Honest John ?  

Posted by Big Gav

This wasn't the best week to begin winter hibernation it seems. Given that this subject has been one of my longstanding gripes about our dysfunctional political landscape I can't really let it slide past without some brief comments.

According to The Age and The SMH, John Howard and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson have finally decided to adopt the realist position on the Iraq war and admit that it is about controlling the oil. As I've been moaning for many years, Iraq has the world's largest and cheapest to extract reserves of oil and is thus the biggest resource prize on the planet, with a lot of power accruing to those who can successfully control it (given current patterns of energy usage).

Leaving the morality of the situation aside, the debate should now focus on a full cost benefit analysis of whether or not the price we are currently paying (and will continue to pay for many years into the future) for this exercise in militant mercantilism is actually worth it. As an added side benefit, this would end up demonstrating the full cost of the petrol that goes into our tanks, not the ridiculous underestimate given by the price on the bowser.

A few line items to consider:

- the cost of military action in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east, including both regular and "contractor" forces in the region
- the cost of caring for and/or rehabilitating all the people damaged by the war
- the cost of all the "war on terror" apparatus we've constructed to deal with the blowback generated by our long term policies in the region - including the surveillance state infrastructure, the massive expansion of the organisations supporting it in recent years and all the attendant hassles associated with air travel and other such red tape
- the long term cost to the international reputations of the countries involved in the war
- the long term cost of the massive public debt run up by the US government funding the war
- the long term cost of the reduction of civil liberties and the reduction in transparency of government actions
- etc etc

The alternative is switching our economies to alternative energy supplies. In the short term this simply involves increasing fuel efficiency enough to avoid any dependence on middle east oil - if you look at the relative inefficiency of the US and Australia compared to other developed nations demonstrated by the graph from the Economist below you'll see that this isn't as difficult a task as you would imagine. If we were as efficient as Japan (a much more heavily industrialised country than Australia), we wouldn't have any dependence on middle east oil at all. The US situation is the same.

In the longer term, switching away from oil use entirely by converting our transport systems to electric power (with the added side benefit of helping to solve our global warming problem by powering it all with clean energy) has the potential to spark the largest economic boom in history - particularly for the technology industry - so its not like the US as a whole will lose out from this transition (things might be a little trickier for Australia but I suspect we'll become the world's uranium mine anyway which will more than make up for it in financial terms).

When the sums are done, which option do you think will result in greater energy security and a better economic outcome for us ? I know which one I'd be putting money on - and its not the one that involves spending another 30 years fighting in Iraq and wherever else oil can be found.

Update: Apparently Johnny is now saying that oil has nothing to do with it after all. Oh well - for a brief moment I thought we might be able to consider what our options are in a reasoned way - once again I wasn't being cynical enough. Back to hibernating I go...

From The Age - "Nelson: Oil a factor in Iraq deployment".
The Howard Government has today admitted that securing oil supplies is a factor in Australia's continued military involvement in Iraq. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said today oil was a factor in Australia's contribution to the unpopular war, as "energy security" and stability in the Middle East would be crucial to the nation's future. Speaking ahead of today's key foreign policy speech by Prime Minister John Howard, Dr Nelson said defence was about protecting the economy as well as physical security.

Dr Nelson also said it was important to support the "prestige" of the US and UK. "The defence update we're releasing today sets out many priorities for Australia's defence and security, and resource security is one of them," he told ABC radio. "The entire (Middle East) region is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world. ...

Dr Nelson said the primary reason for Australian troops remaining in Iraq was to prevent violence between the Sunni and Shia population, and to bring stability to the region. "We're also there to support our key ally - that's the United States of America - and we're there to ensure that we don't have terrorism driven from Iraq which would destabilise our own region," he said. "For all of those reasons, one of which is energy security, it's extremely important that Australia take the view that it's in our interests... to make sure we leave the Middle East and leave Iraq in particular in a position of sustainable security." Isolationism would not make Australia safer, he said.

When Australia joined the US-led invasion force of Iraq in 2003, the Government said it was primarily because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could pose a threat to the US and its allies.

Mr Rudd, who spoke to journalists after delivering a speech to the Lowy Institute on tackling the root causes of terrorism, said it had been a mistake to send troops into Iraq. "Mr Howard should follow Labor's lead and have a clear cut exit strategy from Iraq," he said. "Australia's involvement in the Iraq war continues to make Australia a greater terrorism target than we'd otherwise be."

Charles Richardson at Crikey reports "The Iraq backflip theory takes a blow".
Remember how the Howard government's WorkChoices backflip worked earlier this year? First, a prominent newspaper story saying that a policy switch was being planned. Then a prompt government denial. Wait a couple of weeks, then the announcement of pretty much what the original story had alleged.

This week, speculation has been intense that a similar process was under way on Iraq. There were the stories of a government plan for troop withdrawal; first raised last week, then alleged more definitely in The Sunday Telegraph. Denials were prompt and unconvincing.

But today - assuming that this morning's reports of his speech on defence policy are correct - the Prime Minister will depart from the script by nailing his colors more firmly to the Iraqi mast. As The Age puts it, he will explain that "Australia must remain committed in Iraq for years to come."

It could of course be a magician's trick - the more the policy is built up beforehand, the more dramatic the eventual reversal will appear, and therefore the more electoral impact it might have. But for a prime minister whose negatives centre on the idea that he is tricky and calculating, that would seem a reckless, even foolhardy move.

More likely, in my view, today's announcement is genuine. Howard really does intend to "stay the course", a policy that has been abandoned by informed opinion in almost every corner of the world. Only the inner core of the Bush administration remains committed to the policy of strategic suicide in Iraq, but Howard promises to be loyal to the bitter end.

Since none of the previous justifications for this policy make any sense, Howard is throwing a new ingredient into the debate - "the need to safeguard the world's oil supplies." But not only does this confirm some of the arguments of the anti-war camp, it fails to add anything to the arguments about stability and terrorism. If the occupation is making things worse rather than better, then that goes for oil as much as anything else. ...

The Herald Sun report was "Greens slam PM for Iraq oil admission".
"Prime Minister John Howard's belated admission that the invasion of Iraq is linked to the major stake of energy dependency underlines his dishonesty in 2003,'' Senator Brown said in a statement. "Saddam Hussein's oil, not weapons of mass destruction, was in the Bush-Blair-Howard mindset in this monumental mistake which has cost a reported 67,000 civilian lives.

"It has boosted global terrorism and undermined Australia's homeland security. "Mr Howard has put oil corporations' interests ahead of Australians' domestic security.''

One more from Crikey (Crikey's Blogwatch also points to "An Onymous Lefty on "Oh, alright, it is about the oil") :
We cast our minds back to February 7, 2003. The Prime Minister, on the brink of Australia's commitment of forces to Iraq, is in conversation with 3AW host Neil Mitchell.
MITCHELL: Prime Minister, has oil got anything to do with this conflict?

PRIME MINISTER: No I don’t believe for a moment it has.

What a difference three and a half years can make. This today from the online pages of The Australian:
Securing oil a factor for war in Iraq, says Nelson

The government has admitted the need to secure oil supplies is a factor in Australia's continued military involvement in Iraq.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said today oil was a factor in Australia's contribution to the unpopular war, as "energy security" and stability in the Middle East would be crucial to the nation's future.

Speaking ahead of a key foreign policy speech today by Prime Minister John Howard, Dr Nelson said defence was about protecting the economy as well as physical security, and it was important to support the "prestige" of the US and UK.

Best not to mention Weapons of Mass Destruction.

From Johnny's about face on the story - The Age reports "PM denies Iraq-oil link".
Prime Minister John Howard today denied he had admitted that oil was behind his decision to keep Australian troops in Iraq. Mr Howard said it was "stretching it a bit" to interpret comments by either himself or Defence Minister Brendan Nelson as meaning that the war on Iraq was about petrol prices.

But federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd and minor parties said the government had finally admitted that oil was behind Australia's decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq - one of the world's largest producers of crude oil.

Dr Nelson told ABC Radio this morning that the Middle East was an important supplier of oil and Australians had to consider what would happen if troops withdrew prematurely. And Mr Howard told a strategic conference in Canberra that energy demand was one of the reasons for establishing a stable, democratic Iraq. He later denied that he or Dr Nelson had said troops were staying in Iraq to protect the western world's oil supply.

"I had a look at what Brendan said and I think in fairness to him he didn't quite say that," Mr Howard told Macquarie Radio. "I haven't said in my speech that the reason we went to Iraq is oil or the reason we're staying there is oil. "We are not there because of oil and we didn't go there because of oil. We don't remain there because of oil. Oil is not the reason."

The BBC reported "Australia 'has Iraq oil interest'" (the story seemed to get pretty wide coverage around the world in fact).
In comments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Nelson admitted that the supply of oil had influenced Australia's strategic planning in the region. "Obviously the Middle East itself, not only Iraq but the entire region, is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world," he said. "Australians and all of us need to think what would happen if there were a premature withdrawal from Iraq. "It's in our interests, our security interests, to make sure that we leave the Middle East, and leave Iraq in particular, in a position of sustainable security."

This is thought to be the first time the Australian government has admitted any link between troop deployment in Iraq and securing energy resources.

The BBC also reports that the prize itself may almost be within reach - claiming that the "Iraqi cabinet backs draft oil law", though there still seems to be a lot of resistance.
Iraq's government has approved an amended draft law on how to share the country's oil wealth, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said. Mr Maliki said the bill, which will now be passed to parliament to be debated, was the "most important law in Iraq".

However, the cabinet is yet to endorse deals such as revenue sharing and the creation of a national oil company. In addition, a parliamentary boycott by some Sunni and Shia factions is expected to slow the bill's passage.

The US has been pressing Iraq to pass an oil law, as part of efforts to promote reconciliation among the country's religious and ethnic groups.

But the BBC's Jim Muir, in Baghdad, says that Iraqi politics is in greater disarray than at any time since the 2003 invasion, and the bill's progress is unlikely to be smooth.

Despite assurances from Mr Maliki that the bill will be debated in parliament shortly, all Sunni factions and the 30 MPs allied to radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr are boycotting the chamber. In addition, rival groups - including Kurdish factions - also disagree on key elements of the bill.

Oil ministry spokesman Assim Jihad said different groups had "varied views on the role of the state-run oil company, the ministry, and on discovered and undiscovered oil fields"

Hmmm - about those "undiscovered" fields - who gets to define what is "undiscovered"...

In other oil news, Bloomberg reports that "Oil Trades Near 10-Month High After Shell’s Nigeria Rig Attack".
Crude oil traded near a 10-month high in New York after Royal Dutch Shell Plc said militants attacked its rig in Nigeria, raising concern about further oil-supply disruptions from Africa’s largest producer.

Five expatriate contractors working for Lonestar Drilling Nigeria Ltd. were taken hostage, said Precious Okolobo, a spokesman for Shell’s Nigerian venture. The attack occurred early this morning in the Soku field, where the rig was drilling a well. No production was affected, he said. “The oil sector is the one where geopolitical events play a very big part,” Tim Guinness, chairman of Guinness Atkinson Asset Management LLC, said from London. “We don’t know which one is going to next affect supply.” ...

The latest kidnappings in Nigeria occurred after the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, ended a one-month cease-fire this week. Jomo Gbomo, spokesman for MEND, said the group wasn’t involved.

Renewable Energy Access has an interesting look at "Geothermal Potential in the Gulf of Mexico".
A geopressured resource consists of hot brine (salty water) saturated with methane (natural gas) found in large, deep aquifers that are under higher pressure due to water trapped in the burial process. These resources are often found at depths of 3 to 6 km (2 to 4 miles). Water temperature can range from 90 to 200 degrees C (190 to 390 degrees F). Geopressured resources are present in several areas of the country, ranging from California and the Dakotas to Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. This prime resource is considered to be abundant in the area around the Gulf of Mexico, both onshore and offshore.

An oil field co-produced resource makes use of wells already drilled by the oil and gas industry that are either deep enough to encounter hot water, or could be deepened into these hot zones. To the oil industry, producing hot water is at best a nuisance. It is difficult to handle, costs money to pump, and has to be reinjected at an additional cost. What better way to use this hot water byproduct than to produce free, renewable, reliable electricity?

Southern Methodist University (SMU) researchers have documented the large amounts of hot water produced by existing oil and gas wells. In West Texas, for example, for every barrel of oil produced, nearly 100 barrels of hot water are co-produced. In 2002, Texas produced over 12 billion barrels of waste (often hot) water as a byproduct of oil and gas extraction, which was reinjected into the ground at a cost to the producer. ...

The energy potential of these resources is enormous. Experts estimate that geopressured resources could hold as much as a 200-year supply of gas for the entire U.S. at 2002 levels of demand. That’s not even considering the thousands of megawatts (MW) of thermal energy potential from the hot brines. If realized to its full potential, geopressured resources could double the total recoverable natural gas in the United States and meet a significant portion of our electricity needs.

Producing energy from oil and gas fields in Texas alone could produce between 400 - 2200 MW of geothermal power, according to SMU scientists. Looking at all of the oil field production potential, significantly more power production is possible, with estimates in the tens of thousands of MW.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently published a report tiled, Geothermal -- The Energy Under Our Feet, which estimates that co-produced and geopressured resources could supply as much as 70,000 MW of new power -- 10% of our total national electric power needs -- in the next 20 years. Today, geothermal resources supply about 0.3% of US electricity needs, so 10% represents a significant jump.

George Monbiot's latest column considers the possibility of "A World Without Fossil Fuels".
Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to north Africa and Iceland with high-voltage direct-current cables. This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandanavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe's electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.

At about the same time, Mark Barrett, of University College London, published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power. At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95% of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.

Now a new study by the Centre for Alternative Technology takes this even further. It is due to be published next week, but I have been allowed a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 we could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its supply: our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it.

It relies on a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs into which water can be pumped when electricity is abundant, constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their batteries to meet fluctuations in demand. It contains some optimistic technical assumptions, but also a very pessimistic one: that the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal were to be combined with these ideas, we could begin to see how we might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.


* Biopact - Physicists find way to increase ultracapacitor energy density seven times
* After Gutenberg - Maxwell Ultracaps for Wind Power Systems
* Inside Greentech - Commercial Wavegen marine energy plant to be built in Spain
* PhysOrg - Iowa State chemist hopes startup company can revolutionize biodiesel production. "All that makes biodiesel production 'dramatically better, cheaper, faster'".
* Crikey - In Maningrida, fear is the real emergency
* Crikey - Local NT Police: We Need The Permit System
* PESN - Steorn Orbo Free Energy Demo Has Botched Start. So far a fiasco. Here's a rare (and wildly ambitious) Peak Energy prediction for you - if this does end up working, BP will turn out to be one of the backers (I'm not saying there is a high probability of either outcome, but I've seen some intriguing glimmers in the information stream that point to this as one possible outcome - albeit one which makes no sense to me). Wired is speculating this is all some bizarre art project.
* Huffington Post - Mr. Bush, Tear Down That Curtain!. A little history of the FOIA in the US. "Open government is free government".
* A Blog Around The Clock - World 2.0 At Rainbow's End. A look at Vernor Vinge's most recent book.
* The Onion - American People Shrug, Line Up For Fingerprinting


Anonymous   says 9:08 AM

I knew you couldn't keep away from this one! Brendan told the truth. GASP! Deny, deny, deny...

Going from "oil is a factor" to "it's all about oil" is rather a jump, what?

It's a big world out there. The temptation is to shrink it down to simple slogans and soundbites. But that just dumbs everything down.

Well - the world is never black and white, but looking over the history of the past 100 years of our interactions with Iraq, its hard to see any other factor that is anywhere near as important as oil.

I mean - what other reasons are being given ?

Saddam was evil but contained (and many of his worst outrages were committed with western backing or at least tacit support anyway, like the war on Iran, the gassing of the Kurds at Hallabja and the massacre of his political opponents when he was first consolidating his power).

There were no WMD, just like the UN inspectors said.

Saddam was a secular dictator who wasn't so stupid as to back terrorism against the west and had no credible links to Al Qaeda, regardless of what Dick Cheney claims.

The Islamic fundamentalist backlash we are experiencing is basically a reaction to the policies we've pursued trying to control the oil (admittedly mixed in with some general fundamentalist dislike of progress and festering tension over the Israel / Palestine issue). This probably would have manifested itself via some form of marxism or extreme nationalism if we hadn't encouraged the fundamentalists in the first place as a way of counter-balancing pan-Arab nationalism and international communism in the region.

If its not at least 90% about the oil, what is it about ?

Do you really think we could care less about the middle east if it had 2% of the world's oil and gas instead of 60+ % ?

This is a genuine question - I'd be happy to hear some sort of coherent explanation because thus far I've never heard anything convincing, just endless changes to the official story as earlier reasons are discredited.

A few choices for you (none of which I believe come anywhere near to being as important as the oil) :

- the desire to bring "Freedom and democracy" to the middle east. While I quite like this idea, we don't seem to have gone out of our way to implement it in any friendly middle eastern countries, and I'm not aware of any examples of these concepts ever being imposed by outside military intervention except in the most catastrophic cases. It may occur if we leave Iraq, as the primary problem at the moment seems to be local unhappiness with the presence of foreign troops in their country (the polls show what - maybe 85% of the population opposed to our presence ?).

- the need to support the "petrodollar" (a variant on the oil theory in any case). I'm not sure how much weight to put behind petrodollar theories and it seems that the massive US budget and trade deficits might be better areas to look at if you wanted to support the dollar anyway.

- the "Merchants of Death" argument from parts of the far left, claiming its all about feeding more money and power to the military industrial complex.

- the "Clean Break" argument from parts of the far right, claiming its part of an Israeli effort to balkanise the middle east into tiny states incapable of posing a threat to Israel

Anonymous   says 2:24 PM

Don't buy the "Islamic backlash" line.  This is just Islamic imperialism re-enabled by the flow of petrodollars; this imperialism had fallen off since the second defeat of the Ottomans at Vienna, but it never really went away.

Errr - the Iraq war is Islamic imperialism ? How ?

Anonymous   says 1:39 PM

No, the "Islamic backlash" is imperialism.  The perpetual Muslim state of offense at anything short of sharia is more of the same.

Errr - since when does terrorism equal imperialism ?

Isn't imperialism defined as "acts intended to expand or maintain an empire" ?

Where is this imaginary empire you speak of ?

Religious fundamentalists suck, no matter what their religion, but I fail to see how fundamentalism = imperialism - by that logic you'd be defining their equivalents in the US Christian fundamentalist movement as imperialists as well.

(Hmmm - that might be rather more accurate, come to think of it, as many of them are fighting to maintain and expand an empire...)

Anyway - the blowback / backlash theory seems a lot more accurate, and I'm going to go with Occam's Razor here unless you have some credible backing for your "Protocols Of The Elders Of Mecca" theory...

As Ron Paul puts it "they wouldn't come over here if we weren't over there".

As an aside, even if you are right, my recommendation is to free ourselves from oil dependency entirely. The impact on the middle east would be quite dramatic, in terms of cutting off the flow of money into the region from the west entirely.

So if you get with my program, you'll be taking concrete, useful action against your perceived bogeymen - agreed ?

(This is the same theory promulgated by some of the saner neocons like James Woolsey, so you don't have to go all libertarian to understand this line of reasoning).

Anonymous   says 6:48 AM

Errr - since when does terrorism equal imperialism ?

When it's being used to advance the goal of an empire, colonization, destruction of an alien society, or other political purposes.

Where is this imaginary empire you speak of ?

Imaginary?  It existed before as a political entity, and it is the goal of millions to re-create it.  It exists today as a political force wherever non-Muslims are forced to change their lives to avoid harassment, persecution or even murder.  These places include Sweden, England, Holland and even the beaches of Cronulla.

I fail to see how fundamentalism = imperialism

It becomes imperialism when it attempts to force the whole world to either submit to it or become part of it.

This is inherent in the very name.  "Islam" means "submission".

the blowback / backlash theory seems a lot more accurate

It would only be accurate if it was an outgrowth of the alleged cause.  In other words, it would have had to exist only afterward, and the grievances of the perpetrators would have to be largely if not entirely related to the meddling.

You will not find this.  You will find instead that the fighters in the "backlash" are instead fighting for a global Caliphate and against "infidels".  This is imperialism, even if there is no state sponsor as such.

You will find that the predations go back to the very founding of Islam, and included widespread slave raids against Mediterranian nations and eastern Atlantic shipping.

These things are nothing new.  The "backlash" and "Muslim offense" claims are pure political opportunism, created to make the victims feel guilty and disarm themselves against further violence.

if you are right, my recommendation is to free ourselves from oil dependency entirely. The impact on the middle east would be quite dramatic, in terms of cutting off the flow of money into the region from the west entirely.

So if you get with my program, you'll be taking concrete, useful action against your perceived bogeymen - agreed ?

I have done so, and continue to do so.

Well - I don't see the new Caliphate nuts as being much of a threat, though I'll agree there are some out there (however I don't think anyone on Cronulla beach has changed their behaviour one bit - the local problems there were more due to ethnic / underclass gang activity than any sort of Islamic fundamentalism from what I could make of it).

As we agree on the solution (even if for entirely different reasons), lets leave it at that.

Thanks for the comments.

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