Pipeline pipe dreams

Sorry folks, the oil that Bush and Cheney boasted would flow into the tanks of America’s gas guzzlers after Saddam Hussein is nowhere in sight

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 08/18/2005

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Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters recently that relations with the United States “couldn’t be better.” The prince could afford to be cheery and expansive. The royal kingdom literally has the US over a barrel, that is, the roughly 10 million barrels of oil that Saudi Arabia pumps out daily, about 11 percent of the world’s total.

Bush administration officials desperately need their oil. US dependency on Saudi oil is greater now than it was before the 9/11 attacks, and that mocks Bush’s claim that the US can and will, at least any time soon, wean itself off Saudi oil or dictate to the Saudis how they should run their government and diplomatic policy.  

While debate rages in government and oil circles over whether the Saudi Arabia’s fields are old and depleted and whether they are really able to boost proven reserves to levels that can accommodate US needs, the Saudis still have a lot of oil left. Whether they can actually bump up their reserves or not, they’ll continue to dominate world market share for at least the foreseeable future. During that time, the US, Western Europe, China, Japan and India’s glutinous appetite for oil will continue to grow. The Energy Department estimates that it will take up to 120 million barrels per day by 2025 to satisfy that appetite. More than one-fourth of this added oil will come from the Saudis.

Meanwhile, the US occasionally will talk tough to the Saudis about speeding up democratic reforms and cracking down on Muslim fundamentalist groups. It will scold them for ignoring, downplaying or covering up the connection between higher ups in the Saudi military and government and the 9/11 attackers (remember, Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals) and in the bankrolling of terrorist front groups. That’s bluster mostly for media and public consumption.

Immediately following King Fahd’s death, Vice President Dick Cheney, George Bush Sr. and Colin Powell beat a path to Riyadh to pay homage to the Saudi’s new ruler, King Abdullah. That was more than a diplomatic courtesy call. It sent a huge signal that the US will do everything it can to placate the Saudi regime. The reason is simple: The much hoped for new oil sources that could break US dependency on Saudi oil have not panned out. The rivers of oil Cheney boasted would flow into the tanks of America’s gas-guzzlers after Saddam Hussein was dumped are a pipe dream. Post-Saddam Iraq has shown no sign that it can produce the six million barrels projected by 2010. Currently it barely squeezes out two million barrels a day. With the insurgency there getting bigger, bolder and more lethal, the oil output could plunge even lower in coming months. Iran won’t help much either.

Though the country elected a conservative president, it still says that it will hurtle full speed forward and develop its nuclear weapon capacity. That keeps it on a collision course with the US military. Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela and Mexico are all mired in corruption and mismanagement or racked by political turmoil.

Libya, even with a mellowed out Khadafi, doesn’t have the oil reserves to meet the US’ bloated needs. Its reserves are about one-sixth of Saudi Arabia’s.

American oil execs hammered the Bush administration and Congress to scrap environmental and land protections to tap the millions of barrels in oil reserves believed nestled in shale deposits off the coast and in the frozen ground on Alaska’s North Slope. Those millions may or may not be there. It will take big improvements in exploration and drilling technology and the beating back of environmentalists’ challenges to determine the real oil potential of the North Slope and the sea. While the US is still the world’s most rapacious oil user, China and Japan have come on strong and are willing to woo, court and pay top dollar to the Saudis to get the oil needed to fuel their industrial boom. The Saudis can and will play both nations off against the US. With oil prices at the record high of $60 per barrel, that means more billions into the Saudi coffers.

But that could spell greater political peril for the US. The royal family has taken a weak, half-hearted stab at democratic reform; it is still a tight-knit autocracy. It’s fair game for both homegrown and foreign Muslim extremists and fundamentalists. A renewed internal insurgency from them could shake the regime. That could deepen anti-American sentiment in the country and open the door wide to greater terrorist attacks.

Even without a Saudi regime shift or change, the Middle East is a tinderbox and the anger and hostility toward US policy in Iraq and its rock solid support of Israel will prevent the Saudi government from totally realigning its policies with the US.

US dependency on Saudi oil will grow even greater and the risks that that brings will nag Bush officials. And happy talk from Cheney and Saudi officials won’t change that. 


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst, social issues commentator and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black.”

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