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Energy Geopolitics: It Keeps Going, and Going, and Going…

June 16, 2010

Beating a war drum in the decades ahead?

While better political analyses of Obama’s recent speech on the BP drilling disaster are out there, on personal principle, I rarely pass the opportunity to use a few throwaway lines of a major speech to launch a polemic of my own. Today’s target is the pervasive idea of “energy independence,” that elusive goal that has been just within America’s grasp (if only we had the moral courage and enlightened self-interest to commit to it!) for decades. As James Fallows points out, Obama is not the first to use fossil fuel dependence as a call to arms, and he will not be the last.

What irks me, though, is how political messaging has turned a technological issue, ending dependence on fossil fuels, into a geopolitical and geoeconomic one, ending dependence on foreign fuels. In doing so, it has promoted unwarranted optimism about the prospects for ending US interest in resource wars and enabling a more pacific economic autarky. Because America has been a net importer of foreign oil and belligerent in wars to secure it for decades, this repackaging has held up fairly well, but this is disingenuous. Ending our dependence on fossil fuels will not end our dependence on foreign fuels. Energy, and the materials necessary to make that energy usable for human economic activity, come from geographically distinct locations. A lot of them are outside America. Even if we were to all start driving electric cars tomorrow, we would still be dependent on some other countries for something.

Take lithium – sure, we have some, but the vast majority of the world’s lithium reserves are in Latin American countries, particularly Bolivia, presently¬†under Chavista Evo Morales’s occasionally unstable government. Much of it will also come from Afghanistan, as the Times reminded us. We can argue that much of the world’s lithium is in relatively stable, US-friendly states such as Argentina, Chile and Brazil, and that is true, but plenty of oil-producing states are also relatively stable. It only takes a few major sources with unstable or “uncooperative” governments to rattle world markets and return military action to the tables of statesmen. Nor should we ignore the possibility that the increased value of lithium to a post-petroleum economy might intensify geopolitical conflict. Bolivia is a perfect example. In the 20th century, the value of rubber prompted Brazil to annex Acre and rumors of oil prompted Paraguay to seize the Gran Chaco. In the 19th century, the value of guano and associated minerals in the Atacama desert lead to Chile’s devastating invasion in the War of the Pacific, and the loss of Bolivia’s coastline. Today, that land is a major source of lithium. Neighbors dismembered half of Bolivia’s original territory in large part to seize the day’s vital commodities, is it so absurd to think that somewhere in the world, if not South America, the rare metals for tomorrow’s complex batteries and climates suitable for growing tomorrow’s biofuels might follow in these footsteps?

Diversifying America’s sources of fuel is a sound idea, economically and politically. But overcoming oil in particular cannot prevent resource wars in general. In any case, the globalized nature of the world economy means that even after wealthy states such as the US reduce or eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels, poorer and developing countries will pick up for slackening demand. Particularly if the US no longer ensures the flow of foreign oil, some country will want to. There could still be oil wars and oil crises among the developing states, because many will be US political or economic partners, they will still matter – perhaps not as much, but whether the Ghazni-Gwadar railway to bring Afghan lithium to the world market is under insurgent threat, or the Southeast Asian states are clashing with China over the oil beneath the Spratly Islands, the geoeconomic distribution of alternative fuel producers and consumers leads me to think the geopolitical hazards of energy dependence and resource war will not fade from history anytime soon.

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