Hossein-Zadeh also trashes the Peak Oil thesis, which contends that we Earthlings will eventually pass the point at which we will have used up the “easy half” of the globe’s stores of petroleum. Hossein-Zadeh goes so far as to say that “the Peak Oil theory is unscientific, unrealistic, and perhaps even fraudulent.”

I wish Hossein-Zadeh were right. If the present war stemmed from “some powerful special interests (vested in war, militarism, and geopolitical concerns of Israel)” rather than the deepest needs of our economic elite, it would be somewhat easier to stop.   And it would be great news if the world were not facing deep Peak Oil troubles.

Alas, not only is Hossein-Zadeh wrong on both counts, but the way he builds his case is so profoundly unfair and misleading, his own argument serves to narrow and distort, rather than widen and clarify, the reader’s access to the very important information and issues Hossein-Zadeh touches upon.

Issue #1: War and Oil — Access or Control?

Hossein-Zadeh finds the war-for-oil thesis absurd because it makes “the implicit but dubious assumption that access to energy resources requires direct control of oil fields and/or oil producing countries.”
But, here, it’s Hossein-Zadeh who is doing something sneakily dubious:  Without admitting it, he reduces the the issue of control over oil regions to access.

Noam Chomsky has long been pointing out what Hossein-Zadeh also argues: that fighting a war for access to oil would be almost absurd.  That’s because petroleum is a commodity bought and sold on a world market, no matter where’s it’s produced.  Hence, invading a petro-producing nation in order to compel it to release its oil supplies to the world market would be of only marginal benefit to the invading nation, since it would still have to bid for the “liberated” oil on the world market.

But, unlike Hossein-Zadeh, Chomsky does not stop there. On the contrary, he refuses to equate the issue of control with the issue of access, as Hossein-Zadeh does. Indeed, just yesterday, Chomsky wrote an op-ed for the Khaleej Times Online:

“The demand could hardly be more intense. Iraq contains perhaps the second largest oil reserves in the world, which are, furthermore, very cheap to extract: no permafrost or tar sands or deep sea drilling. For US planners, it is imperative that Iraq remain under U.S. control, to the extent possible, as an obedient client state that will also house major U.S. military bases, right at the heart of the world’s major energy reserves.”

Why does Chomsky believe such control is so imperative?

I wouldn’t presume to speak for Chomsky, but there are many aspects of controlling Iraq that go beyond the issue of merely ensuring that it sells its oil supplies.  Among these are a permanent occupation’s ability to maximize U.S.-based corporations’ entry into the sure-to-be lucrative oil-drilling business in Iraq; to turn any other major-power’s intervention in the Middle East into an attack on the USA (and so to ensure legitimacy for deep, immediate US participation in future oil wars); and to greatly heighten the US’s ability to make war on other Middle Eastern nations, or even the entire region, as oil prices (and hence the bargaining power of the Middle Eastern bloc of OPEC) continue to increase.

None of these advantages has much to do with mere access to oil, but, since he equates control and access, Hossein-Zadeh fails to acknowledge any of them.

Issue #2: The Plausibility and Non-Fraudulance of Peak Oil

Hossein-Zadeh is remarkably unfair to the Peak Oil thesis.

“Peak oil theory is not altogether new,” he writes. “It was originally floated around in the 1940s.”

True enough, but Hossein-Zadeh leaves out what the father of Peak Oil theory, M. King Hubbert, predicted with such great accuracy — namely, that the production of oil in the United States itself would peak in the early 1970s. At the time Hubbert made that prediction, the US was still tapping new gushers with ease, and Hubbert’s prediction was ridiculed.

Nobody ridicules it now, however, because, despite Hossein-Zadeh’s pooh-poohing, it was dead-on right.

But Hossein-Zadeh is not just hiding information about the genesis of Peak Oil theory. He also goes out of his way to muddy the story of how it relates to present issues and future prospects.

“To begin with,” Hossein-Zadeh says, Peak Oil theory “discounts or disregards the fact that energy-saving technologies have drastically improved (and will continue to further improve) the efficiency of oil consumption. Evidence shows that, for example, “over a period of five years (1994-99), U.S. GDP expanded over 20 percent while oil usage rose by only nine percent.”

This is simply a false charge against Peak Oil theorists, who distinctly and consistently acknowledge the reality of improving technology.

But it is also a particularly deceptive shift of perspective. The real news in what Hossein-Zadeh says is not that energy efficiency has improved, but that, as shown by Hossein-Zadeh’s own reference, despite its improvement, the United States used 9 percent more energy in only a 5-year period! How comforting is that news?  How sustainable is the system that produced it?

One wonders if Hossein-Zadeh has ever pondered the Jevons Paradox, of which the above fact is a rather obvious and important case.

Hossein-Zadeh is similarly misleading in his treatment of advancing oil-discovery technologies. “Computers have helped to reduce the number of dry holes. Horizontal drilling has boosted extraction. Another important development has been deep-water offshore drilling, which the new technologies now permit. Good examples are the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and more recently, the promising offshore oil fields of West Africa.”

All quite true, and yet Hossein-Zadeh provides no discussion at all of the overall rate and size of the new discoveries made possible by all the new techniques.   In reality, both the rate and the scale of new oil finds continue to fall, despite the marvels of the new technology.

The greatest recent discovery is a perfect case in point:  The Tupi field, located last fall in the deep waters off the coast of Brazil, has been described as “huge” in the press.  How huge?  About 33 billion barrels.  Sounds great, until you do the math and realize that 33 billion barrels is roughly one year’s worth of oil, at present burn rates — rates which all observers agree are destined to grow higher.

And how does 33 billion barrels compare to what the Middle East has left?  Saudi Arabia has 8 times more oil left than the whole of that “huge” new Brazilian discovery.  Taken together, Iran, Kuwait, and the UAE have ten times as much crude still in the ground.  Even poor old Iraq itself has more than triple those 33 billion barrels. As a whole, the Middle East still has over 20 times more crude left in the ground than the largest new deep-water discovery.

Issue #3: The Specialness of Oil

Hossein-Zadeh alleges (wrongly) that the “Peak Oil thesis pays insufficient attention to energy sources other than oil. These include solar, wind, non-food bio-fuel, and nuclear energies. They also include natural gas. Gas is now about 25 percent of energy demand worldwide. It is estimated that by 2050 it will be the main source of energy in the world. A number of American, European, and Japanese firms have and are investing heavily in developing fuel cells for cars and other vehicles that would significantly reduce gasoline consumption.”

Beyond its simple falsity, there are two additional huge problems with this facile claim.

First, Hossein-Zadeh ignores the problem of Energy Returned On Energy Invested, or EROEI. This is the fact that every fuel you can burn for electricity or locomotion requires up-front inputs of energy, in order to build and move the machines it takes to collect and process the prospective new fuel.  It costs energy, in other words, to get energy.  That’s true even for oil.

As Peak Oil theorists like Richard Heinberg have discussed at great and careful length, all existing or hoped-for “alternative” fuels have gigantic EROEI problems. Hydrogen fuel cells, as Hossein-Zadeh surely knows, are merely batteries. As such, their existence says nothing whatsoever about where the new electricity they might store is to come from. At present (and very possibly always) both wind and solar collection have negative EROEIs, meaning it takes more energy to manufacture, install, and maintain the required collectors than those collectors will produce in their lifetimes.

The same problem plagues so-called “alternative fuels” for cars.   Cellulosic ethanol, burnable moonshine made from grasses, leaves, and barks, remains so financially and geothermally uneconomical, it is still not commercially available, despite a long run of promises.

Likewise, despite the smug bumper stickers on the road in our hipster districts, biodiesel remains a big net EROEI loser. It takes more petroleum to put used French-fry oil in your old VW than the biodiesel provides.

Even corn ethanol, presently by far the best alt-fuel, probably has a negative EROEI, if the counting of its inputs and processing costs is fair and comprehensive, rather than sponosred and apologetic. And we already know that corn ethanol crop-growing also crowds out food production. This has already begun to make food more expensive on this planet, where 2 billion people live on less that $2 a day. If it were ever to make a serious dent in fueling the world auto fleet, corn-for-cars would be a death sentence for hundred of millions of people.

The inescapable basic science behind all this is the fact that, as Peak Oil crusader James Howard Kunstler argues, oil is simply a very special energy form:

Oil is an amazing substance. It stores a tremendous amount of energy per weight and volume. It is easy to transport. It stores easily at regular temperature in unpressurized metal tanks, and it can sit there indefinitely without degrading. You can pump it through a pipe, you can send it all over the world in ships, you can haul it around in trains, cars, and trucks. You can even fly it in tanker planes and refuel other airplanes in flight. It is flammable but has proven to be safe to handle with a modest amount of care….It can be refined by straightforward distillation into many grades of fuel…and innumerable useful products….It has been cheap and plentiful.

It is very unlikely that humanity will ever find another energy source that comes close to matching all these benefits.

But oil’s specialness is not just a matter of fuel properties.  It also has to do with the crucial importance of the automobile to the entire corporate capitalist overclass.  While Hossein-Zadeh talks breezily of alternative energy sources, he utterly disregards what would happen to the capitalist world economy if Americans were ever to stop using private cars on the present massive scale. To put it bluntly, that kind of change would deal a huge, potentially mortal blow to the worldwide economic pyramid, which relies upon the constant steady infusions of economic waste/profitable spending that arise from our auto-ueber-alles way of living here in the USA. The denizens of the pyramid-tip are not about to sit back and let this happen. Hence, we get, among other things, the special place of Israel (a crucial aircraft carrier and cultural stir-stick for US oil politics) in US politics.

Because of the extreme dependency of capitalism on the American cars-first scheme, oil is extra-important. If we are smart and nimble, we might be able find a way to use dwindling energy supplies to eke out wind and solar infrastructures that can sustain modern electrical grids on something like present scales. But we will absolutely not be able to create enough new electrical generation to powering 250 millions automobiles in the US alone.

Combined with the bad EROEI prospects for the so-called alternative fuels, this means that cars-first in America will still mean big oil.  But, to fracture a famous Sammy Cahn lyric:

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Capitalism and the horseless carriage

This I tell you brother

They can’t have one without the other.

Hossein-Zadeh papers over all this.

Issue #4: The Future Value of Iraqi Oil

Hossein-Zadeh invites readers to join him in thinking that Peak Oil theorists claim that there should be a present imbalance between supply and demand.

But that is simply not the contention of any serious Peak Oil thinker.  All that Peak Oil thinkers are presently saying is that we are now near to or atop the plateau phase, the several-year period during which Earth’s oil supplies have peaked, but have not yet started to decline.

Hence, from the Peak Oil perspective, the current existence of still roughly equal supply and demand is in no way a contradiction of this thesis. Nonetheless, Hossein-Zadeh — who apparently thinks Peak Oil will never arrive — proposes that it is.

As a result of this cavalier claim, he also short-circuits some very important questions.

Chief among these is “What if Peak Oil theorists are correct?” What if we are about to pass, or have just now passed, the point at which oil producers will be able to keep pace with future demand?  What if we are indeed on the mountain-top, looking forward to an epoch of declining supplies?

Among the many things this would almost certainly mean is that the value of Iraq’s remaing 115 billion barrels of untapped oil reserves would be a great many times higher a few years into the future than now. If, as leading Peak Oil experts predict, a barrel of oil will cost $300 or $500 within the next decade or so, imagine the importance of what Chomsky talks about: “an obedient client state that will also house major U.S. military bases, right at the heart of the world’s major energy reserves.”

Of course, both Chomsky and Peak Oil theorists could be wrong. But, even so, what does it do for the cause of peace, justice, and decent human survival to foreclose their arguments based on elisions and straw-man dismissals?  Shame on Hossein-Zadeh and Counterpunch for doing just that.

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Bret Hitchcock
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Bret Hitchcock

In regards to using solar power and wind power to supply electricity to our grid I feel wouldn’t be enough. Nuclear Power plants along the Great Lakes would work fine for that. And they could produce power for fuel cell batteries.

Cost of Energy in vs Energy Out ratio actually isn’t terrible for Enriched Uraniam. Breeder reactor’s can last a long time.

With that Nuclear power we can use energy at a net lose to produce fuels and it wouldn’t be wasteful.

Sheldon
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Sheldon

A very informative post you have here. Good job. I will defend Counterpunch here though. How boring would it be if you couldn’t find a leftist website that posted articles that you disagree with, and can argue against. Counterpunch is great because it is a amalgam of opinion on the left.

Michael Dawson
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I totally agree about CP, which I love. Thanks for your feedback, Sheldon.