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Are They Really Oil Wars?

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Not only millions of lay-citizens, but also many scholars and academics have taken the bait and fallen right into this trap by arguing that recent U.S. wars of choice are driven primarily by oil and other “scarce” resources. More broadly, they argue that most wars of the future, like the recent and/or present ones, will be driven by conflicts over natural resources, especially energy and water—hence, for example, the title of Michael T. Klare’s popular book, Resource Wars [4].

As a number of critics have pointed out, this is reminiscent of Thomas R. Malthus’s theory of “scarcity” and “overpopulation.” Malthus (1766-1834), a self-styled British economist, argued that the woes and vagaries of capitalism such as poverty, inequality and unemployment are largely to be blamed on the poor and the unemployed, since they produce too many mouths to be fed, or too many hands to be employed.

In a similar fashion, Peak Oil implies that current crisis in energy (and other commodities) markets is to be blamed, at least in part, on less-developed or relatively poorer nations such as India and China for growing “too fast” and creating “too much” demand on “scarce” resources.

Peak Oil theory is not altogether new. M. King Hubbert, a well-known geologist, provided a dramatic discussion of the theory in 1956. A year later, Admiral Rickover discussed the end of the fossil fuel era even more emphatically—at the time, he gave oil about fifty more years to run out. Thirty years ago, the Club of Rome predicted an end of oil long before the present day.

Indeed, there is evidence that projections of oil peaking, then declining and running out, have been floated around ever since oil was discovered in the second half of 19th century. For example, the chief geologist of Pennsylvania predicted in 1874 that we would run out of oil in four years—just using it for kerosene [5].

While Peak Oil theory has been around for a long time, it has usually been dormant during “normal” economic times, or “reasonable” oil prices, but has gained heightened currency during periods of energy crisis and high oil prices. For example, Peak Oil became quite popular during (and immediately after) all of the three recent oil crises: the early 1970s crisis, the late 1970s and early 1980s crisis, and the early 1990s crisis.

The obvious reason for the rise in the Peak Oil popularity in the context of those periods of energy crisis was the perception that oil shortage must have played a major role in the respective oil price hikes. It is not surprising, then, that as recent geopolitical convulsions in the Middle East have triggered a new round of oil price hikes, Peak Oil theory has once again become fashionable.

It turns out, however, that oil price shocks of all the previous periods of energy crisis were precipitated not by oil shortages, or any real prospects of oil “peaking and running out,” but by international political convulsions, revolutions and wars: the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the 1979 Revolution in Iran, and the 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. Each time, as the turbulent period of war or revolutionary atmosphere ended, higher oil prices of the respective crisis situation subsided accordingly [6].

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The current oil price hike too is precipitated not by an oil shortage, as popularly perceived, but by manipulative speculation in energy futures markets—which are, in turn, prompted largely by the unstable atmosphere of war and geopolitical turbulence in the Middle East.

Evidence is therefore unambiguous that, so far, almost all oil price shocks can be explained not by geology, or the so-called Peak Oil, but by geopolitics. 

Peak oil theory is based on a number of assumptions and omissions that make it less than reliable.

To begin with, it discounts or disregards the fact that energy-saving technologies have drastically improved (and will continue to further improve) not only the efficiency of oil production but also 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. Before the 1973 oil shock, the ratio was about one to one” [7].

Cars, airplanes and other means of transportation have become more fuel-efficient than ever before—though not as much as they could, or could. Both businesses and consumers are also doing a better job of trimming their energy costs. Obviously, this means that our demand for energy does not grow as fast as the growth of our economy. For example, According to the Energy Information Administration, in 1981 the United States devoted nearly 14 percent of its overall gross domestic product to energy; by 2006 that number had fallen to about 9 percent.

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Second, Peak Oil theory pays scant attention to the drastically enabling new technologies that have made (and will continue to make) possible discovery and extraction of oil reserves that were inaccessible only a short time ago. One of the results of the more efficient means of research and development has been a far higher success rate in finding new oil fields. The success rate has risen in twenty years from less than 70 percent to over 80 percent. 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 [8].

Thanks to technological advances, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in its 2000 World Petroleum Assessment, “increased by 20 percent its estimate of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. USGS noted that, since oil became a major energy source about 100 years ago, 539 billion barrels of oil have been produced outside the United States. USGS estimates there are 649 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil outside the United States. But, importantly, USGS also estimates that there will be an additional 612 billion barrels from reserve growth—nearly equaling the undiscovered resources. Reserve growth results from a variety of sources, including technological advancement in exploration and production, increases over initially conservative estimates of reserves, and economic changes” [9].

Third, Peak Oil is also subject to criticism because it pays insufficient attention to substitutes or alternative sources of energy, both actual and potential. These include solar, wind, non-food bio-fuel, and nuclear energies. They also include natural gas. Natural 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 [10].

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Ismael Hossein-zadeh is a professor of economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of the newly published book, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism His Web page is http://www.cbpa.drake.edu/hossein-zadeh

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According to most independent scientific studies, ... by Clifford Wirth on Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008 at 9:32:30 AM
Ismael Hossein-zadeh claims "that there is no... by Randy Park on Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008 at 12:14:02 PM