Facts of the Matter


Sunday, October 21, 2001

Politics key in
handling oil powers

Energy is civilization and civilization is energy. In the new century, energy is oil and oil is money, and politics is still politics. Although we have learned to control vast amounts of energy, we have not learned how to deal with ancient ethnic and religious conflicts in a world of diminishing petroleum resources where national boundaries do not coincide with ethnic boundaries.

While we pat ourselves on the back for our technological advances, the primitive state of our competence at political resolution is nothing to brag about. In defense of those shortcomings however, politics is much more complex than the relatively simple physical world that has allowed us to mature technologically much more than we have matured politically.

Let's put some of the complexities of the interplay of energy and politics into perspective.

The world consumed an estimated 112 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy in 1999. The United States used nearly one-third of it, despite having only about one-twentieth of the world's population.

These figures are misleading, however. The United States uses some of that energy to produce a disproportionate share of the world's goods and services, while our relatively sparse population density necessitates more energy consumption for distribution of the goods. But any way you spin it, we use more energy per capita than anywhere else in the world, and our dependence on imported oil is an important contributor to world tensions, especially when blended with age-old ideological conflicts.

America's interest in developing the world's oil reserves plays a critical role in U.S. diplomacy in the Mideast and in other parts of the world, including Central and Southern Asia. Last year, OPEC countries produced only 40 percent of the world's oil, 12 percent from Saudi Arabia alone. But OPEC countries hold 80 percent of the world's known reserves, and 65 percent of those are in the Persian Gulf region.

U.S. relations with the Saudis in particular are an important factor because Medina, the capital of the Muslim world at the time of Mohammed's death, is now in Saudi Arabia. Fundamentalist Muslim fanatics are led to believe that Western retaliation against terrorism will inspire Muslims to overthrow governments in Islamic countries and drive the infidel Westerners from the holy land, allowing the restoration of the caliphate and the purity of the Muslim world as it existed in the time of Mohammed. This is an attempt to use religious ardor to fan the kind of fervor that preceded the first Crusade a thousand years ago, mitigated by colonialism, eventual dissolution of the caliphate and the establishment of nationalism in Islamic territories.

The politics of Central Asian oil further complicate the story. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan both have significant oil reserves, and reserves in the nearby Caspian Sea region are larger than those in the U.S. and the North Sea combined.

Getting Central Asian oil to world markets, however, is complicated by several factors, including geography and geopolitics. For example, the "northern pipeline" that carried oil from Azerbaijan before the collapse of the Soviet Union passes through the war-torn republic of Chechnya en route to the ports of the Black Sea. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan border Afghanistan where the oil potential is not great, but Afghanistan lies between the oil and Indian Ocean ports in Pakistan and India, who do not see eye to eye. Construction of pipelines through Afghanistan was considered in the mid-1990s but has not had much feasibility since Afghanistan came under control of the Taliban. An alternate route has more appeal to some interests, notably Iran, which lies between the oil and the Persian Gulf.

Central Asian oil potential inspires geopolitics in other ways. Iran insists on equal division of drilling rights among the nations bordering the Caspian Sea and cites treaties signed with the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other hand, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan support division of Caspian oil based on the Law of the Sea. Earlier this year, Iran issued a stern warning to Azerbaijan regarding oil exploration activities as Iranian military aircraft reportedly violated Azeri air space and reminded Azerbaijan that it was formerly a province of Iran. Elsewhere, Turkmenistan claims proprietary rights to certain Caspian oil fields and has also insisted that Azerbaijan stop exploration of them. While Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan remain locked in dispute, Azerbaijan has in turn objected to Iran's decision to award a license to conduct seismic surveys in a region that Azerbaijan considers to fall within its territory.

Central Asia and its oil will play an increasing role in 21st-century geopolitics. As the world's largest user of oil, the United States has obvious interests in Central Asian oil futures. At the same time, developing countries would like to improve their economies with that same oil. Central Asian petroleum is one factor in the equation of geopolitics, and it will become more and more the geopolitical soccer ball as competition for it increases. The politics of oil will create increasing friction as globalization and nationalism conflict with traditional ethnic and religious values.

Taken in context, terrorist attacks against the United States are only one component of this global equation, however tragic and fearsome they may be. The problem goes much deeper than merely fanatics who hate us for our lifestyle, as President Bush would have us believe. It is the essence of the energy geopolitics of the 21st century and perhaps of the third millennium. The problems will not go away with the death of bin Laden or with the demise of the Taliban. The long-term solutions will not grow out of antiquated religious dogma, traditional ethnicity, new world nationalism, or politics as usual. Rather, they will require a new way of going about the business of global conflict resolution and resource allocation among the world's people.

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at

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