If War Comes, Oil Won’t Be the Reason

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

A number of politicians, media pundits and environmental special interest groups have claimed that if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq, it will be because President Bush is trying to gain control of that country's considerable oil reserves and infrastructure. Indeed, some people seem to believe that the U.S.'s only interest in the Middle East as a region is to keep the Arab oil flowing.

The truth is if the U.S. does goes to war with Iraq, it won't be over oil. If oil were the primary concern of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, then war would be one of the last things the Bush administration would be considering.

A war in the Middle East will almost certainly disrupt world oil supplies, contributing to higher, wildly fluctuating prices. There is good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein will practice the same scorched earth policy in Iraq's oilfields that he practiced in Kuwait during the Gulf War. The fields would burn and the equipment and infrastructure would be severely damaged if not completely destroyed, putting it out of use for many years. In order to cause further chaos and divert U.S. resources, Iraq might even attempt to damage oil fields in neighboring countries.

Furthermore, an attack on Iraq will only serve to exacerbate the U.S.'s deteriorating relations with other oil rich Islamic nations in the region. Some oil exporting countries, Iran, Libya and Nigeria, for instance, already harbor grudges against the United States for past wrongs, both real and imagined, and for the our continued support for Israel. Meanwhile, other oil rich nations in the region who are usually our allies, are concerned that siding with the U.S. against Iraq will cause increased civil unrest - and perhaps even foment armed rebellion - amongst their largely Muslim populations. Going to war with Iraq wins us few friends with other important oil exporters in the region.

If you were only interested in maintaining a regular, low cost supply of oil from the Middle East, the best policy would be to support the end of sanctions placed on Iraq at the end of the Gulf War. These sanctions have constrained the amount of oil that Iraq could sell on the market, and Saddam Hussein has deftly used the sanctions as an excuse to further impoverish Iraqi civilians, which has hampered U.S. efforts to improve diplomatic relations in Islamic countries. One simply cannot explain why in the face of mounting international pressure to end the sanctions, the U.S. continued to support them, that is if one truly believes that ensuring a plentiful supply of oil is the primary motive for the Bush administration.

The truth is many things have changed since the Gulf War. The U.S. has dramatically diversified its sources of oil. Because of capacity available elsewhere, much of it outside of OPEC's direct control, the oil imported from Iraq is fairly inconsequential - amounting to only approximately 3%. And, our relations with the former Soviet Union have substantially improved since 1990. Russia and other former Soviet states present tremendous opportunities for oil development and supply.

As a recent NCPA study explains, Iraq's oil reserves are just a drop in the bucket. Contrary to popular belief, oil is relatively plentiful. In fact, according to the University of Oklahoma's David Deming the world has likely used less than one-third of the world's conventional petroleum resources. For instance, America has large deposits of oil under its public lands and offshore. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) alone likely contains between six and 16 billion barrels of oil. Six billion barrels of oil, the minimum expected to be recovered from ANWR, would replace all of the oil imported from Iraq for the next 50 years. If one includes unconventional petroleum resources in the mix, Deming estimates that the world may have more than a 500 year supply of oil at year 2000 productions rates. In short, in terms of lives and dollars, we have less costly sources of oil rather than going to war with Iraq.

The U.S. has plenty of reasons to go to war with Iraq, from Saddam's support for terrorism, his continuing attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to end his reign of terror and bring him to justice both for war crimes his military committed during the Gulf War and for his regimes' brutal violations of international human rights committed against his own people.

That the Bush administration is going to war with Iraq over oil makes for a good conspiracy theory. But, as with many such theories, it has little basis in fact.