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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Next War?

7:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

"Senkaku" Island

Could disputes over largely uninhabited islands like this one lead to war?

Once upon a time, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping suggested that Asia’s Pacific powers and wannabes should “put aside differences and jointly develop resources.”  That was, of course, when China itself was still something of a wannabe and no one was talking about it becoming the world’s largest economy.  Now, it’s the rising power on planet Earth, achieving a more-than-century-old dream of returning to national greatness — as well as an eye-blistering, health-endangering level of industrial and car pollution that has its own name, “airpocalypse.” Problem is the idea of regional cooperation turns out to have been the real dream and now, it seems, everyone in the Pacific basin has woken up.

“Jointly develop?” What an ephemeral thought at a time when the urge to power up ever more cars and factories (sending yet more pollution, not to speak of greenhouse gases, into Asian and planetary skies) has merged with advances in drilling technology for “extreme energy.”  Together, they have made a series of previously unremarkable islets in the Pacific — which just happen to have prospective oil and natural gas reserves under them — look too valuable to resist claiming. So China, Japan, and various other Asian countries are insisting those bits of land are theirs and theirs alone.  Toss in that hideous imponderable national pride and, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, you have the potential for one of the dumber, more destructive face-offs in recent history.  With its usual fabulous timing, the U.S., already heavily garrisoning parts of Asia, has jumped in with both feet, only exacerbating tensions in the region, while promising to bring more of its own weaponry to bear, and sell more of that weaponry to its allies.

As Klare, author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left (just out in paperback), indicates, this couldn’t be more ludicrous.  After all, China, Japan, and the U.S. are so economically intertwined that one can’t twitch without the others suffering.  In other words, any kind of conflict among them is bound to make mincemeat of their collective economic wellbeing.  In fact, last October, after a confrontation over some of those islands, angry anti-Japanese protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese goods swept China.  The uproar briefly closed Japanese plants in that country, took a bite out of Japanese car sales, and knocked down Japanese stock prices.  Japan’s economy took a serious hit as well, which should surprise no one since China has recently pulled ahead of the U.S. as that country’s major export market.  All of this, until tamped down, threatened the wellbeing of the global economy, and yet it was a mere hiccup in terms of what might be coming.

What better argument could there be for self-interested cooperation in the Pacific, if only anyone in the involved countries, including ours, were actually walking the walk, instead of just intermittently talking the talk? Tom

Powder Keg in the Pacific
Will China-Japan-U.S. Tensions in the Pacific Ignite a Conflict and Sink the Global Economy?
By Michael T. Klare

Don’t look now, but conditions are deteriorating in the western Pacific.  Things are turning ugly, with consequences that could prove deadly and spell catastrophe for the global economy.

In Washington, it is widely assumed that a showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions will be the first major crisis to engulf the next secretary of defense — whether it be former Senator Chuck Hagel, as President Obama desires, or someone else if he fails to win Senate confirmation.  With few signs of an imminent breakthrough in talks aimed at peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, many analysts believe that military action — if not by Israel, than by the United States — could be on this year’s agenda.

Lurking just behind the Iranian imbroglio, however, is a potential crisis of far greater magnitude, and potentially far more imminent than most of us imagine.  China’s determination to assert control over disputed islands in the potentially energy-rich waters of the East and South China Seas, in the face of stiffening resistance from Japan and the Philippines along with greater regional assertiveness by the United States, spells trouble not just regionally, but potentially globally.

Islands, Islands, Everywhere

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Michael Klare: The Cheney Effect (in the Obama Administration)

6:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Vampire Cheney sucks oil from the Middle East.

Is Obama taking a page from Cheney's playbook? (Photo: Donkey Hotey / Flickr)

Back in September 2001, Dick Cheney was, according to Jane Mayer in The Dark Side, being chauffeured around Washington “in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers.”  In the backseat of his car (just in case), adds Mayer, “rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit.” And lest danger rear its head, “rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.”

Ah, weren’t those the days?  How quiet, how boring his life must be now, his new ticker in place, hosting fundraisers for Mitt Romney in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, auctioning off lunches with himself for charity, and — for a little genuine excitement — slamming President Obama as an “unmitigated disaster.”  And yet, what if thousands of miles from Washington, years from his “taking off the gloves” heyday, promoting “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and plunking for invasions in the Greater Middle East, his ghost still lives in the nation’s capital, and not in some vague way somewhere in the Republican opposition, but deep in the beating heart of the Obama administration.  It’s the sort of thought that should take you aback and yet Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author most recently of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, makes the case that the Cheney ticker is beating hard right now in President Obama’s chest.  Don’t believe it?  Then, take a deep dive into Cheney’s… I mean, Obama’s world. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses imperial geopolitics as the default mode for Washington since 1945, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Is Barack Obama Morphing Into Dick Cheney? Four Ways the President Is Pursuing Cheney’s Geopolitics of Global Energy

By Michael T. Klare

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Ellen Cantarow: The New Eco-Devastation in Rural America

6:14 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three days a week, click here.

When workers drilling tunnels at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, began to die, Union Carbide had an answer. It hadn’t been taking adequate precautions against the inhalation of silica dust, a known danger to workers since the days of ancient Greece. Instead, in many cases, a company doctor would simply tell the families of the workers that they had died of “tunnelitis,” and a local undertaker would be paid $50 to dispose of each corpse. A few years later, in 1935, a congressional subcommittee discovered that approximately 700 workers had perished while drilling through Hawk’s Nest Mountain, many of them buried in unmarked graves at the side of the road just outside the tunnel. The subcommittee concluded that Union Carbide’s project had been accomplished through a “grave and inhuman disregard of all considerations for the health, lives and future of the employees.”

A protest sign explains the dangerous chemicals used in fracking, including benzene, toluene, and xylene.

Photo by ProgressOhio

Despite the “Hawk’s Nest Incident” and thousands of Depression-era lawsuits against foundries, mines, and construction companies, silicosis never disappeared. In the decades since, as TomDispatch authors David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have repeatedly demonstrated, industry worked tirelessly to label silicosis a “disease of the past,” even while ensuring that it would continue to be a disease of the present. By the late 1990s, the Columbia University researchers found that from New York to California, from Texas all the way back to West Virginia, millions of workers in foundries, shipyards, mines, and oil refineries, among other industries, were endangered by silica dust.

Today, there’s a new silicosis scare on the horizon and a new eco-nightmare brewing in the far corners of rural America. Like the Hawk’s Nest disaster it has flown under the radar — until now.

Once upon a time, mining companies tore open hills or bored through or chopped off mountain tops to get at vital resources inside. They were intent on creating quicker paths through nature’s obstacles, or (as at Gauley Bridge) diverting the flow of mighty rivers. Today, they’re doing it merely to find the raw materials — so-called frac sand — to use in an assault on land several states away. Multinational corporations are razing ancient hills of sandstone in the Midwest and shipping that silica off to other pastoral settings around the United States. There, America’s prehistoric patrimony is being used to devastating effect to fracture shale deposits deep within the earth — they call it “hydraulic fracturing” — and causing all manner of environmental havoc. Not everyone, however, is keen on this “sand rush” and coalitions of small-town farmers, environmentalists, and public health advocates are now beginning to stand firm against the big energy corporations running sand-mining operations in their communities.

Ground zero in this frac-fight is the rural Wisconsin towns to which TomDispatch’s roving environmental reporter Ellen Cantarow traveled this spring to get the biggest domestic environmental story that nobody knows about. Walking the fields of family farms under siege and talking to the men and women resisting the corporations, Cantarow offers up a shocking report of vital interest. There’s a battle raging for America’s geological past and ecological future — our fresh food and clean water supplies may hinge on who wins it. Nick Turse

How Rural America Got Fracked
The Environmental Nightmare You Know Nothing About

By Ellen Cantarow

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Michael Klare: Oil Wars on the Horizon

6:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There has been much discussion recently about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia: the 250 Marines sent to Darwin, Australia, the littoral combat ships for Singapore, the support for Burmese “democracy,” war games in the Philippines (and a drone strike there as well), and so on. The U.S. is definitely going offshore in Asian waters, or put another way, after a decade-long hiatus-cum-debacle on the Eurasian continent, the Great Game v. China is back on.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

Presidential Guard in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Evans.

While true, however, the importance of this policy change has been exaggerated. At the moment, as it happens, the greatest game isn’t in Asia at all; it’s in the Persian Gulf where, off the coast of Iran and in bases around the region, the U.S. is engaged in a staggering build-up of naval and air power. Most people would have little idea that this was even going on, since it rarely makes its way into the mainstream and even less often onto front pages or into the headlines. The Washington Times, for instance, has been alone in reporting that, for the U.S. military, “war planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario.” It adds that the “U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s conventional armed forces in about three weeks using air and sea strikes.”

Most of the time, however, you have to be a genuine news jockey or read specialist sites to notice the scale of what’s going on, even though the build-up in the Gulf is little short of monumental and evidently not close to finished. It’s not just the two aircraft carrier task forces now there, but (as the invaluable Danger Room website has reported) the doubling of minesweepers stationed in Bahrain, as well as the addition of minesweeping helicopters and coastal patrol boats that are being retrofitted with Gattling guns and missiles. Throw in new advanced torpedoes for Gulf waters and mini-drone subs; add in newly outfitted units of F-22s and F-15s heading for bases in the Gulf to make up “the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team.” And don’t forget the major CIA drone surveillance program already in operation over Iran (and undoubtedly still being bolstered).

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Bill McKibben: How You Subsidize the Energy Giants to Wreck the Planet

6:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just in case you’re running for national office, here are a few basic stats to orient you when you hit Washington (thanks to the invaluable Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics). In 2011, the oil and gas industries ponied up more than $148 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies of various sorts. The top four lobbying firms in the business were ConocoPhillips ($20.5 million), Royal Dutch Shell ($14.7 million), Exxon Mobil ($12.7 million), and Chevron ($9.5 million).

And note that those figures don’t include campaign contributions, although I can’t imagine why corporate money flowing to candidates or their PACs isn’t considered “lobbying.” When it comes to such donations, the industry has given a total of $238.7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, 75% of it to Republicans. In 2011-2012, Exxon ($992,573) and — I’m sure this won’t shock you — Koch Industries ($872,912) led the oil and gas list.

Or think of this another way: the Senate recently voted down a bill sponsored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez to end congressional subsidies for the top oil companies. The senators who nixed the measure, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY, $264,700), received approximately $1.48 million in oil and gas campaign contributions in 2011-2012; those who voted for it, a mere $400,000. Not surprisingly, this fits a longer-term congressional voting pattern in which money talks. In fact, it shouts.

And of course, a similar pattern can be seen in the presidential sweepstakes (with a similar Republican to Democrat ratio). In the present election campaign, Mitt Romney has already received $598,000 from oil and gas types, President Obama $131,000. The Koch brothers have, in fact, given $250,000 to Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, and that’s undoubtedly a small down payment on contributions to come. And as novelist Kurt Vonnegut might once have written, so it goes in Washington.

TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, suggests that the flood of money through, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, Washington’s infamous “revolving door” is so overwhelming that we don’t even have an adequate language for discussing it, no less our 1% election or our republic of the richest. Tom

Payola for the Most Profitable Corporations in History
And Why Taxpayers Shouldn’t Stand for It Any More
By Bill McKibben

Along with “fivedollaragallongas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is: “subsidies.” Last week, for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.” It was, in truth, nothing to write home about — a curiously skimpy bill that only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even then it didn’t pass. [cont] Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Welcome to the New Third World of Energy, the U.S.

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(photo: tommy-ironic, flickr)

(photo: tommy-ironic, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to energy disasters: if it’s the nuclear industry and something begins to go wrong — from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 to Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami — whatever news is first released, always relatively reassuring, will be a lie, pure and simple. And as the disaster unrolls, it’s not likely to get much better. The nuclear industry is incapable of telling the truth about the harm it does. So when the early stories appear about the next nuclear plant in trouble, whatever you hear or read, just assume that you don’t know the half, not even the quarter, of it.

When it comes to the oil and gas industry and disasters, a similar rule of thumb follows: however bad it first sounds, the odds are it’s going to sound a lot worse before it’s over. (See BP, Deepwater Horizon.) So when you first hear about an oil leak from a Chevron well off the coast of Brazil or from a natural gas well in the North Sea operated by the French oil giant Total and you get those expectable reassurances, they, too, are likely to be nothing but gas.

And here’s the sad thing, you’re going to get all too many chances to test out these simple rules when it comes to bad energy news. After all, as Michael Klare has been writing at this site for years, we’re entering the “tough energy” era. The big energy companies are going to be extracting hydrocarbons in ever more hazardous, difficult-to-reach places like the Arctic and they’re going to be using ever uglier methods to do so.

It’s a guarantee that, however bad the environmental damage we’ve seen so far, it’s only going to get worse as the energy industry despoils various regions to give us our fossil-fuel fix and their mega-profits. As Klare points out, one of those regions is slated to be not in distant Africa, the Persian Gulf, or the Caspian Sea, but right here in the U.S. Klare has been ahead of the energy curve ever since, in the late 1990s, he suggested that we would soon be on a planet embroiled in “resource wars.” His new book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, catches the nightmarish nature of the planet’s last energy boom in a way no one else has. And don’t be surprised if that nightmare lands squarely in your backyard. Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Chip Ward: Apologies to the Next Generation for the Turmoil to Come

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: jpaxonreyes, flickr)

(image: jpaxonreyes, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

At our relatively advanced ages, Chip Ward and I couldn’t be more modern. We’ve never met, only e-met (and chatted on our cell phones). We may never meet. He lives in the backcountry of Utah and while he travels extensively, it’s not on trails I’m likely to be following, nor is it to the big city. I seldom leave New York and when I do, it’s not for Utah. Still, I feel as if, after all these years working together, we are in some sense friends on the same planet, thinking similar thoughts — and never more so than today.

After all, when I began TomDispatch.com, my impulse was strikingly similar to the one that clearly animated him to write his latest post. As a book editor, I felt I had done good work all my life, putting words into our world that made — or at least should have made — some small difference. But when our bombing of Afghanistan began in October 2001, the writing was already on the wall for anyone to read. Watching the Bush administration, absorbing its imperial pretensions, sensing where they might lead, knowing that we were already “at war,” and that the country was being turned into some new kind of garrison state, I suddenly felt that nothing I had done was faintly good enough.

That sense actually went remarkably deep. I have a daughter and a son whose future I care about. I knew in some visceral way that we were heading into the worst years of my life, which meant theirs, too. I had a strong feeling that I simply couldn’t sit back and let them (and their peers) inherit the kind of planet I feared was in their future — not without doing something to resist our moment. Since I’m no megalomaniac, I didn’t expect anything to come of it; I simply felt a powerful need to raise my hand, to act, even if I had no idea how.

The result was a no-name listserv I began sending around late that October, first to friends and relatives and then to whoever jumped aboard. Nothing surprises me more than this: a decade-plus later, I’m still obsessively involved with its spawn, TomDispatch.com. I just had the urge to act in a way that seemed to fit with my life, an urge — thought of another way — to say to my children that I was sorry for the world I was leaving them. And so there is some special satisfaction in posting this letter of Chip Ward’s, a man who (unlike me) really has spent significant parts of his life trying to make this a better planet for his neighbors, children, grandchildren, and all the rest of us. Tom

We Screwed Up
A Letter of Apology to My Granddaughter

By Chip Ward

[Note: I became politically active and committed on the day 20 years ago when I realized I could stand on the front porch of my house and point to three homes where children were in wheelchairs, to a home where a child had just died of leukemia, to another where a child was born missing a kidney, and yet another where a child suffered from spina bifida. All my parental alarms went off at once and I asked the obvious question: What’s going on here? Did I inadvertently move my three children into harm’s way when we settled in this high desert valley in Utah? A quest to find answers in Utah’s nuclear history and then seek solutions followed. Politics for me was never motivated by ideology. It was always about parenting. Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Why High Gas Prices are Here to Stay

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Think about this for a second and if it doesn’t stagger you, I don’t know what to say: the U.S. military consumes as much oil every day as the entire nation of Sweden.

Or take a guess on this question of the week: How much did it cost Mobil and its partners to build the world’s largest oil-drilling platform, a 1.2 million-ton monster that sits in 300 feet of water in “Iceberg Alley” in the Canadian North Atlantic and is armored with 16 protective “teeth” designed to absorb the impact of those approaching bergs? The answer: $5 billion for the Hibernia platform, which is now producing 135,000 barrels of deep sea oil per day.

If you wanted, you could spend your time turning Michael Klare’s new book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, into an energy and resources version of Believe It Or Not that would stagger your friends. Klare has a way of landing us on a strange new planet called Earth, one stripped to its disappearing resources and filled with insatiable greed. It’s always a bracing experience, even when, as he assures us in his new book, the rush to the planet’s Iceberg Alleys to provide energy for the U.S. military and the rest of us fuel guzzlers may be the last “race” of its kind we are likely to undertake. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

A Tough-Oil World
Why Twenty-First Century Oil Will Break the Bank — and the Planet

By Michael T. Klare

Oil prices are now higher than they have ever been — except for a few frenzied moments before the global economic meltdown of 2008. Many immediate factors are contributing to this surge, including Iran’s threats to block oil shipping in the Persian Gulf, fears of a new Middle Eastern war, and turmoil in energy-rich Nigeria. Some of these pressures could ease in the months ahead, providing temporary relief at the gas pump. But the principal cause of higher prices — a fundamental shift in the structure of the oil industry — cannot be reversed, and so oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.

In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped. This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum — “easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.

The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine — and so more expensive at the gas pump.

Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: the planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore, or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.

The simple truth of the matter is this: most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted — except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq. Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil, and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands” — which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand, and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.

In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”

Further evidence for this shift was provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a 2010 review of world oil prospects. In preparation for its report, the agency examined historic yields at the world’s largest producing fields — the “easy oil” on which the world still relies for the overwhelming bulk of its energy. The results were astonishing: those fields were expected to lose three-quarters of their productive capacity over the next 25 years, eliminating 52 million barrels per day from the world’s oil supplies, or about 75% of current world crude oil output. The implications were staggering: either find new oil to replace those 52 million barrels or the Age of Petroleum will soon draw to a close and the world economy would collapse.

Of course, as the IEA made clear back in 2010, there will be new oil, but only of the tough variety that will exact a price from us all — and from the planet, too. To grasp the implications of our growing reliance on tough oil, it’s worth taking a whirlwind tour of some of the more hair-raising and easily damaged spots on Earth. So fasten your seatbelts: first we’re heading out to sea — way, way out — to survey the “promising” new world of twenty-first-century oil.

Deepwater Oil

Oil companies have been drilling in offshore areas for some time, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caspian Sea. Until recently, however, such endeavors invariably took place in relatively shallow waters — a few hundred feet, at most — allowing oil companies to use conventional drills mounted on extended piers. Deepwater drilling, in depths exceeding 1,000 feet, is an entirely different matter. It requires specialized, sophisticated, and immensely costly drilling platforms that can run into the billions of dollars to produce.

The Deepwater Horizon, destroyed in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 as a result of a catastrophic blowout, is typical enough of this phenomenon. The vessel was built in 2001 for some $500 million, and cost around $1 million per day to staff and maintain. Partly as a result of these high costs, BP was in a hurry to finish work on its ill-fated Macondo well and move the Deepwater Horizon to another drilling location. Such financial considerations, many analysts believe, explain the haste with which the vessel’s crew sealed the well — leading to a leakage of explosive gases into the wellbore and the resulting blast. BP will now have to pay somewhere in excess of $30 billion to satisfy all the claims for the damage done by its massive oil spill.

Following the disaster, the Obama administration imposed a temporary ban on deep-offshore drilling. Barely two years later, drilling in the Gulf’s deep waters is back to pre-disaster levels. President Obama has also signed an agreement with Mexico allowing drilling in the deepest part of the Gulf, along the U.S.-Mexican maritime boundary.

Meanwhile, deepwater drilling is picking up speed elsewhere. Brazil, for example, is moving to exploit its “pre-salt” fields (so-called because they lie below a layer of shifting salt) in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean far off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. New offshore fields are similarly being developed in deep waters off Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

By 2020, says energy analyst John Westwood, such deepwater fields will supply 10% of the world’s oil, up from only 1% in 1995. But that added production will not come cheaply: most of these new fields will cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to develop, and will only prove profitable as long as oil continues to sell for $90 or more per barrel.

Brazil’s offshore fields, considered by some experts the most promising new oil discovery of this century, will prove especially pricey, because they lie beneath one and a half miles of water and two and a half miles of sand, rock, and salt. The world’s most advanced, costly drilling equipment — some of it still being developed — will be needed. Petrobras, the state-controlled energy firm, has already committed $53 billion to the project for 2011-2015, and most analysts believe that will be only a modest down payment on a staggering final price tag.

Arctic Oil

The Arctic is expected to provide a significant share of the world’s future oil supply. Until recently, production in the far north has been very limited. Other than in the Prudhoe Bay area of Alaska and a number of fields in Siberia, the major companies have largely shunned the region. But now, seeing few other options, they are preparing for major forays into a melting Arctic.

From any perspective, the Arctic is the last place you want to go to drill for oil. Storms are frequent, and winter temperatures plunge far below freezing. Most ordinary equipment will not operate under these conditions. Specialized (and costly) replacements are necessary. Working crews cannot live in the region for long. Most basic supplies — food, fuel, construction materials — must be brought in from thousands of miles away at phenomenal cost.

But the Arctic has its attractions: billions of barrels of untapped oil, to be exact. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the area north of the Arctic Circle, with just 6% of the planet’s surface, contains an estimated 13% of its remaining oil (and an even larger share of its undeveloped natural gas) — numbers no other region can match.

With few other places left to go, the major energy firms are now gearing up for an energy rush to exploit the Arctic’s riches. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas adjacent to northern Alaska. (The Obama administration must still award final operating permits for these activities, but approval is expected.) At the same time, Statoil and other firms are planning extended drilling in the Barents Sea, north of Norway.

As with all such extreme energy scenarios, increased production in the Arctic will significantly boost oil company operating costs. Shell, for example, has already spent $4 billion alone on preparations for test drilling in offshore Alaska, without producing a single barrel of oil. Full-scale development in this ecologically fragile region, fiercely opposed by environmentalists and local Native peoples, will multiply this figure many times over.

Tar Sands and Heavy Oil

Another significant share of the world’s future petroleum supply is expected to come from Canadian tar sands (also called “oil sands”) and the extra-heavy oil of Venezuela. Neither of these is oil as normally understood. Not being liquid in their natural state, they cannot be extracted by traditional drilling materials, but they do exist in great abundance. According to the USGS, Canada’s tar sands contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of conventional (liquid) oil, while Venezuela’s heavy oil deposits are said to harbor another trillion barrels of oil equivalent — although not all of this material is considered “recoverable” with existing technology.

Those who claim that the Petroleum Age is far from over often point to these reserves as evidence that the world can still draw on immense supplies of untapped fossil fuels. And it is certainly conceivable that, with the application of advanced technologies and a total indifference to environmental consequences, these resources will indeed be harvested. But easy oil this is not.

Until now, Canada’s tar sands have been obtained through a process akin to strip mining, utilizing monster shovels to pry a mixture of sand and bitumen out of the ground. But most of the near-surface bitumen in the tar-sands-rich province of Alberta has now been exhausted, which means all future extraction will require a far more complex and costly process. Steam will have to be injected into deeper concentrations to melt the bitumen and allow its recovery by massive pumps. This requires a colossal investment of infrastructure and energy, as well as the construction of treatment facilities for all the resulting toxic wastes. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, the full development of Alberta’s oil sands would require a minimum investment of $218 billion over the next 25 years, not including the cost of building pipelines to the United States (such as the proposed Keystone XL) for processing in U.S. refineries.

The development of Venezuela’s heavy oil will require investment on a comparable scale. The Orinoco belt, an especially dense concentration of heavy oil adjoining the Orinoco River, is believed to contain recoverable reserves of 513 billion barrels of oil — perhaps the largest source of untapped petroleum on the planet. But converting this molasses-like form of bitumen into a useable liquid fuel far exceeds the technical capacity or financial resources of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Accordingly, it is now seeking foreign partners willing to invest the $10-$20 billion needed just to build the necessary facilities.

The Hidden Costs

Tough-oil reserves like these will provide most of the world’s new oil in the years ahead. One thing is clear: even if they can replace easy oil in our lives, the cost of everything oil-related — whether at the gas pump, in oil-based products, in fertilizers, in just about every nook and cranny of our lives — is going to rise. Get used to it. If things proceed as presently planned, we will be in hock to big oil for decades to come.

And those are only the most obvious costs in a situation in which hidden costs abound, especially to the environment. As with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil extraction in deep-offshore areas and other extreme geographical locations will ensure ever greater environmental risks. After all, approximately five million gallons of oil were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to BP’s negligence, causing extensive damage to marine animals and coastal habitats.

Keep in mind that, as catastrophic as it was, it occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where vast cleanup forces could be mobilized and the ecosystem’s natural recovery capacity was relatively robust. The Arctic and Greenland represent a different story altogether, given their distance from established recovery capabilities and the extreme vulnerability of their ecosystems. Efforts to restore such areas in the wake of massive oil spills would cost many times the $30-$40 billion BP is expected to pay for the Deepwater Horizon damage and be far less effective.

In addition to all this, many of the most promising tough-oil fields lie in Russia, the Caspian Sea basin, and conflict-prone areas of Africa. To operate in these areas, oil companies will be faced not only with the predictably high costs of extraction, but also additional costs involving local systems of bribery and extortion, sabotage by guerrilla groups, and the consequences of civil conflict.

And don’t forget the final cost: If all these barrels of oil and oil-like substances are truly produced from the least inviting of places on this planet, then for decades to come we will continue to massively burn fossil fuels, creating ever more greenhouse gases as if there were no tomorrow. And here’s the sad truth: if we proceed down the tough-oil path instead of investing as massively in alternative energies, we may foreclose any hope of averting the most catastrophic consequences of a hotter and more turbulent planet.

So yes, there is oil out there. But no, it won’t get cheaper, no matter how much there is. And yes, the oil companies can get it, but looked at realistically, who would want it?

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and author of the just published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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Copyright 2012 Michael Klare

Bill McKibben: Why the Energy-Industrial Elite Has It In for the Planet

7:47 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Stupid Elite Could Learn From This Kid (photo: cayusa, flickr)

Stupid Elite Could Learn From This Kid (photo: cayusa, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Two Saturdays ago, I was walking with a friend in a park here in New York City.  It was late January, but I was dressed in a light sweater and a thin fall jacket, which I had just taken off and tied around my waist.  We were passing a strip of bare ground when suddenly we both did a double-take.  He looked at me and said, “Crocuses!”  Dumbfounded, I replied, “Yes, I see them.”  And there they were, a few clumps of telltale green shoots poking up from the all-brown ground as if it were spring.  Such a common, comforting sight, but it sent a chill through me that noticeably wasn’t in the air.  Even the flowers, I thought, are confused by our new version of weather.

Later that same week, as temperatures in the Big Apple crested 60 degrees, I was chatting on the phone with a friend in Northampton, Massachusetts.  I was telling him about the crocuses, when he suddenly said, “I’m looking out my window right now and for the first time in my memory of January, there’s not a trace of snow!”

Of course, our tales couldn’t be more minor or anecdotal, even if the temperatures that week did feel like we were on another planet.  Here’s the thing, though: after a while, even anecdotes add up — maybe we should start calling them “extreme anecdotes” — and right now there are so many of them being recounted across the planet.  How could there not be in a winter, now sometimes referred to as “Junuary,” in which, in the United States, 2,890 daily high temperature records have either been broken or tied at last count, with the numbers still rising?  Meanwhile, just to the south of us, in Mexico, extreme anecdotes abound, since parts of the country are experiencing “the worst drought on record.”  Even cacti are reportedly wilting and some towns are running out of water (as they are across the border in drought-stricken Texas).  And worst of all, the Mexican drought is expected to intensify in the months to come.

And who can doubt that in Europe, experiencing an extreme cold spell the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades — even Rome had a rare snowfall and Venice’s canals were reported to be freezing over — there are another set of all-too-extreme anecdotes.  After all, in places like Ukraine, scores of the homeless are freezing to death, pipes are bursting, power cuts are growing, and maybe even an instant energy crisis is underway (at a moment when the European Union is getting ready to cut itself off from Iranian oil).

That’s just to begin a list.  Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Energy Wars 2012

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Last week, the president made a rare appearance at the Pentagon to unveil a new strategic plan for U.S. military policy (and so spending) over the next decade.  Let’s leave the specifics to a future TomDispatch post and focus instead on a historical footnote: Obama was evidently the first president to offer remarks from a podium in the Pentagon press room.  He made the point himself — “I understand this is the first time a president has done this.  It’s a pretty nice room.  (Laughter)” — and it was duly noted in the media.  Yet no one thought to make anything of it, even though it tells us so much about our American world.

After all, when was the last time the president appeared at a podium at the Environmental Protection Agency to announce a 10-year plan for a “leaner, meaner” approach to the environment, or at the Education Department to outline the next decade of blue-skies thinking (and spending) for giving our children a leg-up in a competitive world?  Or how about at a State Department podium to describe future planning for a more peaceable planet more peaceably attained?  Unfortunately, you can’t remember such moments and neither can America’s reporters, because they just aren’t part of Washington life.  And strangest of all, no one finds this the tiniest bit odd or worth commenting on. 

Over the last decade, this country has been so strikingly militarized that no one can imagine 10 years of serious government planning or investment not connected to the military or the national security state.  It’s a dangerous world out there — so we’re regularly told by officials who don’t mention that no military is built to handle the scariest things around.  War and the sinews of war are now our business and the U.S. military is our go-to outfit of choice for anything from humanitarian action to diplomacy (even though that same military can’t do the one thing it’s theoretically built to do: win a modern war). And if you don’t believe me that the militarization of this country is a process far gone, check out the last pages of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent piece, “America’s Pacific Century,” in Foreign Policy magazine.  Then close your eyes and tell me that it wasn’t written by a secretary of defense, rather than a secretary of state — right down to the details about the “littoral combat ships” we’re planning to deploy to Singapore and the “greater American military presence” in Australia.

Of course, the irony of this American moment is that the Republicans, those supposed advocates of “small government,” are the greatest fans we have of the ever increasing oppressive powers of the biggest of governments.  In recent years, have they seen a single enhanced power they didn’t put their stamp of approval on or enhance further? Predictably, no sooner did the president’s Pentagon press briefing end than assorted Republicans began attacking Obama and his relatively modest Pentagon plan for reshuffling military funds — from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (“a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America”) and Senator John McCain (“greatest peril”) to presidential candidate Mitt Romney (“inexcusable, unthinkable”) — as if it were a program for unilateral disarmament.

So when the U.S. faces a problem in the world — say, keeping the energy flowing on this planet — the first thing that’s done is to militarize the problem.  It’s the only way Washington now knows how to think.  As Michael Klare — whose upcoming book The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources will certainly be a must-read of the season — makes clear, a further militarization of oil and gas policy is underway with an eye to the Pacific, and we have another anxious year on the horizon. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Danger Waters
The Three Top Hot Spots of Potential Conflict in the Geo-Energy Era

By Michael T. Klare

Welcome to an edgy world where a single incident at an energy “chokepoint” could set a region aflame, provoking bloody encounters, boosting oil prices, and putting the global economy at risk.  With energy demand on the rise and sources of supply dwindling, we are, in fact, entering a new epoch — the Geo-Energy Era — in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs.  In 2012 and beyond, energy and conflict will be bound ever more tightly together, lending increasing importance to the key geographical flashpoints in our resource-constrained world.

Take the Strait of Hormuz, already making headlines and shaking energy markets as 2012 begins.  Connecting the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, it lacks imposing geographical features like the Rock of Gibraltar or the Golden Gate Bridge.  In an energy-conscious world, however, it may possess greater strategic significance than any passageway on the planet.  Every day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, tankers carrying some 17 million barrels of oil — representing 20% of the world’s daily supply — pass through this vital artery. 

So last month, when a senior Iranian official threatened to block the strait in response to Washington’s tough new economic sanctions, oil prices instantly soared. While the U.S. military has vowed to keep the strait open, doubts about the safety of future oil shipments and worries about a potentially unending, nerve-jangling crisis involving Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv have energy experts predicting high oil prices for months to come, meaning further woes for a slowing global economy.

The Strait of Hormuz is, however, only one of several hot spots where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond.  Keep your eye as well on the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin, and an energy-rich Arctic that is losing its sea ice.  In all of these places, countries are disputing control over the production and transportation of energy, and arguing about national boundaries and/or rights of passage.

In the years to come, the location of energy supplies and of energy supply routes — pipelines, oil ports, and tanker routes — will be pivotal landmarks on the global strategic map.  Key producing areas, like the Persian Gulf, will remain critically important, but so will oil chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) and the “sea lines of communication,” or SLOCs (as naval strategists like to call them) connecting producing areas to overseas markets.  More and more, the major powers led by the United States, Russia, and China will restructure their militaries to fight in such locales.

You can already see this in the elaborate Defense Strategic Guidance document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership,” unveiled at the Pentagon on January 5th by President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.  While envisioning a smaller Army and Marine Corps, it calls for increased emphasis on air and naval capabilities, especially those geared to the protection or control of international energy and trade networks.  Though it tepidly reaffirmed historic American ties to Europe and the Middle East, overwhelming emphasis was placed on bolstering U.S. power in “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia.”

In the new Geo-Energy Era, the control of energy and of its transport to market will lie at the heart of recurring global crises.  This year, keep your eyes on three energy hot spots in particular: the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Sea basin. 

The Strait of Hormuz

A narrow stretch of water separating Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the strait is the sole maritime link between the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the rest of the world.  A striking percentage of the oil produced by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is carried by tanker through this passageway on a daily basis, making it (in the words of the Department of Energy) “the world’s most important oil chokepoint.”  Some analysts believe that any sustained blockage in the strait could trigger a 50% increase in the price of oil and trigger a full-scale global recession or depression.

American leaders have long viewed the Strait as a strategic fixture in their global plans that must be defended at any cost.  It was an outlook first voiced by President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, on the heels of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which had, he told Congress, “brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow.”  The American response, he insisted, must be unequivocal: any attempt by a hostile power to block the waterway would henceforth be viewed as “an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” and “repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Much has changed in the Gulf region since Carter issued his famous decree, known since as the Carter Doctrine, and established the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to guard the Strait — but not Washington’s determination to ensure the unhindered flow of oil there.  Indeed, President Obama has made it clear that, even if CENTCOM ground forces were to leave Afghanistan, as they have Iraq, there would be no reduction in the command’s air and naval presence in the greater Gulf area. 

It is conceivable that the Iranians will put Washington’s capabilities to the test.  On December 27th, Iran’s first vice president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi said, “If [the Americans] impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.”  Similar statements have since been made by other senior officials (and contradicted as well by yet others).  In addition, the Iranians recently conducted elaborate naval exercises in the Arabian Sea near the eastern mouth of the strait, and more such maneuvers are said to be forthcoming.  At the same time, the commanding general of Iran’s army suggested that the USS John C. Stennis, an American aircraft carrier just leaving the Gulf, should not return.  “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” he added ominously, “will not repeat its warning.”

Might the Iranians actually block the strait?  Many analysts believe that the statements by Rahimi and his colleagues are bluster and bluff meant to rattle Western leaders, send oil prices higher, and win future concessions if negotiations ever recommence over their country’s nuclear program.  Economic conditions in Iran are, however, becoming more desperate, and it is always possible that the country’s hard-pressed hardline leaders may feel the urge to take some dramatic action, even if it invites a powerful U.S. counterstrike.  Whatever the case, the Strait of Hormuz will remain a focus of international attention in 2012, with global oil prices closely following the rise and fall of tensions there.

The South China Sea

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed portion of the western Pacific bounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, and the island of Borneo (shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to the south.  The sea also incorporates two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.  Long an important fishing ground, it has also been a major avenue for commercial shipping between East Asia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  More recently, it acquired significance as a potential source of oil and natural gas, large reserves of which are now believed to lie in subsea areas surrounding the Paracels and Spratlys.

With the discovery of oil and gas deposits, the South China Sea has been transformed into a cockpit of international friction.  At least some islands in this energy-rich area are claimed by every one of the surrounding countries, including China — which claims them all, and has demonstrated a willingness to use military force to assert dominance in the region.  Not surprisingly, this has put it in conflict with the other claimants, including several with close military ties to the United States.  As a result, what started out as a regional matter, involving China and various members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has become a prospective tussle between the world’s two leading powers.

To press their claims, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have all sought to work collectively through ASEAN, believing a multilateral approach will give them greater negotiating clout than one-on-one dealings with China. For their part, the Chinese have insisted that all disputes must be resolved bilaterally, a situation in which they can more easily bring their economic and military power to bear.  Previously preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has now entered the fray, offering full-throated support to the ASEAN countries in their efforts to negotiate en masse with Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi promptly warned the United States not to interfere.  Any such move “will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult,” he declared.  The result was an instant war of words between Beijing and Washington.  During a visit to the Chinese capital in July 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen delivered a barely concealed threat when it came to possible future military action.  “The worry, among others that I have,” he commented, “is that the ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated.”  To drive the point home, the United States has conducted a series of conspicuous military exercises in the South China Sea, including some joint maneuvers with ships from Vietnam and the Philippines.  Not to be outdone, China responded with naval maneuvers of its own.  It’s a perfect formula for future “incidents” at sea.

The South China Sea has long been on the radar screens of those who follow Asian affairs, but it only attracted global attention when, in November, President Obama traveled to Australia and announced, with remarkable bluntness, a new U.S. strategy aimed at confronting Chinese power in Asia and the Pacific.  “As we plan and budget for the future,” he told members of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, “we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.”  A key feature of this effort would be to ensure “maritime security” in the South China Sea. 

While in Australia, President Obama also announced the establishment of a new U.S. base at Darwin on that country’s northern coast, as well as expanded military ties with Indonesia and the Philippines.  In January, the president similarly placed special emphasis on projecting U.S. power in the region when he went to the Pentagon to discuss changes in the American military posture in the world.

Beijing will undoubtedly take its own set of steps, no less belligerent, to protect its growing interests in the South China Sea.  Where this will lead remains, of course, unknown.  After the Strait of Hormuz, however, the South China Sea may be the global energy chokepoint where small mistakes or provocations could lead to bigger confrontations in 2012 and beyond. 

The Caspian Sea Basin

The Caspian Sea is an inland body of water bordered by Russia, Iran, and three former republics of the USSR: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.  In the immediate area as well are the former Soviet lands of Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.  All of these old SSRs are, to one degree or another, attempting to assert their autonomy from Moscow and establish independent ties with the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and, increasingly, China.  All are wracked by internal schisms and/or involved in border disputes with their neighbors.  The region would be a hotbed of potential conflict even if the Caspian basin did not harbor some of the world’s largest undeveloped reserves of oil and natural gas, which could easily bring it to a boil.

This is not the first time that the Caspian has been viewed as a major source of oil, and so potential conflict.  In the late nineteenth century, the region around the city of Baku — then part of the Russian empire, now in Azerbaijan — was a prolific source of petroleum and so a major strategic prize.  Future Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin first gained notoriety there as a leader of militant oil workers, and Hitler sought to capture it during his ill-fated 1941 invasion of the USSR.  After World War II, however, the region lost its importance as an oil producer when Baku’s onshore fields dried up.  Now, fresh discoveries are being made in offshore areas of the Caspian itself and in previously undeveloped areas of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

According to energy giant BP, the Caspian area harbors as much as 48 billion barrels of oil (mostly buried in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) and 449 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (with the largest supply in Turkmenistan).  This puts the region ahead of North and South America in total gas reserves and Asia in oil reserves.  But producing all this energy and delivering it to foreign markets will be a monumental task.  The region’s energy infrastructure is woefully inadequate and the Caspian itself provides no maritime outlet to other seas, so all that oil and gas must travel by pipeline or rail.

Russia, long the dominant power in the region, is pursuing control over the transportation routes by which Caspian oil and gas will reach markets.  It is upgrading Soviet-era pipelines that link the former SSRs to Russia or building new ones and, to achieve a near monopoly over the marketing of all this energy, bringing traditional diplomacy, strong-arm tactics, and outright bribery to bear on regional leaders (many of whom once served in the Soviet bureaucracy) to ship their energy via Russia.  As recounted in my book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, Washington sought to thwart these efforts by sponsoring the construction of alternative pipelines that avoid Russian territory, crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to the Mediterranean (notably the BTC, or Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline), while Beijing is building its own pipelines linking the Caspian area to western China.

All of these pipelines cross through areas of ethnic unrest and pass near various contested regions like rebellious Chechnya and breakaway South Ossetia.  As a result, both China and the U.S. have wedded their pipeline operations to military assistance for countries along the routes.  Fearful of an American presence, military or otherwise, in the former territories of the Soviet Union, Russia has responded with military moves of its own, including its brief August 2008 war with Georgia, which took place along the BTC route. 

Given the magnitude of the Caspian’s oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with the pipelines needed to bring the oil and gas to market.  The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipeline called Nabucco from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria.  Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream.  All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict.

In the new Geo-Energy Era, the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Caspian Basin hardly stand alone as potential energy flashpoints. The East China Sea, where China and Japan are contending for a contested undersea natural gas field, is another, as are the waters surrounding the Falkland Islands, where both Britain and Argentina hold claims to undersea oil reserves, as will be the globally warming Arctic whose resources are claimed by many countries.  One thing is certain: wherever the sparks may fly, there’s oil in the water and danger at hand in 2012.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. His newest book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, will be published in March.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses the crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 Michael T. Klare