any war worth its salt deserves a nifty conspiracy theory, and the war on terrorism is no exception. Here's how it goes: the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan is not really aimed at toppling the Taliban and nabbing Osama bin Laden, it's about gaining access to Central Asian oil and natural gas.Just as in the Gulf War, American troops are fighting to keep gasoline prices low and factories humming, led by a commander-in-chief with intimate ties to the oil industry.
And indeed, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, there's little doubt that overthrowing the Taliban could be economically advantageous to the U.S. At least one U.S. oil company, Unocal, spent much of the 1990s striving to start work on a pipeline that would cross Afghanistan and connect Central Asia to Pakistan and India. The continuing civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance made any such plans unrealizable, but the possibility remains.
The Caspian basin -- a region that includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- does have largely untapped oil and gas reserves. If the U.S.-led coalition succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan, new pipelines could finally be constructed. Access to Central Asian oil and gas might well decrease the western world's dependence on the Middle East.
And it's that last possibility that has most long-time followers of the oil biz and Mideast politics intrigued. Anything that offers a chance of eliminating the choke-hold the Mideast has over the world's oil supplies demands serious attention.
A replacement for Persian Gulf oil would allow the U.S. to extricate itself from its intimate embrace of repressive regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia.
But unfortunately for conspiracy theorists the role that Central Asia might play in the story of worldwide energy has been substantially overestimated.
Even if ways are found to get oil and gas out of Central Asia -- a task that will be expensive and difficult -- the truth is that there just isn't enough fuel there to make a significant difference. The most wildly optimistic estimates coming from U.S. government analysts theorize that the region has only 200 billion barrels of oil, which means that Caspian oil supplies are decidedly second-tier -- far smaller than what's known to exist in Saudi Arabia alone and about as substantial as oil fields now being developed off the coast of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil.
Barring a radical shift in technology or worldwide demand, the oil and gas of the Caspian basin will remain only marginal in importance for at least the next 20 years. And as long as oil-producing countries outside the Persian Gulf can't supply all the world's needs, Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the world's largest producer of oil, will have the power to set the all-important price of oil on world markets. Which means that -- barring the unlikely prospect of a direct western takeover of Mideast oil fields, or the even unlikelier prospect of a concerted American effort to curb its voracious hunger for fossil fuels -- the U.S. and its allies will still have to kowtow to Gulf countries, no matter how corrupt or repressive their rulers are.
"Even if the United States got 100 per cent of the output from the Caspian over the next couple of decades, about 7 to 10 million barrels a day, it wouldn't be enough," says Daniel Butler, an energy analyst with the U.S. department of energy. "The Persian Gulf will still have a huge amount of leverage."
Most Central Asian oil is believed to be in the Kashagan field, under the Caspian Sea itself, a body of water bordered by Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. There has never been any treaty dividing up ownership -- today, all five countries surrounding the sea have staked competing claims to the water and to what lies beneath it.
Ironing out the dispute won't just be difficult; it could be impossible, says John Voll, an Islamic history and international affairs professor at Georgetown University. "Caspian oil can cause a lot of problems," he says, noting that a war between Azerbaijan and Iran could easily erupt over the Caspian, since these two countries have been on bad terms since the 19th century.
And even if jurisdictional issues were settled, getting oil rigs and other supplies into the sea would be challenging, says Amy Jaffe of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "You can't just build the rigs and pull them in with tugboats, because the sea is landlocked," she says.
The Caspian will likely never become one of world's top oil-producing regions.
The gap widens even further when one takes into account that countries like Saudi Arabia could be producing millions more but have so far chosen to hold back, as part of an ongoing struggle to stabilize prices.
If oil prices spiked to $30 per barrel, solar power would be a viable alternative, says Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley. At $50, it becomes economical to extract shale oil, says Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.
But the bottom line is that the Gulf states, with their ability to ramp up production to meet growing demand, will still control the market.
If the U.S. were to withdraw from the Gulf entirely, the prospects could be disastrous in the short term.
Can the Persian Gulf stranglehold ever be broken?
Radical cuts in demand, technology breakthroughs or the discovery of another Persian Gulf could rearrange the energy chessboard.
But the amount of oil still untapped in the world -- and, more to the point, still remaining in the Persian Gulf -- makes it difficult to envision a scenario in which prices will rise enough to force the development of alternatives. It costs $15 to extract a barrel of oil in the U.S., but it costs less than $2 in Saudi Arabia.
"The Middle East has been central to U.S. strategy since the end of World War II," says Yahya Sadowski, an energy analyst and professor at the American University in Beirut. "Whoever controls the oil there, which is not just available in larger quantities but at much lower costs of production, holds the global economy by the throat."
Getting out of the Persian Gulf will ultimately take years and possibly decades, says Butler at the energy department. "It's considerably difficult," he says. "From the oil standpoint, our stance toward Saudi Arabia will not change because it can't." So, would we still have to engage with Saudi Arabia even if the country continues to fund and support radical movements that are directly opposed to the United States?
"Yes," he says, "even then we still have to deal with them."