250. THE OIL WEAPON IS A BLUFF
Over the weekend, there was yet another oil weapon threat from Venezuela:
Venezuela could easily sell oil to markets other than the United States and is prepared to end exports to its No. 1 buyer if needed, the oil minister said in comments published Sunday.This is really getting tedious. I'm not going to bother going back and making an actual count, but this is like the 9th time they've said that. Chavez and Iran are like a couple of Schnauzers out in the back yard yapping away. Here's my message to Hugo Chavez: Bring it on, dude. You know the U.S. hates your guts and they're out to get you, so stop yappin' and PULL THE TRIGGER.
"If our country, our process, our constitution are attacked by the Bush administration, we are not going to send any more oil," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told the Ultimas Noticias daily in an interview. "We'll see then which of the two governments is able to manage this type of a situation better."Source
Something is very fishy about this "oil weapon" business. If the oil weapon is so scary, how come people only talk about it, and never actually use it?
To answer this question, we can turn to a superb recent paper entitled Oil market power and United States national security by Roger Stern of John Hopkins University. The paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and is currently the most-read article on the PNAS website.
Roger's thesis boils down to this: The security threat to the U.S. is not states like Venezuela and Iran cutting off oil to the U.S. Rather, the actual threat is states like Venezuela and Iran NOT cutting off oil to the U.S. The reason for this is that the OPEC countries enjoy cartel power over much of the remaining oil, and thus can inflate the price by dragging their feet and stifling production. This causes the market price of oil to be far above the competitive price it would sink to if (for example) Venezuela was in Florida, and Saudi Arabia/Iraq/Iran were located in Texas, where the fields could be exploited in a competitive, free market environment. Roger calculates the differential between these two prices, and shows the massive scale of wealth transfer to OPEC which is achieved through this cartel power -- a flow which fuels and buttresses the enemies of the U.S., and makes them stronger.
Thus it's all a paradoxical game. In reality, the oil weapon has no teeth. Suppose, for example, that Venezuela pulls the trigger and stops exporting to the U.S. This will cause price in the U.S. to rise relative to the world market, which will create a huge temptation to make an easy profit by selling back into the U.S. market. Chavez will sell it to China, and China will sell it to the U.S. Ka-ching$$. This is the same reason why the apartheid embargoes on South Africa were very porous and ineffective. Of course, to solve this problem, Chavez or Iran could go for the jugular, and stop exporting oil entirely. But this would hurt them way more than it would hurt the U.S. The U.S. would have to deal with slightly higher gas prices. Venezuela or Iran would have to deal with massive trauma to their governmental revenues.
Want to see the oil weapon in action? Here you go:
Yet despite the stark repercussions expected, the U.S. defied demands that Israel be forced to return to its 1967 borders and further traduced supplier wishes by providing arms to Israel during the October 1973 war. The oil weapon was soon unsheathed in response.Roger concludes (I'm paraphrasing in my own style here) that if the U.S. really wants to kick its enemies in the nuts, reduce funding for terrorism and break the cartel, it should do what they really fear: take demand side measures in the U.S. like signing the Kyoto treaty or passing a steep fuel tax.
Arab producers promised a 5% cut every month until Israel returned to its 1967 borders and a selective embargo against the U.S. and Holland (ref. 1, pp. 89–140). However, the problem of third-country sellers soon impressed itself on the suppliers. By November, there was no further 5% cut. By January, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the only large producers participating, were increasing production (14). An earlier 1967 embargo had been abandoned just as quickly (ref. 1, pp. 89–140).[p. 1651]
Don't take my word for it on all this. Please read the paper. Not only is it inspired; it is also full of interesting, behind-the-scenes details on U.S. geopolitical policy. The following part is absolutely astounding, and shows how far the U.S. government will stick its head up its ass to continue the policy of appeasement:
Sheikh Yamani warned OPEC that Kyoto implementation might reduce global demand by 20x10^6 bd (57). The cartel subsequently claimed that it should be compensated for revenue lost to Kyoto-based demand reduction (58). OPEC's legal theory is that its prospective losses are equivalent to those of low-lying island states seeking compensation to manage sea-level rise. The U.S. supports OPEC (59).
Although fear of the oil weapon has changed little since Akins, appeasement has had to change with the times. Longstanding passivity to economic predation is now complemented by toleration of Saudi support for terror propaganda. Recently, the U.S. began to support the cartel's Kyoto formula: that monopoly rents are an entitlement owed by the world to OPEC (59). Thus, the 1958 law asserting that imports will "impair the national security" should some adversary decline to sell is balanced by a proposal to compensate the adversary should we decline to buy. If adopted, such a policy might perpetuate security threats no matter how low Kyoto forced demand. [pp. 1654-1655]
-- by JD
Chavez is not nearly as smart as the Saudi's, who have learned to lie low and try to keep prices low enough to preserve their long-term monopoly.
OPEC's recent loss of control of oil prices will hasten the end of OPEC. Chavez is helping cement the perception that low and stable oil prices are history, which will accelerate investment in alternatives, and get alternatives past the "hump" of low-volumes into economies of scale. There will be a tipping point where very rapid growth in alternatives will be unstoppable - we may already be there.
Hi, JD, Nick, & all,
I hope you're right, Nick. But I'm not sure OPEC countries or those who profit from oil elsewhere are likely to let things go without creating problems of their own. Rapid growth in alternative power would be very helpful, but today's crop of energy executives haven't convinced me they're willing to give more than lip service to actually having the necessary power sources up and running when and where they're really needed.
I'm inclined to believe peak oil will pose serious problems at least over the short term, but I also believe we humans are capable of correcting it and cannot simply surrender to it. Nuclear, if handled properly, can be that bridge but definitely not with the half-assed, corrupt, mega-corporation-centered way our government and many others are currently treating the problem.
In the long term, it's irrelevant whether Hubbert's Peak is just oil or all fossil fuels. They're all being consumed at an unsustainable rate and reliance on them is posing too many ecological, political and other problems to support our society in a way that enables us to expand its benefits to those who don't yet have them. Such reliance is also stifling social, political and scientific changes I believe we need for long-term survival (including serious space travel and the transition from nation-states to a democratic global government).
Only a cleaner, more equally distributed and more publicly-owned form of energy can do that, with substantially more local control over production and related issues. Maybe the best way to do it is this: have the big cities powered by nuclear plants or space-based solar and smaller communities by their own ground-based solar, wind, or other "alternative" plants.
I agree, everything depends on the timeframe involved.
In the short term things are difficult. Oil production is stagnant and unreliable, the US government is ineffective, oil and electrical production are highly centralized (and therefore anti-democratic, both in the US but especially in oil producing countries), and alternatives aren't growing as fast as they should. With luck we'll be fine, but there are substantial risks to our economy and the peace.
In the long term there are no scientific or engineering limits to prosperity, peace and an egalitarian energy economy. I think there's no question that distributed solar-electric production will become cheap and effective, and dramatically change the face of things.
Chavez and Iran are like a couple of Schnauzers out in the back yard yapping away.
I have a schnauzer. Now whenever I see him I'll think of Hugo Chavez. He never yaps though.
But seriously, all this talk about the oil weapon is great. The more scared everyone is about oil the better for renewable energy. My clean energy shares surged yesterday because of Chavez' announcement.
As oil becomes a more scarce resource, perhaps the Saudis will finally choose to spend the remaining revenue on infrastructure, education, etc. instead of squandering it on frivolities for the royal families.
In addition, are there any better poster children for Dutch Disease than some of the OPEC nations? The oil industry has crowded out all other industries in their export sectors by putting upward pressure on their currencies. In other words, they can't produce anything else cheaper than other alternative producers. So it's full steam ahead for OPEC. There is no other option for them on the horizon.
Good to hear that respected professionals like Roger Stern are considering that the best way to hurt countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others that support terrorism is to CUT OUR USE OF IMPORTED OIL. In World War II, there was rationing to cut fuel use. If we really had smart leadership in Washington, they would have proposed either a voluntary or mandated fuel-use restrictions.
Whether by taxation on fuel or a simple national PR campaign asking people to drive less and perhaps bicycle to work one or two days a week (where feasible) we could cut the funding for our enemies. Instead, we seem to be in a phase of building bigger and more luxurious SUVs.
Americans and our allies would go far toward getting the attention of the OPEC nations that fund terror by cutting our purchases of oil by 5 or 10%. Cut off all aid to our enemies.
My personal opinion: It's time to kick OPEC in the nuts. For whatever reason, Dubya has passed over the perfect chances to get America rolling in the direction of demand reduction. I'm disappointed that after Sept 11th, and the subsequent terrorist operations around the globe, that Bush hasn't asked Americans to make it a priority to wean ourselves off of foreign oil. The recent state of the union address was a lame nod to the subject. I liked this post. Oil is a global commodity, and any country that draws the oil sword will see that the US definitely enjoys full spectrum dominance.
OPEC, being the powers that be, is our ally in fight against terrorism. That is why we do not put a tariff on petroleum. It would hurt our efforts against terrorism. The people making money on petroleum and living big do not want terrorism. Note that rise in Arab terrorism coincided with a fall in Saudi per capita income from about 20k to about 5k. Chaos is good for terrorism.
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