Michael Schwartz: Will Iraq's Oil Ever Flow?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

TomDispatch has an article on the future of Iraq's oil - Michael Schwartz, Will Iraq's Oil Ever Flow? .

Iraqi oil, too, has been a focus of Washington’s unremitting ambition tempered by failure. Long before the cost of the war began to lurch toward the current Congressional estimate of $700 billion, the idea of using oil revenues to pay for the invasion had vanished, as had the idea of quadrupling production capacity within a few years. The hope of doing so someday, however, remains alive. Speculation that Iraq’s production could -- in the not too distant future -- exceed that of Saudi Arabia may still represent Washington’s main strategy for postponing future severe global energy shortages.

Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the secretive energy task force Vice President Cheney headed was tentatively allocating various oil fields in a future pacified Iraq to key international oil companies. Before the March 2003 invasion, the State Department actually drafted prospective legislation for a post-Hussein government, which would have transferred the control of key oil fields to foreign oil giants. Those companies were then expected to invest the necessary billions in Iraq’s rickety oil industry to boost production to maximum rates.

Not so long after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the administration’s proconsul, L. Paul Bremer III, enacted the State Department legislation by fiat (and in clear violation of international law, which prohibits occupying powers from changing fundamental legislation in the conquered country). Under the banner of de-Baathification -- the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni ruling party -- he also fired oil technicians, engineers, and administrators, leaving behind a skeleton crew of Iraqis to manage existing production (and await the arrival of the oil giants with all their expertise).

Within a short time, many of these pariah professionals had fled to other countries where their skills were valued, creating a brain drain that, for a time, nearly incapacitated the Iraqi oil industry. Bremer then appointed a group of international oil consultants and business executives to a newly created (and UN-sanctioned) Development Fund of Iraq (DFI), which was to oversee all of the country’s oil revenues.

The remaining Iraqi administrators, technicians, and workers soon mounted a remarkably determined and effective multi-front resistance to Bremer’s effort. They were aided in this by a growing insurgency.

In one dramatic episode, Bremer announced the pending transfer of the control of the southern port of Basra (which then handled 80% of the country’s oil exports) from a state-run enterprise to KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company Vice President Cheney had once headed. Anticipating that their own jobs would soon disappear in a sea of imported labor, the oil workers immediately struck. KBR quickly withdrew and Bremer abandoned the effort.

In other Bremer initiatives, foreign energy and construction firms did take charge of development, repair, and operations in Iraq’s main oil fields. The results were rarely adequate and often destructive. Contracts for infrastructure repair or renewal were often botched or left incomplete, as international companies ripped out usable or repairable facilities that involved technology alien to them, only to install ultimately incompatible equipment. In one instance, a $5 million pipeline repair became an $80 million “modernization” project that foundered on intractable engineering issues and, three years later, was left incomplete. In more than a few instances, local communities sabotaged such projects, either because they employed foreign workers and technicians instead of Iraqis, or because they were designed to deprive the locals of what they considered their “fair share” of oil revenues.

In the first two years of the occupation, there were more than 200 attacks on oil and gas pipelines. By 2007, 600 acts of sabotage against pipelines and facilities had been recorded.

After an initial flurry of interest, international oil companies sized up the dangers and politely refused Bremer’s invitation to risk billions of dollars on Iraqi energy investments.

After this initial failure, the Bush administration looked for a new strategy to forward its oil ambitions. In late 2004, with Bremer out of the picture, Washington brokered a deal between U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the International Monetary Fund. European countries promised to forgive a quarter of the debts accumulated by Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqis promised to implement the U.S. oil plan. But this worked no better than Bremer’s effort. Continued sabotage by insurgents, resistance by Iraqi technicians and workers, and the corrupt ineptitude of the contracting companies made progress impossible. The international oil companies continued to stay away.

In 2007, under direct U.S. pressure, virtually the same law was reluctantly endorsed by Prime Minister Maliki and forwarded to the Iraqi parliament for legislative consideration. Instead of passing it, the parliament established itself as a new center of resistance to the U.S. plan, raising myriad familiar complaints and repeatedly refusing to bring it to a vote. It lies dormant to this day.

This stalemate continued unabated through the Obama administration’s first year in office, as illustrated by a continuing conflict around the pipeline that carries oil from Iraq to Turkey, a source of about 20% of the country’s oil revenues. During the Bremer administration, the U.S. had ended the Saddam-era tradition of allowing local tribes to siphon off a proportion of the oil passing through their territory. The insurgents, viewing this as an act of American theft, undertook systematic sabotage of the pipeline, and -- despite ferocious U.S. military offensives -- it remained closed for all but a few days throughout the next five years.

The pipeline was re-opened in the fall of 2009, when the Iraqi government restored the Saddam-era custom in exchange for an end to sabotage. This has been only partially successful. Shipments have been interrupted by further pipeline attacks, evidently mounted by insurgents who believe oil revenues are illegitimately funding the continuing U.S. occupation. The fragility of the pipeline’s service, even today, is one small sign of ongoing resistance that could be an obstacle to any significant increase in oil production until the U.S. military presence is ended.

The entire six-year saga of American energy dreams, policies, and pressures in Iraq has so far yielded little -- no significant increase in Iraq’s oil production, no increase in its future capacity to produce, and no increase in its energy exports. The grand ambition of transferring actual control of the oil industry into the hands of the international oil companies has proven no less stillborn.

Over the years since the U.S. began its energy campaign, production has actually languished, sometimes falling as much as 40% below the pre-invasion levels of an industry already held together by duct tape and ingenuity. In the Brookings Institution’s latest figures for December 2009, production stood at 2.4 million barrels per day, a full 100,000 barrels lower than the pre-war daily average.

To make matters worse, the price of oil, which had hit historic peaks in early 2008, began to decline. By 2009, with the global economy in tatters, oil prices sank radically and the Iraqi government lacked the revenues to sustain its existing expenditures, let alone find money to repair its devastated infrastructure.

As a result, in early 2009, Maliki’s government began actively, even desperately, seeking ways to hike oil production, even without an oil law in place. That, after all, was the only possible path for an otherwise indigent country with failing agriculture in the midst of a drought of extreme severity to increase the money available for public projects -- or, of course, even more private corruption.


From Tom: "what the U.S. actually accomplished in Iraq ... a country in “environmental ruin”.

Washington never even got the oil out of the ground in a country that is little short of a giant oil field waiting to be developed. A remarkable record when you think about it."

Yes, remarkable indeed. And not in the good sense.

Re the "meat" of the article, I am in awe of the profoud insight of the systems thinkers who identified the concept of policy resistance - the tendency of systems to oppose and neutralise attempts to change them in any significant way. In this case, attempting to quadruple output.

Michael Schwartz's piece is a beautiful illustration of how policy resistance operates. Engineers take note: the technical problems are always and everywhere the easy ones.

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