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U.S. answer to Mideast violence must include reducing oil dependence

Over the last month, the following incidents have taken place in the Middle East:

  • On July 4, a car bomb exploded in a crowded market in Baghdad, killing nine people and injuring 24. Although no one took credit for the attack, suspicion fell on ISIS, which had been responsible for previous bombings in Baghdad. The incident was described as one of the deadliest in recent memory.
  • On July 12, a series of car bombs and suicide attacks killed 35 people and injured more than 100, mainly in Shi’ite neighborhoods. In the deadliest attack in the northern Shaab neighborhood, a car bomb exploded and then a suicide bomber detonated another explosion once police and crowds had gathered at the scene of the first explosion. Once again, ISIS was believed to be responsible. The incident was described as the deadliest in recent memory.
  • On July 18, a truck loaded with explosives was detonated in a busy Baghdad market, killing 120 and wounding 130. The explosion occurred while the local populace was celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the monthlong Ramadan holiday. The explosion destroyed 50 stores and 75 cars, and leveled two buildings. It was said to be the worst incident so far this year.
  • A month earlier, terrorists struck in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on the same day, June 26. No one knows whether the events were coordinated or just occurred by coincidence. In Kuwait, an explosion at a Shi’ite mosque killed 25 worshippers and destroyed the mosque. In Tunisia on the same day, a lone gunman wielding an assault rifle killed 38 people, mostly tourists, on a public beach. ISIS claimed credit for both incidents, although it did not say they had been coordinated. In France, a lone terrorist made it past security at an American-owned chemical factory, set off a gas explosion, and then decapitated a company executive and posted his head on a gate next to two Muslim flags. At the beginning of the holy month, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a spokesman for ISIS, had exhorted his followers: “Muslims, embark and hasten toward jihad. O mujahedeen everywhere, rush and go to make Ramadan a month of disasters for the infidels.”

Many American think all this violence started with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, it’s been going on since the 7th century. The original argument began with the succession to Muhammad’s leadership when he died in 632 A.D. There were two claimants to his legacy. The first was the Umayyad Caliph, made up of the followers of Muhammad’s entourage in Medina and Baghdad. The second was Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, who claimed to be his legitimate heir.

In 680, Caliph Muawiyah I of the Umayyad died and tried to pass his rule on to his son, Yazid, despite a written agreement with Hussein to honor his claim to the throne. Yazid demanded that Hussein acknowledge his rulership, and Hussein refused. Instead, he mounted an army and headed toward Baghdad, where Yazid was seated. During the march, however, Hussein’s supporters dwindled, and when he arrived at Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, he only had 75 followers left. There he was met by an army of 1,000 men sent forth from Baghdad by Yazid.

Hussein deliberated for a week before deciding once again to refuse Yazid’s leadership and join him in battle. By this time, Yazid’s army had swelled to 6,000. Hussein went to battle with about 75. Hussein’s army was slaughtered, and he was himself beheaded and his head sent to Baghdad. Hussein’s followers set up a rival caliphate in Medina, however, and the schism between the Sunni Umayyad Empire and the rival Shi’ites began and continues to this day.

The Shi’ia, who eventually established their dominion in Persia (Iran), still celebrate the holiday of Ashura, in which they flagellate themselves because they were not there to help Hussein at the Battle of Karbala. As one scholar has put it, the Shi’ia are “born martyrs.” Iran is the one country you can imagine starting a nuclear war, even if it meant nuclear suicide.

All this would be only of antiquarian interest if it were not that more than half the world’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf. And all that oil is continually riding on the chance that the two sides will not disrupt the flow of oil — or destroy whole oil fields — in their endless, ongoing battles. The stakes are only getting higher. Last week, ISIS rebels in the Sinai Peninsula claimed to have hit an Egyptian naval vessel with a guided missile offshore in the Mediterranean. How long will it be before rival factions are firing guided missiles at oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz?

It is impossible to choose sides in the Middle East. For instance, ever since the 9/11 attack, the United States has considered al-Qaeda to be its prime adversary in the world. Yet last week, Americans found themselves on the same side as al-Qaeda in backing Saudi Arabia’s efforts to expel the Shi’ite Houthi rebels from Yemen. Yet at the very same time, we were negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran that is widely perceived as supporting the Shi’ite faction in the Middle East, in defiance of Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have said they may seek a nuclear weapon themselves if Iran is able to secure one. Imagine a nuclear-armed Iran and Saudi Arabia facing each other across the Persian Gulf while our oil tankers try to escape into the Indian Ocean.

The only reasonable strategy here is to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We still import 20 percent of our oil from the Persian Gulf, with 13 percent coming from Saudi Arabia. This is down from over 30 percent a decade ago, but we can still go further. America’s amazing improvement in oil production has played a part, but we are still dependent on oil for 80 percent of our transport sector. Substituting other kinds of fuels to power our vehicles is the obvious answer.

The Middle East tinder box isn’t going to go away during our lifetime. The obvious solution is to disassociate ourselves as much as possible. Freeing ourselves from our dependence on oil for our transport sector is the first and foremost step forward.

What is Sykes-Picot, and why does it lead to dangerous oil dependence?

The Middle East is a mess. ISIS continues to be a very real threat to its neighbors and to the West. Yet only the United States seems pressured both internally and externally to put boots on the ground. Iraq’s boots appear to be shredded, rendering its troops incapable of fighting the good fight. The country’s Shiite leadership is unable or unwilling to forge strong ties with its moderate Sunni population and create a stronger military force.

Sykes-Picot2Turkey, once considered seriously for European Union membership and a member of NATO, threatens to invade northern Syria and Iraq to protect its border — not from ISIS, but from the most effective U.S. ally in the area, the Kurds. Indeed, the Kurds in northern Iraq, now being armed by the U.S., are the only boots on the ground that appear to be able to go head-to-head against ISIS.

It gets even more bizarre: The U.S. and five other world powers appear close to making a deal to slow down Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Iran hints at the possibility that if sanctions are ended, it could become a trusted ally of the U.S. and join it with troops in fighting ISIS (perhaps even a commitment to help end the Syrian debacle). The U.S., fearing Iran’s real aim is to gain power (hegemony) in the area, likely will turn down Iran’s offer. That decision, while understandable, would in turn increase pressure on the U.S. to send in troops to contain ISIS.

Let’s keep going. Israel and Saudi Arabia, not exactly friends, likely will oppose any concord between the U.S. and Iran, based on the March framework document, fearing that the negotiated trade-offs will hurt their long-term security. In this context, Israel, probably and understandably, prefers to have President Assad in Syria near its border on the Golan Heights than ISIS, despite the fact that Assad is also supported by Iran and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. While some in the White House apparently are ambivalent about the strategy, the U.S. has begun arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria, some of whom are aligned with al-Qaeda spin offs, to fight ISIS, knowing in advance that many of the groups will use the weapons to fight Assad. In this context, because Assad is against ISIS, the U.S. has seemed in recent months to have abandoned any meaningful effort to depose him.

Are you confused? Don’t go away yet! The U.S. alliance against ISIS includes countries that are not beacons of democracy, the rule of law, or freedom for all their people. But they do have oil, or the wealth to secure oil. Qatar, Bahrain, the Emirates, the Egyptians and the Saudis – our friends – have treated minorities and women as second-class citizens. All of them have archaic, sometimes cruel, justice systems. Charges have been made that some of them fund terrorism directly or through fundamentalist religious groups. They do not even meet the basic threshold of human rights standards.

Our Middle East allies also have illustrated unpredictable foreign policy commitments, sometimes inimical to U.S. interests and, in some, instability rests just below the surface.

U.S. policies at the present time are less than coherent. To begin to set a more strategic set of policies toward the Middle East, the nation needs to ask itself why it became so involved in the first place. Simplicity here is a virtue. Oil remains one common thread seeming to link most U.S. initiatives.

Let’s go back to early last century. History books will tell you that Britain and France, in 1916, secretly negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It carved up the Ottoman Empire into nation-states that purposely blunted the sectarian and nationalistic visions of the area’s residents. Britain’s and France’s efforts were driven to a large degree by a desire to capture and access oil reserves. Deals were cut with some pliant Arab leaders, and spheres of influence were established. Promises were made and soon forgotten. Tensions were always visible.

At the time, the U.S. was generally critical of Britain and France for drawing these boundaries. But the boundaries were agreed upon by the League of Nations.

Fast-forward to today: Historical, religious and nationalistic divisions within each nation, and between Middle Eastern nations, remain deep. They are often exacerbated by growing disappointment and anger, particularly among the young, concerning economic, social and civic opportunities that seem lost because of corruption and mismanagement. To the extent that oil is abundant, authoritarian regimes use oil money to buy peace among their populations and sometimes subsidize their neighbors to mute the possibilities of importing the Arab Spring.

Here, the U.S. is no stranger to Middle East skullduggery. Around the turn of the century, American oil companies began wheeling and dealing for desert land, presumed to be rich with oil. During and after World War II, the U.S. government made stability in the Middle East — and American need for Middle East oil and safe oil transit from Middle East nations to its allies and itself — a foreign policy priority, sometimes defined in terms of military action and government replacement. It wasn’t always pretty.

So what are we to do? I will leave the development of foreign policy to the White House and the U.S. State Department, except for one key element – dependency on oil. Oil is traded on a global market. Even if U.S. oil shale continues to expand and reduces our need for Middle East oil, U.S. oil will continue to be traded on the world markets. Oil producers and distributors are not eleemosynary. They are compelled by shareholders to make the largest dollar return possible. Even with oil now selling at a relatively low price, the U.S. still gets about 20 percent of its oil imports from the Middle East, and OPEC nations provide about one-third of our gross crude oil imports. If you add our total imports from the Middle East to the imports of our allies, imports from OPEC are much higher. I bet a red light goes off in the Pentagon whenever there are threats to oil shipping-areas like the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

President Obama has said that we need to wean ourselves off oil and its derivative, gasoline. It’s time we develop a national strategy to wean, and wean in a big way. Borrowing some words from The New York Times on another issue, “It has been said that America is a country that does the right thing, after trying everything else first.” Well, we really haven’t tried much weaning, only rhetoric. Maybe we can make a great leap forward (sorry, Mao) and reach an agreement on an alternative fuel strategy. Let’s increase the use of existing fuels like ethanol now and move to open competitive markets at fuel stations.

When ready for prime market time, let’s foster the sale of natural gas-based ethanol, a range of biofuels, electricity and hydrogen-based fuels. Using alternative fuels will reduce the negative impact of Sykes-Picot on the United States. It will also lower, if not eliminate, the need to engage in conflicts to assure the flow of oil. Nothing is perfect, but increased use of alternative fuels will not only be good for our military budget and take U.S. soldiers out of harm’s way, it will be good for the environment. It will reduce GHG emissions, and likely help expand the job market. May Sykes-Picot rest in peace! Peace!

(Map credit: Stars & Stripes)

Oil, petrodollars and war. Does the U.S. need to permanently police the Middle East?

Soldiers Conduct Combined Clearing OperationThe U.S. interest in going to war or supporting war efforts on behalf of our “democratic” allies like Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is not based, as said by some political leaders, on converting those countries to democracies or providing their citizens with increased freedom. Neither is it, primarily, aimed at reducing terrorism possibilities here at home. For the most part, it is instead aimed at protecting the U.S. and our allies’ interests in oil and stability in some of the most corrupt, autocratic oil-producing states in the Middle East.

Surely, recent history indicates that use of patriotic and compassionate language reflecting America’s historical ethos to justify our actions often wins initial public support for “Operation This” or “Operation That,” but as conflicts drag on and U.S. soldiers, sailors or marines suffer physical and emotional wounds, the gap between articulated justifications and reality becomes clearer to the public. When the fog of war or near-wars lifts a bit, support for U.S. military activity, often becomes muted among the citizenry.

Concern for protecting oil resources, production and distribution has been, and is currently, a paramount objective of the U.S. The U.S. and its allies have helped overturn governments, remake global maps, redefine national or tribal borders, create new nation states and abandon old ones and dispatch national leaders. Contrary to Gen. Powell’s admonition, we sometimes have failed to own the disastrous results of the wars that we have fought (Libya, Iraq, etc.). Based on our own desire for oil, we have tolerated sometimes exotic and many times terrible behavior among private oligarchs and despotic rulers, which, regrettably, often, escapes coverage in text books and in the media. Clearly, the link between our large-scale addiction to oil and its negative political, social and economic consequences in several Middle Eastern countries lacks sustained attention in our public policy dialogue.

The importance of oil and the U.S. willingness to go to war or engage in covert activities to protect it has been intensified by the relationship between petrodollars and the U.S. economy. Since 1944 at The Bretton Woods Conference, the global reserve currency has been the good old U.S. dollar. First, gold was the back-up to the dollar. As reported by the Huffington Post, the dollar was pegged at $35 to an ounce of gold and was freely exchangeable. “But by 1971, convertibility of gold was no longer viable as America’s gold resources had drained away. Instead, the dollar became a pure fiat currency (decoupled from any physical store of value) until the petrodollar agreement was concluded by President Nixon in 1973. The essence of the deal was that the U.S. would agree to military sales and defense of Saudi Arabia in return for all oil trade being denominated in U.S. dollars.” We as a nation committed to go to war in return for ostensible economic benefits and access to oil.

Was it good for the American economy? Sure, at least in the short run. The dollar became the only currency for energy trading. All foreign governments desiring to secure and trade for oil had to hold U.S. currency. The dollar was easily converted into barrels of oil. As the Huffington Post indicated, the dollar costs for oil flowed back into the U.S. financial system. What a deal!

Recently, lower U.S. interest rates, a troubled, slow-growing U.S. economy and the rise of oil-shale production in the U.S. has muted the almost-absolute, four-decade direct relationship between the dollar, and other nations’ need for oil and or export of oil. Instead of “next year in Jerusalem,” some nations like China, Russia and even France and Germany have indicated next year either a return to gold or the use of their own currencies as a peg to trading. However, the petrodollar still plays an important role in the exchange of oil in the global trading system. Its demise, as Mark Twain suggested about reports of his death, is, if not greatly, (at least) somewhat exaggerated. I suspect the petrodollar will be with us for some time.

Our nation’s willingness to militarize support of countries that depart radically from supposed U.S. norms of global behavior (encoded in the U.N Charter and other international agreements), because of their oil resources and the post-World War II emergence of dollar-based trading in oil and its benefits, has muddled U.S. foreign policy. Critics have questioned our not-so benign initiatives in countries throughout the Middle East and, as a result, they have raised issues concerning supposed American exceptionalism.

We have more than just a Hobson choice (that is, there is no real choice at all) if we choose to break from oil dependency. Increased U.S. oil production to secure profits and reach demand will still require both importing and exporting oil. This fact, coupled with the desire to keep the dollar the key oil-trading denomination, will sustain U.S. entanglements and the probability that we will continue to play oil policemen in many places.

A different future could be achieved if we took the president seriously and tried to “wean” ourselves off of oil. Paraphrasing liberally and adding my own meaning, Léon Blum, former French leader, “Life doesn’t give itself to one [nation] who tries to keep all of its advantages at once…morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice [between energy sources and fuels].” The U.S. has not had the political guts yet to really focus on converting from an oil- and gas-based economy and social structure to an alternative energy and fuel-based one (e.g., natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels, electricity and hydro fuels). Such a strategy would allow consumers greater freedom at the pump. It would be fuel agnostic and let consumers pick winners and losers based on cost, and impact on the quality of their lives and the nation’s life. We know that if we do make alternative energy and fuel choices now, based on equity, efficiency, GHG emissions and pollution reduction criteria, we can secure important environmental, economic, social and security benefits. To fail to act is an act itself, one that will harm the nation’s efforts to become the country on the shining hill and pave the way for other countries and itself to access a better, more peaceful future for present children and their children.

 

Photo Credit: www.defense.gov

 

The Saudis and oil prices — the diminishing value of conspiracy theories

saudi_1880139cEveryone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.

I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:

  1. The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
  2. No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
  3. You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
  4. Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.

To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”

The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.

No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.

The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.

President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?

 

Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/

Saudis pay only 45 cents a gallon for gas

The Washington Post has an interesting story about the impact of lower gas prices — meaning the overall price drop since June, taking into account the recent uptick — on consumers in Saudi Arabia. While the government might one day have to make a decision about lowering oil output, thus letting prices climb again, regular citizens aren’t noticing much difference. That’s because Saudis pay about 45 cents a gallon to fill up their vehicles, thanks to government subsidies.

In Saudi Arabia, the general response to the drop in global oil prices by half — from more than $100 a barrel six months ago to around $50 now — is a shrug. Remember all those $60 fill-ups at U.S. pumps when gas was running close to $4 a gallon over the past few years? While your wallet was getting hammered, Saudi Arabia’s was getting stuffed thick. The kingdom has more than $750 billion in cash reserves, which is more than enough to keep the lights on and stave off panic over oil markets.

Not only is the government not sweating the reduced price of oil, it’s continuing with an ambitious program of public works to benefit citizens.

the government could go seven or eight years without trimming back its plans, simply by using its massive reserves, which are equal to 100 percent of annual gross domestic product, to cover budget deficits. More likely … the government would monitor oil prices closely for about 18 months and rethink strategy if they did not rebound.

Saudi Arabia has prospered over the decades thanks, in part, to protection from the U.S., the world’s most prolific consumer of oil. According to this timeline on PBS’s “Frontline” program:

1940-45: Although Saudi Arabia officially maintained neutrality through most of the war, the U.S. began to court the kingdom as it realized the strategic importance of Saudi oil reserves. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt made Saudi Arabia eligible for Lend-Lease assistance by declaring the defense of Saudi Arabia of vital interest to the U.S. In 1945, King Abdel Aziz and President Roosevelt cemented the tacit oil-for-security relationship when they met aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.

The Atlantic: Why the U.S. still needs Saudi Arabia

The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza has some pointed commentary on the longtime U.S.-Saudi alliance, arguing that the United States needs the Middle East kingdom “more than ever.”

Following the death of King Abdullah last week at age 90, following a lung infection, President Obama cited his “enduring contribution to the search for peace” in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was a “man of wisdom and vision.”

Schiavenza then lists the ways in which Saudi policy undermines the American praise, including the lack of rights of women, and the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for defending atheism.

Schiavenza writes:

Contrary to President Obama’s statement, Saudi Arabia’s role in brokering Middle Eastern peace has, at best, been unhelpful. King Abdullah bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt and urged President Obama to use force to preserve Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the country’s leadership in 2013, Riyadh has helped finance his brutal suppression of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has also resisted the rise of Shia movements in the region out of fear that Iran, their main rival, will gain influence. When Shia protesters threatened the Sunni dictatorship in neighboring Bahrain, Saudi Arabia dispatched its military to suppress the uprising. Riyadh’s support of Syrian rebels, too, has backfired: Islamic State fighters have benefited from Saudi money and weapons.

The reason the United States continues to “put up with” Saudi Arabia, the writer contends, is oil. And despite ramped-up production in the U.S. shale-oil fields, the U.S. will continue to need Saudi oil. Currently there’s a glut that might worsen, since Abdullah’s successor, his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz, appears unlikely to reduce oil production to stem the drop in price. Right now the U.S. produces about 9 million barrels of oil a day, comparable with Saudi output.

But the kingdom, which is the leading oil-producer in OPEC (which controls 40 percent of the world’s oil supply), is “well-positioned to survive a sustained drop in the price of oil,” Schiavenza writes, adding:

Riyadh generally needs oil to trade at $80 a barrel in order to balance its budget. But with $750 billion stashed away in reserve, the kingdom faces little pressure to reduce supply and raise the price. In addition, Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC members Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have proved reserves of 460 billion barrels. The United States, by contrast, has proved reserves of just 10 billion—and the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that American shale oil production will plateau in 2020.

Saudis might actually increase oil output

Saudi Arabia isn’t cutting production anytime soon, despite lobbying from some of the 12-nation cartel’s members to try to stem falling oil prices. In fact, the Saudis might actually boost output to gain new customers.

Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, said it’s not in OPEC’s interest to cut production quotas no matter how far prices fall:

After a weekend of comments from several Gulf OPEC members reiterating their intent not to intervene in oil markets, despite oil prices that have halved since June, Ali al-Naimi told the Middle East Economic Survey it was “not in the interest of OPEC producers to cut their production, whatever the price is” — his starkest comments yet.

Naimi also said the Saudis might boost output instead to grow their market share and that oil “may not” trade at $100 again. “The best thing for everybody is to let the most efficient producers produce,” he told a conference in Abu Dhabi at the weekend.

Olivier Jakob, an oil analyst at Petromatrix OIl in Switzerland, commented in an earlier version of the Reuters story:

“We are going down because you have some OPEC ministers who come every day making statements trying to drive the market down. … They come every day to convey the message that they are not doing anything to restrict supplies and that they basically want oil prices to move lower to reduce production in the U.S.”

Brent crude dropped $1.33, to $60.05.

Four new anticipated novels about the decline of oil and gas prices

Harlequin novel cover“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” said John Naisbitt, American author and public speaker. Because of this fact, intuition and instinct, rather than rational thinking, often guides leadership behavior. Guess right, based on what your intuitive self or instinct tells you concerning your iterative policy decisions — particularly the big ones — and the payoff for you and the nation may well be significant. Guess wrong, and the nation could be hurt in various ways and you might not be around for a long time, or get buried in an office close to a windowless washroom. Charles Lindblom, noted political scientist, probably said it correctly when he noted that in complex environments we often make policy by “muddling through.”

Confusion reigns and analyses are opaque and subject to quick amendment concerning the current, relatively rapid decline in oil and gasoline prices. Indeed, key government institutions such as the EIA (Energy Information Administration) and the IEA (International Energy Agency) appear to change their predictions of prices of both, almost on a daily basis. Oil and gas production, as well as price evaluations and predictions resulting from today’s imprecise methodologies and our inability to track cause-and-effect relationships, convert into intriguing fodder for novels. They do not often lend themselves to strategic policy direction on the part of both public and private sector. Sometimes, they do seem like the stuff of future novels, part fiction, and, perhaps, part facts.

Ah … the best potential novels on the decline of oil and gas, particularly ones based on foreign intrigue, will likely provide wonderful bedtime reading, even without the imputed sex and content of the old Harlequin book covers and story lines. Sometimes their plots will differ, allowing many hours of inspirational reading.

Here are some proposed titles and briefs on the general theme lines for four future novels:

An Unholy Alliance: The Saudis and Qatar have joined together in a new alliance of the willing, after secret conversations (likely in a room under a sand dune with air conditioning built by Halliburton, in an excavated shale play in the U.S., a secret U.S. spaceship, or Prince Bandar’s new jet). They have agreed to resist pressure from their colleagues in OPEC and keep both oil production and prices low. By doing so, they and their OPEC friends would negatively affect the Russian and Iranian economy and limit ISIS’s ability to convert oil into dollars. Why not? The Russians and the Shiite-dominated Iranians have supported Syria’s Assad and threated the stability of Iraq. Qatar and the Saudis support the moderate Syrian rebels (if we can find them) but not ISIS, and are afraid that Iran wants to develop hegemony over Iraq and the region, if they end up with the bomb. Further, ISIS, even though it’s against Assad, is not composed of the good kind of Sunnis, and has learned a bit from the Saudis about evil doings. If ISIS succeeds in enlarging the caliphate, it will threaten their kingdoms and the Middle East. According to a mole in the conversations, Russia was really thrown into the mix because, sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to show that you might be helping the West while paying attention to market share.

OPEC in Fantasy Land: Most OPEC members see U.S. oil under their bed at night and have recurring nightmares. “Why,” they asked, “can’t we go back to the future; the good old days when OPEC controlled or significantly influenced oil production and prices in the world?” Several members argued for a counter intuitive agreement.

Let’s surprise the world and go against our historical behavior. Let’s keep prices low, even drive them lower. It will be tough on some of us, whose budgets and economy depend on high oil prices per barrel, but perhaps our “partner” nations who have significant cash reserves, like my brothers (the hero of this novel started to say sisters, but just couldn’t do it) in the Kingdom, can help out.

Driving prices lower, agreed the Saudis, will increase our collective market share (really referring to Saudi Arabia), and may permanently mute any significant competition from countries such as Russia, Mexico, Iraq, Venezuela, and others. But, most importantly, it will probably undercut U.S. producers and lead to a cutback in U.S. production. After all, U.S. production costs are generally higher than ours. Although some delegates questioned comparative production cost numbers and the assumption that the U.S. and its consumer-driven politics will fold, the passion of the Saudis will win the day. OPEC will decide to continue at present production levels and become the Johnny Manziels of oil. Money, money, money? Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy!

Blame it on the Big Guys: The U.S. will not escape from being labeled as the prime culprit in some upcoming novels on oil. The intuitive judgments will go something like this: Don’t believe what you hear! U.S. producers, particularly the big guys, while worried about the fall in oil and gas prices, on balance, believe both will have intermediate and long-term benefits. They have had it their way for a long time and intuitively see a rainbow around every tax subsidy corner.

Why? Are they mad? No? Their gut, again, tells them that what goes down must come up, and they are betting for a slow upward trend next on the following year. Meanwhile, technology has constrained drilling costs. Most feel they can weather the reduced prices per barrel and per gallon. But unlike the Saudis and other OPEC members, they are not under the literal gun to meet national budget estimates concerning revenue. Like the Saudis, however, with export flexibility in sight from Congress, many producers see future market share as a major benefit.

Split Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities exist among the U.S. producers. Jekyll, reflecting the dominant, intuitive feeling, supports low prices. The Saudis and OPEC can be beaten at their own game. We have more staying power and can, once and for all time, reduce the historic power of both concerning oil. While we are at it, big oil can help the government put economic and political pressure on Russia, Iran and ISIS, simultaneously. Wow, we may be able to get a grant, change our image, a Medal of Freedom and be included in sermons on weekends!

Hyde, who rarely shows up at the oil company table until duty calls, now joins the group. He offers what he believes is sage, intuitive advice. He is the oldest among the group and plays the “you’re too young to know card” a bit, much to the chagrin of his younger colleagues. He expresses some rosy instincts about the oil market but acknowledges the likelihood that the future is uncertain and, no matter what, price cycles will continue. He acknowledges that there might be a temporary reduction of the political pressure to open up the fuel markets and to develop alternative fuels because of present relatively low prices. However, based on talking to his muses — both liberals and free market conservatives — and reading the New York Times, he suggests that it might not be a bad idea to explore joining with the alternative fuel folks. Indeed, Hyde indicates that he favors adding alternative fuel production to the production menu of many oil companies. If this occurred, oil companies could hedge bets against future price gyrations and maybe even win back some public support in the process. The industry also might be able to articulate their overblown claim that the “drill, baby, drill” mantra will make the U.S. oil independent. (At this point, the background music in the room becomes quite romantic, and angelic figures appear!) Hyde doubt that going after global market share would bring significant or major early rewards because of current regulations concerning exports and may interfere with the health of the industry in the future as well as get in the way of the country’s still-evolving foreign policy objectives.

Tough sell, however! Contrary to Hyde’s desires, Jekyll carries the day and “kill the bastards” (assumedly the Saudis) becomes the marching orders or mantra. Let’s go get ‘em. Market share belongs to America. Let’s go see our favorite congressperson. We helped him or her get elected; now is the time for him or her to help us eliminate export barriers. A U.S. flag emerges in the future novel. Everyone stands. The oil groupies are in tears. Everybody is emotional. Even Hyde breaks down and, unabashedly, cries.

David and Goliath: Israel has also become a lead or almost lead character in many potential novels on oil. According to its story line, because of Israel’s need for certainty concerning U.S. defense commitments, it has convinced the “best in the west” to avoid a significant reduction in drilling for and the production of oil. Israel advises the U.S. to extend its security-related oil reserves! Glut and surplus are undefined terms. Compete with the Saudis. Drive the price of oil lower and weaken your and our enemies, particularly Iran and Russia. The U.S. should play a new and more intense oil market role. For some, an alliance among U.S.-Israel and other western nations to keep oil and gas prices low is not unimaginable and, indeed, seems quite possible. What better way to anesthetize Iran and Russia? Better than war! An Iran and a Russia unable to unload their oil at what it believes are prices sufficient to support their national budgets would be weakened nations, unable to sustain themselves and meet assumed dual objectives: defense and butter. Finally, what more “peaceful” way to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, to some extent, than to cut off Iran’s ability to lend them support?

Each of the future novels summarized above clearly suggests some reality driven by what we know. But overall, each one has a multitude of equally intuitive critics with different facts, hypotheses, intuition and instincts. As indicated earlier, it is too bad we cannot generate better more stable analyses and predictions. For now, however, just realize how complex it is to rest policy as well as behavior on, many times, faulty projections and intuition or instinct. Borrowing a quote by the noted comic and philosopher, George Carlin, “tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” Similarly, restating but changing and adding words, a quote from the Leonard Bernstein of science, Carl Sagan, that the nuclear arms race (if it does occurs in the Middle East) will be like many “sworn enemies waist-deep in gasoline,” the majority with many matches and one or two with only a few matches.

Novels and Alternative Fuels:

Where does this all leave us with respect to alternative fuels and open fuel markets? Too many producers and their think tank friends believe that low oil and gas prices will reduce the likelihood that alternative fuels will become a real challenge to them in the near future. They, instinctively, opine that investors, without patient money, will not risk funding the development of alternative fuels because prices of oil and gas are so low. Further, their “house” economists argue that consumers will be less prone to switch from gasoline to alternative replacement fuels in light of small or non-existent price differentials between the two.

The truth is that we just don’t know yet how the market for alternative fuels and its potential investors will respond in the short term to the oil and gas price crash. Similarly, we don’t know how long relatively low prices at the pump will last. We do know that necessity has been and, indeed, is now the mother (or father) of some very important U.S. innovations and investor cash. In this context, it is conceivable that some among the oil industry may well add alternative fuels to their portfolio to mute boom, almost boom and almost bust or bust periods that have affected the industry from time immemorial. Put another way, protecting the bottom line and sustaining predictable growth may well, in the future, mean investing in alternative fuels.

Low gas prices presently will likely be followed by higher prices. This is not a projection. History tells us this: importantly, lower gas prices now may well build a passionate coalition of consumers ready to, figuratively, march, if gas prices begin to significantly trend upward. The extra money available to consumers because “filling ‘er up” costs much less now, could well become part of household, political DNA. Keeping fuel prices in line for most consumers, long term, will require competition from alternative fuels — electricity, natural gas, natural gas-based ethanol, methanol, bio fuels, etc. Finally, while our better community-based selves may be dulled now by lower gas prices, most Americans will probably accept a better fuel mousetrap than gasoline because of their commitment to the long-term health and welfare of the nation. But the costs must be competitive with gasoline, and the benefits must be real concerning GHG reduction, an enhanced environment and less oil imports. My intuition and instincts (combined with numerous studies) tell me they will be! Happy Holidays!

Hofmeister interviewed on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press’

John Hofmeister, a Fuel Freedom board advisor and the former president of Shell Oil Co., appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Nov. 23 to discuss the falling price of oil.

Watch a clip here:

Watch the entire “MTP” program here (Hofmeister comes on about the 35:20 mark), and read the transcript here.

Hofmeister, appearing along with author Daniel Yergin, was asked by host Chuck Todd whether lower-priced oil amounted to an extra sanction against Russia and Iran, which already are burdened by sanctions — Russia for its actions in Ukraine and Iran for its pursuit of a nuclear program.

Hofmeister replied:

It is. It’s an extra sanction because it reduces their economic clout. Well, we’ve seen what happened to the Russian ruble. Iran is not able to subsidize many of its programs.

CHUCK TODD:

They need to have oil to be at $100 or more a barrel for them to balance their budget.

JOHN HOFMEISTER:

Yeah, the estimates are Russia needs well over $100, Iran even more. And the consequence of that is the people of Russia, the people of Iran will suffer as a consequence of the low oil price. That’s why the panicked feeling within the OPEC meeting coming up on Thursday.

As we know, at that meeting, OPEC decided not to cut production quotas, effectively ensuring that oil prices would not stabilize in the near future.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest producer, now believes that oil will settle at about $60, down from about $110 over the summer.

Hofmeister said that, despite the worldwide surplus of oil, the U.S. should keep pumping, in anticipation of demand coming back:

… the reality is, we will be short of oil in the world over the next several years as global growth exceeds oil production. So we need all the production we can have. We need all the infrastructure we can build to make sure the U.S. is taken care of.

Hofmeister, author of the book Why We Hate the Oil Companies, has much more to say about oil in the Fuel Freedom-produced documentary PUMP. The film is now available for pre-order on iTunes. Visit PumpTheMovie.com to watch a trailer and learn more.