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Column: What role does oil play in modern day wars?

While we can’t definitively rule out the possibility that the US attacking Iraq and Libya to seize control of their oil supplies, when all factors are considered one thing is missing from this hypothesis: a compelling reason, writes Scott Fitzsimons.

“NO BLOOD FOR Oil” and “No Wars for Oil” have been popular slogans among critics of most US-led military campaigns since the Gulf War in 1990. Critics levelled particular scorn upon the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bombing of Libya in 2011 because, unlike other recent targets of US military power, like Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, these countries have oil-based economies and large petrochemical reserves.

It is not feasible to definitively rule out the possibility that the US attacked these countries to seize control of their oil supplies. What can be demonstrated, however, is that the US lacked a compelling reason to wage “wars for oil” during the past decade.

The world’s oil supply

Although the total supply of oil on Earth is finite, neither humanity in general nor the US in particular are in danger of running out of oil any time soon. On the contrary, new exploration and exploitation technologies, like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, have led to steady increases in the number of exploitable deposits of oil and other fossil fuels during the past three decades.

Israel’s offshore natural gas deposits, Canada’s vast deposits of heavy crude, and the US’s unparalleled reserves of shale oil and gas represent just a few of the enormous petrochemical sources made viable by relatively recent technological developments. In fact, the US’s reserves of shale oil and gas are so immense that, as its exploitation technology continues to improve, it could become the world’s leading oil producer by 2020 and a net exporter of fossil fuel-based energy by 2030.

The US government is well-aware of the fact that it has and will continue to have secure access to very large supplies of oil and other fossil fuels for generations and, thus, little need to seize foreign supplies by force.

Iraq and Libya would have made poor targets

Even if the US had been desperate for oil during the past decade, Iraq and Libya would have made poor targets. Iraq contributed less than three percent of global oil production in 2002, the last full year of production before the US-led invasion. Libya, similarly, contributed merely two percent of global production in 2010.

The US could not, therefore, have expected to gain access to a significant volume of readily-available oil in either country. Moreover, given that the US consumed about 25 percent of the oil produced around the world during the past decade, about half of which was imported, seizing control of Iraq and Libya’s oil fields would not have freed it from its current dependence on imports from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and a handful of other major suppliers.

It is, of course, still possible that the US attacked Iraq and Libya in order to force them to grant US firms access to their oil sectors. One problem with this rationale is that US oil companies were already earning considerable revenue from refining, distributing, and selling Iraqi and Libyan oil in the US before the US-led attacks took place.

Moreover, trying to seize their oil supplies by force would have been an extremely expensive and risky way to go about increasing access for US firms, especially because, whether directly or as a result of reprisal attacks, attacking these countries could have seriously damaged the very oil production and transportation infrastructure that US firms would have needed to use at the conclusion of the conflict.

US oil companies

A cheaper and less risky way to improve US firms’ access to the Iraqi and Libyan oil sectors would have been for the US government to offer to remove the long-standing economic and political sanctions it helped impose on these countries in exchange for fair access to production and transportation contracts. US oil companies evidently favoured this approach.

In May of 1997, multiple US oil firms, including Exxon, Occidental Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, and Conoco, launched a concerted lobbying effort to try to convince their government to lift sanctions against Iraq as a means of improving their access to its oil sector. Archie Dunham, the then-CEO of Conoco, reflected the sentiments of US oil firms quite well when he stated that, “US companies, not rogue regimes, are the ones that suffer when the United States imposes economic sanctions.”

An even less risky alternative to war would have been to work toward increasing US firms’ access to the oil supplies of Canada and some of the other major suppliers to the US market by bolstering their oil production and transportation infrastructure. For example, increasing political and fiscal support for completing the Keystone Pipeline, which is designed to transport up to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from Canada to refineries in several states, would have allowed the US to import a far greater quantity of oil than it could plausibly extract from Iraq or Libya and at a small fraction of the cost.

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Alternative supplies – Canada, Mexico, and Brazil

The US, in fact, successfully pursued this very approach during the past decade by investing financial and political capital to improve its access to oil produced in friendly countries, like Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, while simultaneously decreasing its reliance on oil supplies located in hostile countries, like Venezuela, and countries in unstable areas of the world, like the middle east. These efforts, along with booming domestic production, removed any need to try to seize foreign oil reserves by force.

Regardless of whether one accepts these rationales, the US’s post-war experience in Iraq and Libya should serve as a cautionary tale for any government that may wish to launch a “war for oil” in the near future.

Despite the US’s central role in the recent military campaigns against these countries, and its considerable investment of lives, money, and political capital, it currently imports virtually the same amount of oil from these countries as it did before it attacked them.

Military force

In other words, if the US genuinely sought to use military force to secure greater access to Iraqi and Libyan oil, it failed miserably. Likewise, US oil companies have not dominated post-war oil production in either country. On the contrary, US-based oil companies currently hold only a handful of production contracts in Iraq, with firms headquartered in Iraq, China, South Korea, and host of European countries collectively handling a majority of Iraq’s current production.

The situation in Libya is even worse for US firms since its oil sector is still dominated by the state-own Libyan firms that flourished under the Gaddafi regime. This should not be surprising given that Iraq and Libya are sovereign states that have chosen to exert their rightful control over their most valuable natural resources. In light of the US’s experience in Iraq and Libya, the prospect of trying to seize foreign oil supplies by force can be seen for what it truly is: a fool’s errand.

Scott Fitzsimmons is a Lecturer in International Relations in the University of Limerick’s Department of Political Science, where he teaches modules on the causes of wars.

Read: EU reveals plans to buy oil from rebel-held parts of Syria>

INFOGRAPHIC: How does oil get to Ireland>

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