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GET READY FOR THE LAST OIL WARS

by Andrew McKillop

 

(based on article in ‘The Final Energy Crisis’, General editor Andrew McKillop, Pluto Books, 2005)

 

Reference: Iranian official science research institute ISIR, Tehran, Oct 27, 2002

— Deputy Head of Institute for Standards and Industrial Research (ISIR) Mohammad Ali Akhavan said here Saturday that if current energy trends continue, (Iran’s) production of oil will equal its domestic consumption, and oil exports could dry up, by 2008. Iranian oil expert Ali Bakhtiari dismisses this date as too early, suggesting about 2011 as the date at which Iran will have no export surplus of oil.

 

Reference: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Internet site

— World population growth versus food surpluses. The FAO Web site provides data on annual food surpluses (world food production relative to theoretical needs calculated on a per capita calorie and protein base, for the world’s population). FAO data show an approx. 13.5% fall in net food surpluses through 1991-2001. Since 2002-03, this has intensified and world food grain surpluses have shrunk very rapidly, in part due to climate change. This trend will be further impacted by rising oil and gas prices.

 

The writing is on the wall

Experts will forever discuss and dispute the causes of previous wars, both local and civil, both political and religious, for vital space and vital resources, to deny markets to, or weaken the money of enemies, and for other reasons such as mass migration to offload local overpopulation. They will always disagree on the exact causes of last century’s ‘total wars’ in 1914-18 and 1939-45.

The now accelerating countdown to Peak Oil, or the ultimate peak of world production — followed by annual and constant falls in supply to an oil- and food-hungry world — can only aggravate existing tensions, while creating new focii for Great Power rivalry and conflict. Under any hypothesis, declining food surpluses and ever-higher oil prices will severely test the ‘Teflon-coated’ New Economy and undermine the thrust of Globalization. Sharpened commercial conflicts, unstable moneys, and ever more unpredictable climate patterns will also take their toll on the growth economy.

World economic crisis, as in 1929-36, is always a ‘Mother of War’.

Weakened oil and fossil energy-based industry and infrastructures, linked to the shrunken social and cultural ‘values’ favoured or forced by Fossil Energy Civilization — that is the primacy of the individual, the supremacy of consumption, and complete contempt for ‘community values’ or for other living things — will further accelerate the change of what war means, using the definitions of historians and analysts. As it is, they only agree on one salient point: wars since the early-20th century are increasingly civil wars and increasingly claim civilian lives and civilian infrastructures. They increasingly start, or are generated from civil and ethnic war .

Some war historians argue that the two World Wars of the 20th century may only have truly ended in 1991 with the formal and real collapse of the Soviet Union or Evil Empire as it was called by President Ron Reagan. In other words, the 20th century was a period of permanent war.

The theory of ‘permanent war’ can in fact be traced to late 19th century historians and military strategists (among others including Clausewitz, Marx and Engels). Their theory could be summarized as being that under certain conditions, ‘low level permanent war’ occasionally breaks out into paroxysms of total war, for example when national or regional civil wars coalesce and attain a ‘critical mass’.

The 20th century ‘permanent war’ was underlain by numerous inter-imperial ‘brushfire’ wars, including those centred on, or triggering conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, sparked or intensified by oil-hunger. These ‘brushfire’ wars were preceded or followed by civil wars, often spiralling out of their initial ‘hearths’. This can be set as the background to the 1918-39 period, the ‘brushfire wars’ then coalescing in the paroxysm of World War 2, before subsiding into the seemingly permanent Cold War of 1948-91. At the same time, and through about 1940-75, there was a nearly continuous anti-imperial ‘decolonizing’ war, or North/South war.

From the late 1980s, spurred by intensifying poverty due to ‘structural adjustment’, population growth and the AIDS scourge, the Pan African Civil War broke out. In 1994 this caused the Rwanda genocide. The continuing and likely permanent regional civil wars of west and central Africa are today intensified by oil rivalry.

Thus the 1914-91 period was one of permanent war, and already included dispute, rivalry and open conflict between larger and smaller powers for dominance over oil reserves. One key date in that period was the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman empire in 1917. From 1917-18, to the next outbreak of total war in 1939-41, the British and French empires became destabilized and started their entry into terminal decline, while the Soviet Union, or Evil Empire started its ascension, accompanied by the rapid growth of US economic and political colonialism, euphemistically called ‘influence’. The 1929-36 Great Depression, if not the direct cause of the 1939-45 total war, most certainly sharpened conflict and rivalry between the then-Great Powers.

Germany regained sweeping but short-lived global reach in the Third Reich of 1936-45. Mussolini’s New Rome rapidly expanded through 1922-36, then collapsed with Nazi Germany. Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere was almost overnight extended throughout much of East and SE Asia in the 1933-42 period, then extinguished literally overnight by the twin suns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the first use of nuclear weapons in Great Power rivalry and conflict. By 1949 China's future territorial and political ambitions had been set by Mao Zedong after a civil war costing tens of millions of lives. India’s emergence as a Great Power was to come more slowly and gradually, from the 1960s.

Marking the end of that 1914-91 phase in a near-century of war, historians will some day define 1991 and the ‘Liberation of Kuwait’, or First Gulf War, as the first outlyer Oil War in the second and last Great Game. The 1991 Gulf War was not only be a model for, but even the cause of those to come. When they come, probably announced and triggered by regional civil wars, almost certainly in the Middle East and central Asia, not one but many nuclear armed ‘players’ — that is massive oil importers — will be lined up. They will be on one side or other, and decide who will have the world’s last remaining reserves of oil.

 

Population, energy and weapons

The real cause and enablement of the 20th century permanent was dramatic expansion of population and unrepeatable growth of cheap energy supplies: this was a one-shot event that will not and cannot be repeated. Claims that ‘controlled’ nuclear fusion, or the entirely hypothetic ‘Hydrogen Economy’ will come about — rather fast — are pure fantasies. However, the downstream and related policy or strategy of total war will most certainly and surely not stop when we hit the absolute peak of world oil supply, in about 2005-2006. Total war will return, and will spillover to the first two or three decades of the 21st century. This will not only be through rivalry for shrinking oil and gas reserves, but through the ‘stock effect’ of human numbers and weapons supplies. Total war will as before, and ever concern diminishing land resources, particularly agricultural land, and food supplies. Oil is far from the only ‘conflict trigger’, but will potently raise tension and sharpen rivalry, for example the inexorably rising commercial tension and rivalry, and dispute between Asia, Europe and the US.

Through 1900-1999 world population increased from about 1450 Million to nearly 6000 Million, while fossil fuel production and consumption rose from about 1100 Million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to some 9800 Mtoe. The considerable increase in average efficiency of use, thermal efficiency rising from around 10%-15% in 1900 to over 25% at the end of the century, resulted in actual applied and useful energy increasing not 9-fold but more like 18-fold for about a 4-fold increase in human numbers.

These growth numbers were dwarfed by those for industrial output, especially weapons supply. Key indicators for output of both civil and military equipment, such as automobiles and light artillery showed spectacular increases. While car production increased ‘only’ about 45 times through 1900-1950, (a growth of 4400%), the production of mortars, mines, grenades, service rifles and small calibre artillery (105 mm and below) increased about 200-fold in the same period (a growth of 19900%).

Nuclear weapons, since the 1970s, have spread from the Security Council club of 5, to at least 9 proud owner nations. This entirely excludes one fact that even the most self-satisfied Consumer Citizen has vaguely become aware of, with the Chernobyl catastrophe: the existence of any nuclear reactor, anywhere, places nuclear equivalent targets at reach for any enemy. Nuclear reactors are not designed to resist even the smallest and lightest hand-held antitank missile and, where they are claimed to be ‘terror-proof’, their cooling systems and control systems are entirely vulnerable. In any Great Power rivalry sparked by intense dispute for shrinking oil reserves, the enemy’s ‘civil’ nuclear reactors will be the softest of soft target for certain missile attack.

 

Declining food supplies

World food production increased regularly and by large amounts until 1991, easily outstripping the rise in human numbers until the last decade of the century (see top of article). Peak annual growth, by numbers, of world population also occurred in the 1990s, at about +95 Million in 1995, before declining to about +85 Million per year from 2001-2002, exhibiting all the characteristics of a new, long-term trend for declining annual increases in world population.

Population growth, right through the 20th century, always and rapidly compensated any war losses.

Estimates of perhaps 60-80 Million war deaths in the 1914-18 and 1939-45 total war periods or phases of the 20th century’s permanent war, represent less than one year’s increase in human population at the peak rate of 1995. All other war deaths, and war-related deaths in the 20th century — perhaps 45 to 75 Million depending on the inclusion or not of deaths from epidemics and famine caused by war and conflict — represent about 8 months of world population growth at the peak rate of 1995.

 

With abundant population, food supplies and weapons production — all of which finally depend on abundant fossil energy supplies — everything was therefore in place for a century of war that, as previously mentioned, will without any possible doubt spillover to the first few decades of the 21st century. Underpinning these factors, and in fact their cause, was the discovery and production of oil and gas resources.

 

The decline starts now

US oil discoveries peaked in the 1930s, and its production peaked in 1970s, as forecast by M.K. Hubbert in 1956. World oil discoveries on a volume basis peaked in the 1955-63 period, due to the intensive mapping, exploration for, proving and production of Middle Eastern oil and gas reserves that had already, in the 1917-39 period, been a focus for rivalry, competition and conflict between Fossil Energy Civilization players. World oil production will peak at very latest in 2008, and may have already done so.

During the now legendary period of massive oil discoveries in 1958-63, discoveries sometimes exceeded 80 Billion barrels-per-year, or more than 8 years of then-current world consumption. Today, world discoveries rarely exceed 5 Billion barrels-per-year or two months of world consumption. The Middle East and Central Asia, which contain about 60% of the world’s remaining oil reserves, in the period from now to about 2025, will without the slightest possible doubt again be the focus for a higher-tech, better-armed and more demographically numerous replay of what was called The Great Game.

In the earlier version of the Great Game, the main rivals were the European powers (notably France, UK, Germany), the USA and the Russian then Soviet empire, the Persian, and the Turkish Ottoman empires. The collapse of the Persian Empire, then the Turikish Empire in 1917, just before the defeat of its German ally in 1918, led to the immediate proclamation, and initial acceptance by the USA, France and UK, of Independent Kurdistan. This recognition was repeated at various conferences and meetings held by the US-British-French victors of the ‘Great European civil war’ (or First World war) of 1914-18, these meetings being called the Versailles Treaty. By 1922 however, and unquestionably because Kurdistan was known to have a very large proportion — around 75% — of all oil then-discovered and then-proven in the large region stretching from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, Kurdistan was simply ‘de-recognized’ by the US-British-French victors.

Kurdistan was then split up between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, all of which had themselves received considerable frontier modifications or had never previously existed as national entities. Another and later national victim, in this region, of influence trading and map drawing exercises in imperial tea rooms, always behind closed doors, was Palestine. The weakened Persian Empire, shrunken to the present state of Iran, was also for several decades a bone tossed in the air for Soviet, British, American and national players to dispute, to draw ‘definitive’ frontiers for, and in which to find, develop and produce oil and gas.

Today we have the US, British and Italian ‘Iraq liberation war’ as a reminder of how permanently and fundamentally destabilized this region has become: oil and gas have been powerful motors of this process. The Iraq war of 2003-2005 can at any moment inflame and engulf the entire region.

 

Great Game 2

With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, after its symbolic defeat in Afghanistan by US-backed mujahadin including Osama bin Laden, the accelerating decline of oil and gas discoveries accompanied by ever-rising oil import demand of China, India, Pakistan and Turkey brings in 3 new nuclear armed players and rivals, and the renascent and well-armed modern Turkey, to what will become The Great Game 2.

During Great Game 1, which lasted over 75 years, disputed areas stretched throughout West and Central Asia. Oil came late to the party — with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rush to grab or control oil reserves in the Arabian peninsula and surrounding regions. This time, in Great Game 2, oil is the undeclared, but real motor for conflict. This time the ‘game’ will be very short.

Imperial or strategic resource map drawing exercises, no longer in tea rooms but in air-conditioned think tanks and bunkers, has re-emerged as a major activity, not only in Washington, Paris and London, but also in Beijing, New Delhi, and Islamabad, and elsewhere. The players, this time around, are more numerous. They also have much less time.

Weapons stocks and troop strengths in the widely-defined Middle Eastern and contiguous strategic region containing around 60% of all remaining world oil reserves have been multiplied, at least 6-fold for troop numbers, since 2000. Great Game 2 is in fact a continuation and intensification of its previous version that started in 1917, effectively continued through the Second World war, became interlocked with the birth and expansion of Israel, triggered the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and gave birth to the ‘first Gulf War’ for the ‘liberation of Kuwait’ in 1991. We can call this Oil War 1. Great Game 2 has already fathered Oil War 2, or the second Gulf War, but its geographic sweep is now extended, with oil depletion, to focus oil- and gas-bearing territory and contiguous pipeline routes that stretch from ex-Soviet central Asia to Iraq, itself incorporating much of ‘de-recognized’ Kurdistan. This zone then continues, with the oil-bearing source rocks, to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and the other princely oil-producing states of the Gulf, facing Iran, and extends to Yemen in the west.

 

Tehran ‘regime change’

It may be a surprise to some policy analysts supplying deep thoughts for Great Game 2 strategists that Iran, which was the ‘Persia’ in the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. of the 1920s and later became BP (by the late 1990s it had given itself the nickname Beyond Petroleum), is an oil exporter a long way past its peak production capacity. This was attained in 1978, only 8 years after the USA attained its ultimate peak of oil production. Iran’s national or domestic demand continues to grow with population and economic growth, and, after China, Iran has the fastest-growing car fleet in Asia. Domestic demand is so strong, and Iran’s oil production is so far past its peak that by 2008-2011 (see top of article), it will likely cease to have any exportable surplus of oil, and will become an importer country.

For Iran, other than the siren call to develop nuclear power — opening the way for nuclear arms and a sure footing to stand firm against the USA and Israel — the real and effective solution will be to develop gas-to-oil conversion (GTO), enabling Iran to produce synthetic oil from its immense gas resources.

Tehran regime change, a favoured call by toothsome Condoleeza Rice, will not in any way favour rapid development of GTO — further accelerating Iran’s demise as an oil exporter.

Even before the overthrow of Shah Pahlavi by the Khomenei-led revolution of 1979, the country’s oil discovery/production indicators showed that Iran was heading towards that day — then a long way in the future — when it would cease to export oil. One consequence was the entirely ‘classic’ economic decision for a programme to develop civil nuclear power for electricity production. As amply proven by India and Pakistan, and most recently North Korea, and the real basis of ‘civil’ nuclear energy in the USA, France, UK, Russia, China and Israel, so-called ‘civil’ nuclear energy enables nuclear weapons production.

Any country with ‘civil’ nuclear power is at most ‘two screwdriver turns’ from nuclear weapons capability. Great Game 2 strategists, despite their air-conditioned bunkers, might toy with Indiana Jones images of those long-ago imperial tea rooms and moustachioed strategists with solar toupee hats, of Sopwith biplanes and Lee Enfield or Mauser and Remington rifles left over from the 1914-18 war. If so, they have gone too far in their reverie: they might imagine they have the time that Great Game 1 players had. They might imagine their strategy game only generates occasional and relatively small skirmishes against lightly armed and disorganized enemies, as US and British media likes to present the 2003-2005 Iraq war. They might above all imagine they will find, and then hold abundant and cheap oil and gas resources in the Golden Triangle centred on present day Saudi Arabia.

 

The Fast Replay

Sadly for them, the replay will be different. It will come to an accelerated and rapid end. It has two-only variants: nuclear war or resource wipeout, the second of which is certain and inevitable, while the other remains an option. The countdown to conflict can be dated as starting in 1999, with an abrupt end to the cheap oil which underpinned or enabled — in New Economy theory — the slow and noninflationary growth of the Old Richworld through 1986-1999. Since 2003, with the US-UK-Italian war on Iraq we have entered choppy waters: regional civil war is now the likely sequel. Sooner rather than later, war strategists will be tempted to go further, their endgame choices will become brutally evident.

Any responsible citizen, anywhere, should be concerned.

 

(3190 words Copyright Andrew McKillop, 2005 e-mail: xtran9@gmail.com)