It always comes back to oil. The continuing misguided interventions in the Middle East by the United States and the United Kingdom have their roots deep in the Arabian sand. Ever since Winston Churchill led the conversion of Britain’s navy from coal to oil at the start of the last century, the Western powers have meddled incessantly in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries to keep the oil flowing, toppling governments and taking sides in wars in the supposed “great game of energy resources. But the game is almost over, because the old approaches are obviously failing. Just when one is lulled into thinking that something other than oil is at the root of current U.S. and UK action in Iraq, reality pulls us back. Indeed, President George W. Bush recently invited journalists to imagine the world 50 years from now. He did not have in mind the future of science and technology, or a global population of 9 billion, or the challenges of climate change and biodiversity. Instead, he wanted to know whether Islamic radicals would control the world’s oil. Whatever we are worrying about in 50 years, this will surely be near the bottom of the list. Even if it were closer to the top, overthrowing Saddam Hussein to ensure oil supplies in 50 years ranks as the least plausible of strategies. Yet we know from a range of evidence that this is what was on Bush’s mind when his government shifted its focus from the search for Osama bin Laden to fighting a war in Iraq. Saddam’s overthrow was the longstanding pet idea of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, which was already arguing in the 1990s that Saddam was likely to achieve a stranglehold over “a significant proportion of the world’s oil supplies. Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated those fears in the run-up to the Iraq war, claiming that Saddam was building a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to “take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies. Cheney’s facts were wrong, but so was his logic. Dictators like Saddam make their living by selling their oil, not by holding it in the ground. Perhaps, though, Saddam was too eager to sell oil concessions to French, Russian, and Italian companies rather than British and U.S. companies. In any event, the war in Iraq will not protect the world’s energy supplies in 50 years. If anything, the war will threaten those supplies by stoking the very radicalism it claims to be fighting. Genuine energy security will come not by invading and occupying the Middle East, or by attempting to impose pliant governments in the region, but by recognizing certain deeper truths about global energy. First, energy strategy must satisfy three objectives: low cost, diverse supply, and drastically reduced carbon dioxide emissions. This will require massive investments in new technologies and resources, not a “fight to the finish over Middle East oil. Important energy technologies will include conversion of coal to liquids (such as gasoline), use of tar sands and oil shale, and growth in non-fossil-fuel energy sources. Indeed, there is excellent potential for low-cost solar power, zero-emitting coal-based technologies, and safe and reliable nuclear power. Solar radiation equals roughly 10,000 times our current energy use. We tap that solar power in many fundamental ways – food production, wind power, hydroelectric power, solar heating, solar-thermal electricity, solar panels – but the possibilities for greatly increased use of inexpensive, widely available, and environmentally friendly solar power are huge. Coal, like solar energy, is widely available. It is already inexpensive, but it is a solid rather than a liquid, a major pollutant, and a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet all of these problems can be solved, especially if we make the needed investments in research and development. Gasification of coal allows for the removal of dangerous pollutants, and coal can already be converted to gasoline at low cost; a South African company is beginning to bring that technology to China on a large scale. Nuclear power, both fission-based and fusion-based, is yet another possibility for vast, reliable, secure, and environmentally safe primary energy. Here, too, there are technological obstacles, but they seem surmountable. Of course, there are also major political, regulatory, and security considerations, all of which need to be addressed properly. It is ironic that an administration fixated on the risks of Middle East oil has chosen to spend hundreds of billions – potentially trillions – of dollars to pursue unsuccessful military approaches to problems that can and should be solved at vastly lower cost, through research and development, regulation, and market incentives. The biggest energy crisis of all, it seems, involves the misdirected energy of a U.S. foreign policy built on war rather than scientific discovery and technological progress.
Jeffrey Sachs is a professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).