Uncle Sam's Crude Solution

Photo by Jack GouldIf al-Qaida is serious about recent threats to strike at U.S. economic interests, we could end up waging war on two—or even three—fronts, from the Middle East and Asia all the way to Latin America. That's because, in our government's view, U.S. interests start and end with oil.

Already, we have spent billions upon billions of dollars and sacrificed a large number of lives protecting supplies of crude in remote corners of the world. Though we lean heavily on stable sources such as Canada, our biggest supplier, we're also dependent on several volatile nations. Saudi Arabia tops that list, followed by Venezuela and Mexico. West Africa is a growing exporter, with Nigeria now our No. 5 provider. Despite continued sanctions, Iraq remains our sixth-largest supplier.

Strong environmental opposition has made searching for supplemental barrels at home more difficult. And with no real national commitment to improving efficiency or developing renewable fuels, we have to look abroad. That means break out the guns and start writing checks—big, big checks.

Saddam Hussein's invading Kuwait and threatening our flow of petroleum cost $61.1 billion, of which U.S. taxpayers paid $23 billion.

With the war in Afghanistan—a nation key to the dream of Central Asian pipelines—winding down, U.S. troops are now stationed in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Georgia, at a price of $80,000 per soldier per year. That comes on top of the $12.6 billion we spent getting rid of the Taliban.

One figure, from the Sydney Morning Herald, tallies U.S. expenditures on troops and advisers in Central Asia at $200 billion. The real aim is to secure the region for more pipelines. American companies are involved in an enormous venture with the Chinese to build a pipeline more than 3,000 miles long, stretching from the Caspian Sea to Shanghai; a second consortium would open a pipe from the Caspian to a Turkish port. The U.S. also has an interest in Russian oil rigs and pipelines. The war in Chechnya has left the Russians facing a constant specter of terrorists blowing up any network. Thus U.S. Special Forces stand by protectively in the former Soviet republics while the meter runs.

When we're not keeping rebels at bay, we're making sticky deals with monarchs. The Saudis, for instance, use some of the wealth they gain from selling oil to us to buy American arms. Between 1998 and 2001, the U.S. transferred arms to the Saudis worth $12.8 billion.

Estimates are that the next Iraq war will cost between $20 billion and $30 billion. The U.S. will pay more because Gulf allies like the Saudis won't be picking up the tab. The U.S. hopes to recoup this expense through the sale of Iraqi oil, currently worth $17 billion annually.

Here's a look at the lengths our government and its shadow enforcers will go to in order to protect your local pump:

WEST AFRICA Anxious to diversify away from the Middle East, the U.S. has begun looking to oil from Gulf of Guinea nations such as Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and So Tom. All of these countries are almost totally dependent on the export of oil.

The desperation has led to neo-colonial ugliness, with Shell Oil in particular facing local fury. Shell encouraged the Nigerian government to stop activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who in the late 1990s organized protests against the company's operations on Ogoni tribal lands. Nigerian officials eventually arrested and hanged Saro-Wiwa.

Painted as an international pariah, the company was forced to admit it had armed Nigeria's ruthless mobile police—nicknamed the Kill and Go Mob—whose members killed 80 people in one village where Shell installations were being attacked.

INDONESIA Already antsy oil and gas companies in Indonesia grew nervous after last week's terrorist attacks. Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, with big customers in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The economies of all three nations rely entirely on imported energy. Any cut in the supply lines could quickly turn catastrophic, with effects on the manufacture of goods sold to U.S. consumers.

ConocoPhillips, BP, Unocal and ExxonMobil all have Indonesian interests. One export terminal was shut for five months last year following a separatist bombing that damaged the apparatus and caused ExxonMobil to pull out its staff.

American troops have not participated in Indonesia since 1999 because of that country's human rights abuses in East Timor. But after Sept. 11, President Bush moved to increase military aid and relax restrictions on American military presence. A supplemental appropriations bill provided $16 million for the training of Indonesian police and $4 million for the military.

VENEZUELA This hemisphere's established line to cheap crude, Venezuela has always been a bastion for the international oil companies. It's our third largest supplier, so our interests there are regarded as a matter of paramount concern.

Evidence, though inconclusive, points to U.S. officials' having fomented the abortive coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last April because they feared his populist politics. More to the point, as a recent head of OPEC, Chavez could direct the oil cartel from Bush's back yard, although in recent months, he has been doing just the opposite—busting OPEC's price levels to rake in dollars and help pay off Venezuela's debt. Nonetheless, Washington has always dreaded the prospect of Venezuela linking up with Mexico inside OPEC.

COLOMBIA The U.S. has maneuvered itself smack into the middle of Colombia's civil war, ostensibly with the goal of eradicating dope (an endless and futile effort), but also to protect an Occidental Oil pipeline that has been carrying increasing amounts of oil destined for the U.S. Local rebels have attacked this line 170 times and last week struck again, disrupting operations.
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