The Sum Of All Fears  

Posted by Big Gav

One clear risk to the world economy at the moment is the possibility that peak oil will have a sudden onset - in the form of a revolution in Saudi Arabia or a series of well targeted attacks on oil infrastructure.

Hopefully the neocons take the green option rather than simply trying to occupy as many oil producing regions as they can (which doesn't appear to be very many based on the Iraq experience).

Stopping this flow is easier than many think. More than half of Saudi oil reserves are found in just eight fields; two-thirds of all Saudi crude is processed at a single mega-facility in Abqaiq, near the Gulf of Bahrain. From here, the oil is shipped through two primary terminals. The larger of the two, Ras Tanura, processes a tenth of the world's oil supply daily; the other, Yanbu, is connected to Abqaiq by an unprotected 750-mile umbilical pipeline. Were a terrorist cell to hijack a few planes in Kuwait and crash them into these facilities—soft targets all—it could take up to 50 percent of Saudi oil off the market for at least six months and with it most of the world's spare capacity, sending oil prices through the ceiling, predicts Gal Luft.

Meanwhile, Saudi assurances about the security of their facilities get emptier by the day. Al Qaeda attacks in the Kingdom have been on the rise since the invasion of Iraq, beginning with a series of May 2003 Riyadh bombings and continuing with last month's daring attack on the U.S. Consulate compound in Jeddah. All signs point to major attempts on Saudi oil infrastructure sooner rather than later.

Even if it were possible to secure the world's major processing and shipping facilities, there is no way to secure the tens of thousands of miles of aboveground pipelines that traverse every major oil producing country, from the Gulf states to Uzbekistan to Nigeria. The aortic imagery often found in jihadist communiqu├ęs about oil—"The artery of the life of the crusader's nation!"—is both a strategic insight for jihad and a physical description of oil's role in the global economy. If the Saudi mega-refinery in Abqaiq is a giant exposed beating heart, then the world's pipelines are vast networks of soft, external veins, easily pierced with the military equivalent of an insulin syringe from the local pharmacy.

"Systems sabotage is amazingly effective," says analyst John Robb. "Small attacks that cost less than $2,000 have caused billions in damages—a return on investment of 100,000 times. Most 'inside the beltway' analysts don't understand systems theory. So they focus on large scale attacks on major facilities, but these aren't necessary. As we have seen in Iraq, protecting major facilities doesn't matter if you sever the connections between them."

As it happens, the solution to the emerging sabotage threat is the same as the solution to Peak Oil: move the world economy away from dependence on oil as quickly as humanly possible. To do this, nothing less than a global Manhattan Project is needed, led by the United States and Europe in concert.

This radical view is becoming less radical in some corners of the national security establishment. This September, a cluster of conservative think tanks put forth a document named "Set America Free," calling for increased fuel-efficiency and the rapid development of renewable energy. At a press conference later this week in Washington, the original signatories—including the Hudson Institute, the Center for Security Policy and the Foundation for Defense of Democracy—will be joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation's largest environmental group. This Green-Hawk alliance is just the latest manifestation of the spreading anxiety over the ticking clocks of depletion and sabotage. One way or the other, the Age of Oil is coming to an end, and soon. The only question is what we're going to do about it.

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