The future of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez started to look precarious last January. It was then that CNN announcers began referring to him as a “Latin American strongman.”
The term suggests a dictator, so it actually doesn’t fit Chavez, who’s twice been democratically elected in national elections.
But to millions of Americans, Chavez has been presented as a strongman, a dictator, a mini-Saddam. So they probably won’t be concerned if he’s assassinated, as Christian fundamentalist leader Pat Robertson last week publicly urged the Bush administration to do.
Only two years after it toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Washington seems anxious to get rid of yet another unco-operative leader of a nation very rich in oil and largely defenseless.
Of course, as with Iraq, Venezuela’s ample oil reserves are never acknowledged as a possible motive. This is striking, since oil has been taking on even more significance lately. The reason is simple: The world seems to be fast reaching the point where there won’t be enough oil available to meet the world’s ever-growing demand.
So the scramble to get control of oil, a central feature of the global power struggle for decades, seems poised to get more intense.
The higher gasoline prices we’ve experienced in recent months are probably just a small taste of the ramped-up competition for oil that lies ahead. Many commentators insist these higher prices are just a temporary blip, and scoff at the notion of dwindling oil supplies.
For instance, David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, insisted in a piece in the National Post earlier this year that there is plenty of oil. In a stunning bit of logic, Frum likened the supply of oil to the supply of tomatoes. If demand for tomatoes rises, the supermarket will stock more. And so it is, Frum insisted, with oil.
But outside the make-believe world inhabited by Frum and his former colleagues in the Bush White House, oil isn’t actually like tomatoes.
Unlike tomatoes, oil produces no seeds. It’s a finite resource, much of which was produced by a special set of climate conditions more than 80 million years ago.
Excessive consumption has contributed greatly to the potentially catastrophic problem of global warming. It’s also meant we’ve used up about half of the Earth’s most versatile and effective form of energy.
Perhaps it’s reassuring to know we’re only halfway through the supply. But the first half is the easy-to-reach stuff; the oil that can be pumped almost effortlessly from the ground. Getting the rest out of the Earth’s crust is much more complicated and expensive.
A growing number of experts, including British oil geologist Colin Campbell and U.S. energy banker Matthew Simmons, question the notion that there’s no limit to what oil technology can do and insist the world may soon find itself wanting more oil than can be produced daily.
This would be a crisis of major proportions. “The scale of change (that would be required) is enormous because of the pervasive use of oil worldwide,” warns Simmons.
A report last February by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory was even more alarming.
“The world has never faced a problem like this,” the report noted. “… Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”
It’s hard to imagine it won’t also be violent. The U.S. has long maintained that access to oil is essential to its “national security.” The problem is that the U.S. consumes 25 per cent of all the oil produced worldwide each year, yet has only 3 per cent of world oil reserves. As supplies diminish, the U.S. will be particularly vulnerable, and vulnerability is not something it accepts lightly.
Indeed, Washington’s hostility toward Chavez seemed to grow after he signed far-reaching oil deals last December with America’s emerging rival, China.
Media reports often suggest the Bush administration dislikes Chavez because it considers him undemocratic. The fact that he’s sitting on the biggest oil reserve outside the Middle East while thumbing his nose at America might actually be more of a factor.
Linda McQuaig is the author of It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet, to be published in paperback by Doubleday Canada this month.