Why the sudden need for war with Iraq? And why has Britain so eagerly supported the United States while the rest of Europe and Asia has so bitterly opposed it? The answer is remaking the world order: Anglo-America is running out of oil.
Oil production over time in a given region follows a bell-shaped curve. Before the peak, oil is easy and cheap to find. After the peak, it is difficult and expensive, with diminishing returns as more energy is required to extract the oil.
The United States has long passed its peak. Following a two-decade decline, oil production last year was the second lowest since 1950. In the past decade alone, our proven oil reserves have declined by 20 percent, down now to 22 billion barrels or enough without imports to sustain our current consumption for just over three years.
To compensate, imported oil accounted for half of our consumption last year and will rise to at least two-thirds by 2020. Opening all of Alaska to drilling would not change that.
Across the Atlantic, Britain’s primary source of oil, the North Sea, will peak in production next year. The Department of Energy estimates that by 2005 North Sea oil production will “fall precipitously,” leaving Anglo-America fully dependent on imports. Our traditional oil allies can only help so much. Norway, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico have all either passed or will soon pass their peaks. There are only three regions with large enough oil reserves that are not expected to hit their peak for another decade or more: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait/Iraq, and the Caspian Sea basin.
In the past year, we have done much to increase our influence in Central Asia, lavishing countries there with military aid. But sufficient oil will not be flowing from the Caspian Sea for at least a decade, and even then it cannot provide for us alone. At the same time, we have extended our influence in the Persian Gulf with improvements to our many “forward bases” there, notably the billion-dollar Al Udeid air base in Qatar, now home of our military’s Central Command. Recently, we have made overtures towards capturing the prize: Iraq.
Iraq holds twice the proven reserves of Russia and the Caspian states combined and also what are predicted to be the largest unclaimed oil reserves in the world. Iraq also has the greatest slack production in the world; in the event of another Saudi embargo, only incresaed Iraqi production could shoulder the blow to the Anglo-American economy.
And this is where Europe and Asia come in. Saddam Hussein has already awarded contracts worth over $1 trillion, and these are contracts the United States and the Iraqi National Congress would not honor to oil firms in Europe, Russia, and China. Just as our aims in Iraq are based upon more than a commitment to United Nations sovereignty, the opposition we have encountered is based upon more than faith in international law.
In the second half of the 20th century, the relationship of the United States and western Europe to the Soviet Union was the governing dynamic of the world order. But with the end of the Cold War have come the oil wars. The geopolitical dynamics of the first half of the 21st century will be governed primarily by the relationship of the United States and Great Britain to the rest of Eurasia.
The question we must ask is not how we will fight the oil wars, but rather why the stakes should be so high. With even modest conservation and alternative energy efforts, we could shift our foreign policy back where it should be: to preserving and extending democracy.
Mak Kennerly is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.