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Fossil Fuel Empire: A World of Vulnerability

Fossil Fuel Empire: A World of Vulnerability thumbnail

“It’s all about the oil,” many commentators said about the US assault on Iraq in 2003.

Attributing a war to a single cause is almost always an oversimplification, but protecting access to the 20th century’s most important energy source has been a priority of US foreign policy since World War II.

In part one of this series we considered the effects of the US military complex which has ringed the world for the past 75 years. This complex has depended on vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to move troops and munitions, and the US became a world power in significant part because of its endowment of oil.

As Daniel Yergin recounts in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

Petroleum was central to the course and outcome of World War II in both the Far East and Europe. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to protect their flank as they grabbed for the petroleum resources of the East Indies. Among Hitler’s most important strategic objectives in the invasion of the Soviet Union was the capture of the oil fields in the Caucasus. But America’s predominance in oil proved decisive, and by the end of the war German and Japanese fuel tanks were empty.” (The Prize, Simon & Schuster, 1990, pg 13)

At the end of World War II the US was not only the world’s preeminent military force, but its industrial capacity was undamaged by war and it was running on seemingly abundant supplies of cheap domestic oil.

Spurred on by oil and car companies who had the most to gain from a high-energy way of life, the US embarked on a building spree of far-flung suburbs, interstate highways, and airports that allowed long-distance flight to become a routine activity.

This hyper-consumption was bolstered by a new economic orthodoxy which saw no need to factor in energy depletion when accounting for national wealth, and which portrayed exponential economic growth as a phenomenon that could and should continue decade after decade.

It took barely a generation, of course, for the US economy to suck up the bulk of its cheap domestic oil – conventional oil production peaked in the US in 1971. Did Americans then conclude they should change the basis of their economy, and make peace with reduced energy consumption? Far from it. Dependence on imported oil has now been a central feature of the US economy for fifty years.

Gap between US oil consumption and production. Chart by An Outside Chance for the post Alternative Geologies: Trump’s “America First Energy Plan”, from stats on


A world of vulnerability

The huge military complex which protects essential oil supply routes is sometimes seen as a sign of US strength, but it can just as accurately be seen as a sign of US weakness.

In a 2009 report entitled “Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security”, a panel of twelve retired generals and admirals notes that “The U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil production, yet controls less than 3 percent of an increasingly tight supply.” This voracious appetite for oil, they say, is a dangerous vulnerability:

As we consider America’s current energy posture, we do so from a singular perspective: We gauge our energy choices solely by their impact on America’s national security. Our dependence on foreign oil reduces our international leverage, places our troops in dangerous global regions, funds nations and individuals who wish us harm, and weakens our economy; our dependency and inefficient use of oil also puts our troops at risk.” (Introduction to Powering America’s Defense)

One source of imported oil has outranked all others for the US and its western European allies. The US was already consolidating its “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, in the first years of that country’s existence. As Timothy Mitchell describes this relationship,

Aramco [Arabian-American Oil Company] paid the oil royalty not to a national government but to a single household, that of Ibn Saud, who now called himself king and renamed the country … the ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’. … This ‘privatisation’ of oil money was locally unpopular, and required outside help to keep it in place. In 1945 the US government established its military base at Dhahran, and later began to train and arm Ibn Saud’s security forces …. The religious establishment, on the other hand, created the moral and legal order of the new state, imposing the strict social regime that maintained discipline in the subject population and suppressed political dissent.” (Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, Verso, 2013, pg 210-211)

The alliance between a self-styled liberal democracy and an theocratic autocracy has not been a marriage made in heaven. But in spite of many points of tension the relationship has benefited powerful forces in both countries and has endured for most of the age of oil.

The need to protect US access to the world’s largest sources of conventional oil was formally recognized in the Carter Doctrine:

An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” (US President Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union Address, January 1980)

Ironically, this doctrine led the US to begin supporting the mujahideen, Islamic fundamentalists who were fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And ironically, after the Soviet-Afghan war ended one of the major irritants for the formerly lauded “freedom fighters” was the heavy military presence of the infidel United States in Saudi Arabia. The result has been almost 20 years of continuous warfare between the US and various offshoots of the mujahideen, with no prospect of victory for the US.

The costs of these wars, merely in dollar terms, have been staggering. While US military expenditures have remained high ever since World War II, these costs have recently gone through the roof. An analysis of military spending by Time in 2013 found that inflation-adjusted military spending in the 2000s was approximately twice as high as military spending in the 1960s, during the nuclear face-off with Russia and the massive deployment in Indochina.

In sum, the US has been importing increasing quantities of increasingly expensive oil for decades. During the same years US military spending has soared. Does this sound like a recipe for solvency? You might well wonder if it’s just coincidence that US national debt has soared during these years.

US national debt converted to 1983 dollars and plotted on logarithmic scale – each step up the ladder is 10 times as high as the previous step – by Stephen Bloch of Adelphi University.


Recall the curious formulation by John Dower cited in the first installment of this series:

Creating a capacity for violence greater than the world has ever seen is costly – and remunerative.” (The Violent American Century, pg 12, emphasis mine)

How is this world-wide military occupation remunerative? In our next installment we’ll look at the tie-in between the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun, and the power that comes with control of currency.


Top photo: well head at the Big Hill, Texas site of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The Big Hill facility stores up to 160 million barrels of oil. The four sites of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve were developed in the 1970s, amid fears that a disruption in global supply lines could leave the US dangerously vulnerable. Photo from US Office of Fossil Energy.

An Outside Chance

13 Comments on "Fossil Fuel Empire: A World of Vulnerability"

  1. MASTERMIND on Wed, 5th Jul 2017 8:05 pm 

    All I know is when the energy shortages hit Gas stations only have around three days worth of supplies. And that will be gone in a few hours with Preppers gassing up their Bug Out Trucks. And Bankers fueling up their private jets…

  2. dave thompson on Thu, 6th Jul 2017 1:41 am 

    None of this is news we did not know already.

  3. Cloggie on Thu, 6th Jul 2017 2:02 am 

    All I know is when the energy shortages hit Gas stations only have around three days worth of supplies.

    The idea is: think first, then post.

  4. Makati1 on Thu, 6th Jul 2017 2:09 am 

    Cloggie, from experience during snow storms, I would bet the station would be out of gas in less than a day. Maybe in an hour or less. And, if the electric is off, the pumps do not work. Especially the credit card part of the pump. No internet, no credit, no sale.

  5. Hubert on Thu, 6th Jul 2017 7:42 am 

    This stupid country has spent more oil fighting the war in Middle East than it ever got out of it.

    Leave it up to the brain-dead Military Industry to screw things up.

    Three trillion dollars wasted and still counting…

  6. marko on Thu, 6th Jul 2017 9:16 am 

    Three trillion dollars wasted and still counting…
    No problem PRINT BABY PRINT

  7. peakyeast on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 4:30 am 

    An interesting article about coal:

    “Chinese firms to build 700 coal plants “

  8. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 4:45 am 

    Chinese firms to build 700 coal plants

    Trump even may have a point that the US got an unfair deal with these Paris Accords.

    Nevertheless: press ahead Europe with renewable energy. Who else if not you.

  9. Davy on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 6:43 am 

    Trump has an honest point and that is China and India continue to build out huge amounts of coal fired energy allowing them to continue their status quo growth paradigm. This is blatantly a ruse for public opinion. China and India are doing nothing for climate change but offering promises. Where Trump is wrong is we should be imposing these constraints on fossil fuels to jump start alternatives. They are viable to replace fossil fuels. The amount of replacement is a big debate now but the sweet spots should be taken and significant systematic resilience and sustainability introduced where possible. Alternatives offer this in many places. A complete transition is a whole different question.

    The Paris accords would have been good for the US in this regards by pushing it further in the European direction. This is an admirable direction but I doubt it will be what it is preached to be. Yes, talk about Europe and its renewable revolution is promises. The promises are constructed into stories with fantasies and just enough facts to influence public opinion that this is the future. The future is decline and decay. Climate dynamics of warming and instability are likely sealed. A fake green Paris accord is just more unfulfillable promises little different from all the unfunded liabilities and debt with a return that characterize modern globalism. Nonetheless alternatives are a vital aspect to mitigation of our decline process.

    We are likely in the beginning of this process so while we have the ability we should be building alternatives. The possible next phase of a significant economic correction will likely stop this process in its tracks. Trump did the US a disfavor by opting out of the Paris accords because he is a misguided cornucopian. He believes he can drive prosperity by demand driven economics and fossil fuels. He wants to maintain the unmaintainable. He preaches a dead religion of the American Dream.

    He is failing as we speak and surprisingly it may be a boost to the US alternative energy effort that is a more realistic approach than the European effort that is mandated by the top. We know top down mandates are always distorted by subsidies and technocratic incompetence. The technocrats must produce so the narrative stays alive. Maybe in an indirect way Trump will stimulate the US alternative energy effort by making it means tested. Alternative in the US will have to show real returns unlike in Europe where investments are shrouded in subsidies and political mandates. This idea is not fact but only a thought but so is the idea of an alternative energy world. What is real today? Who knows?

  10. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 6:55 am 

    Very cordial handshake Trump-Putin:


    The one with title “#G20 Retreat” at -0:11

  11. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 7:14 am 

    Trump practices isolationalism:

  12. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 7:33 am 

    Big Money Wants G20 to Adhere to Paris Accords

  13. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Jul 2017 8:13 am 


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