Conflict and intrigue over valuable energy supplies have been features of the international landscape for a long time. Major wars over oil have been fought every decade or so since World War I, and smaller engagements have erupted every few years; a flare-up or two in 2012, then, would be part of the normal scheme of things. Instead, what we are now seeing is a whole cluster of oil-related clashes stretching across the globe, involving a dozen or so countries, with more popping up all the time. Consider these flash-points as signals that we are entering an era of intensified conflict over energy.
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Argentina to the Philippines, here are the six areas of conflict—all tied to energy supplies—that have made news in just the first few months of 2012:
A brewing war between Sudan and South Sudan: On April 10, forces from the newly independent state of South Sudan occupied the oil center of Heglig, a town granted to Sudan as part of a peace settlement that allowed the southerners to secede in 2011. The northerners, based in Khartoum, then mobilized their own forces and drove the South Sudanese out of Heglig. Fighting has since erupted all along the contested border between the two countries, accompanied by air strikes on towns in South Sudan. Although the fighting has not yet reached the level of a full-scale war, international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and a peaceful resolution to the dispute have yet to meet with success.
This conflict is being fueled by many factors, including economic disparities between the two Sudans and an abiding animosity between the southerners (who are mostly black Africans and Christians or animists) and the northerners (mostly Arabs and Muslims). But oil—and the revenues produced by oil—remains at the heart of the matter. When Sudan was divided in 2011, the most prolific oil fields wound up in the south, while the only pipeline capable of transporting the south’s oil to international markets (and thus generating revenue) remained in the hands of the northerners. They have been demanding exceptionally high “transit fees”—$32-$36 per barrel compared to the common rate of $1 per barrel—for the privilege of bringing the South’s oil to market. When the southerners refused to accept such rates, the northerners confiscated money they had already collected from the south’s oil exports, its only significant source of funds. In response, the southerners stopped producing oil altogether and, it appears, launched their military action against the north. The situation remains explosive.
Naval clash in the South China Sea: On April 7, a Philippine naval warship, the 378-foot Gregorio del Pilar, arrived at Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea, and detained eight Chinese fishing boats anchored there, accusing them of illegal fishing activities in Filipino sovereign waters. China promptly sent two naval vessels of its own to the area, claiming that the Gregorio del Pilar was harassing Chinese ships in Chinese, not Filipino waters. The fishing boats were eventually allowed to depart without further incident and tensions have eased somewhat. However, neither side has displayed any inclination to surrender its claim to the island, and both sides continue to deploy warships in the contested area.
As in Sudan, multiple factors are driving this clash, but energy is the dominant motive. The South China Sea is thought to harbor large deposits of oil and natural gas, and all the countries that encircle it, including China and the Philippines, want to exploit these reserves. Manila claims a 200-nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” stretching into the South China Sea from its western shores, an area it calls the West Philippine Sea; Filipino companies say they have found large natural gas reserves in this area and have announced plans to begin exploiting them. Claiming the many small islands that dot the South China Sea (including Scarborough Shoal) as its own, Beijing has asserted sovereignty over the entire region, including the waters claimed by Manila; it, too, has announced plans to drill in the area. Despite years of talks, no solution has yet been found to the dispute and further clashes are likely.
Egypt cuts off the natural gas flow to Israel: On April 22, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company informed Israeli energy officials that they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement” under which Egypt had been supplying gas to Israel. This followed months of demonstrations in Cairo by the youthful protestors who succeeded in deposing autocrat Hosni Mubarak and are now seeking a more independent Egyptian foreign policy—one less beholden to the U.S. and Israel. It also followed scores of attacks on the pipelines carrying the gas across the Negev Desert to Israel, which the Egyptian military has seemed powerless to prevent.
Ostensibly, the decision was taken in response to a dispute over Israeli payments for Egyptian gas, but all parties involved have interpreted it as part of a drive by Egypt’s new government to demonstrate greater distance from the ousted Mubarak regime and his (U.S.-encouraged) policy of cooperation with Israel. The Egyptian-Israeli gas link was one of the most significant outcomes of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, and its annulment clearly signals a period of greater discord; it may also cause energy shortages in Israel, especially during peak summer demand periods. On a larger scale, the cutoff suggests a new inclination to use energy (or its denial) as a form of political warfare and coercion.
Argentina seizes YPF: On April 16, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced that her government would seize a majority stake in YPF, the nation’s largest oil company. Under President Kirchner’s plans, which she detailed on national television, the government would take a 51 percent controlling stake in YPF, which is now majority-owned by Spain’s largest corporation, the energy firm Repsol YPF. The seizure of its Argentinean subsidiary is seen in Madrid (and other European capitals) as a major threat that must now be combated. Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, said that Kirchner’s move “broke the climate of cordiality and friendship that presided over relations between Spain and Argentina.” Several days later, in what is reported to be only the first of several retaliatory steps, Spain announced that it would stop importing biofuels from Argentina, its principal supplier—a trade worth nearly $1 billion a year to the Argentineans.
As in the other conflicts, this clash is driven by many urges, including a powerful strain of nationalism stretching back to the Peronist era, along with Kirchner’s apparent desire to boost her standing in the polls. Just as important, however, is Argentina’s urge to derive greater economic and political benefit from its energy reserves, which include the world’s third-largest deposits of shale gas. While long-term rival Brazil is gaining immense power and prestige from the development of its offshore “pre-salt” petroleum reserves, Argentina has seen its energy production languish. Repsol may not be to blame for this, but many Argentineans evidently believe that, with YPF under government control, it will now be possible to accelerate development of the country’s energy endowment, possibly in collaboration with a more aggressive foreign partner like BP or ExxonMobil.
Argentina re-ignites the Falklands crisis: At an April 15-16 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia—the one at which U.S. Secret Service agents were caught fraternizing with prostitutes—Argentina sought fresh hemispheric condemnation of Britain’s continued occupation of the Falkland Islands (called Las Malvinas by the Argentineans). It won strong support from every country present save (predictably) Canada and the United States. Argentina, which says the islands are part of its sovereign territory, has been raising this issue ever since it lost a war over the Falklands in 1982, but has recently stepped up its campaign on several fronts—denouncing London in numerous international venues and preventing British cruise ships that visit the Falklands from docking in Argentinean harbors. The British have responded by beefing up their military forces in the region and warning the Argentineans to avoid any rash moves.
When Argentina and the U.K. fought their war over the Falklands, little was at stake save national pride, the stature of the country’s respective leaders (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vs. an unpopular military junta), and a few sparsely populated islands. Since then, the stakes have risen immeasurably as a result of recent seismic surveys of the waters surrounding the islands that indicated the existence of massive deposits of oil and natural gas. Several UK-based energy firms, including Desire Petroleum and Rockhopper Exploration, have begun off-shore drilling in the area and have reported promising discoveries. Desperate to duplicate Brazil’s success in the development of offshore oil and gas, Argentina claims the discoveries lie in its sovereign territory and that the drilling there is illegal; the British, of course, insist that it’s their territory. No one knows how this simmering potential crisis will unfold, but a replay of the 1982 war—this time over energy—is hardly out of the question.
U.S. forces mobilize for war with Iran: Throughout the winter and early spring, it appeared that an armed clash of some sort pitting Iran against Israel and/or the U.S. was almost inevitable. Neither side seemed prepared to back down on key demands, especially on Iran’s nuclear program, and any talk of a compromise solution was deemed unrealistic. Today, however, the risk of war has diminished somewhat—at least through this election year in the U.S.—as talks have finally gotten under way between the major powers and Iran, and as both have adopted (slightly) more accommodating stances. In addition, U.S. officials have been tamping down war talk and figures in the Israeli military and intelligence communities have spoken out against rash military actions. However, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium, and leaders on all sides say they are fully prepared to employ force if the peace talks fail.
For the Iranians, this means blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which one-third of the world’s tradable oil passes every day. The U.S., for its part, has insisted that it will keep the Strait open and, if necessary, eliminate Iranian nuclear capabilities. Whether to intimidate Iran, prepare for the real thing, or possibly both, the U.S. has been building up its military capabilities in the Persian Gulf area, deploying two aircraft carrier battle groups in the neighborhood along with an assortment of air and amphibious-assault capabilities.
One can debate the extent to which Washington’s long-running feud with Iran is driven by oil, but there is no question that the current crisis bears heavily on global oil supply prospects, both through Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for forthcoming sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and the likelihood that any air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities will lead to the same thing. Either way, the U.S. military would undoubtedly assume the lead role in destroying Iranian military capabilities and restoring oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This is the energy-driven crisis that just won’t go away.
How Energy Drives the World
All of these disputes have one thing in common: the conviction of ruling elites around the world that the possession of energy assets—especially oil and gas deposits—is essential to prop up national wealth, power and prestige.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Early in the last century, Winston Churchill was perhaps the first prominent leader to appreciate the strategic importance of oil. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he converted British warships from coal to oil and then persuaded the cabinet to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner of British Petroleum (now BP). The pursuit of energy supplies for both industry and war-fighting played a major role in the diplomacy of the period between the World Wars, as well as in the strategic planning of the Axis powers during World War II. It also explains America’s long-term drive to remain the dominant power in the Persian Gulf that culminated in the first Gulf War of 1990-91 and its inevitable sequel, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The years since World War II have seen a variety of changes in the energy industry, including a shift in many areas from private to state ownership of oil and natural gas reserves. By and large, however, the industry has been able to deliver ever-increasing quantities of fuel to satisfy the ever-growing needs of a globalizing economy and an expanding, rapidly urbanizing world population. So long as supplies were abundant and prices remained relatively affordable, energy consumers around the world, including most governments, were largely content with the existing system of collaboration among private and state-owned energy leviathans.
But that energy equation is changing ominously as the challenge of fueling the planet grows more difficult. Many of the giant oil and gas fields that quenched the world’s energy thirst in years past are being depleted at a rapid pace. The new fields being brought on line to take their place are, on average, smaller and harder to exploit. Many of the most promising new sources of energy—like Brazil’s “pre-salt” petroleum reserves deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, Canadian tar sands, and American shale gas—require the utilization of sophisticated and costly technologies. Though global energy supplies are continuing to grow, they are doing so at a slower pace than in the past and are continually falling short of demand. All this adds to the upward pressure on prices, causing anxiety among countries lacking adequate domestic reserves (and joy among those with an abundance).
The world has long been bifurcated between energy-surplus and energy-deficit states, with the former deriving enormous political and economic advantages from their privileged condition and the latter struggling mightily to escape their subordinate position. Now, that bifurcation is looking more like a chasm. In such a global environment, friction and conflict over oil and gas reserves—leading to energy conflicts of all sorts—is only likely to increase.
Looking, again, at April’s six energy disputes, one can see clear evidence of these underlying forces in every case. South Sudan is desperate to sell its oil in order to acquire the income needed to kick-start its economy; Sudan, on the other hand, resents the loss of oil revenues it controlled when the nation was still united, and appears no less determined to keep as much of the South’s oil money as it can for itself. China and the Philippines both want the right to develop oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, and even if the deposits around Scarborough Shoal prove meager, China is unwilling to back down in any localized dispute that might undermine its claim to sovereignty over the entire region.
Egypt, although not a major energy producer, clearly seeks to employ its oil and gas supplies for maximum political and economic advantage—an approach sure to be copied by other small and mid-sized suppliers. Israel, heavily dependent on imports for its energy, must now turn elsewhere for vital supplies or accelerate the development of disputed, newly discovered offshore gas fields, a move that could provoke fresh conflict with Lebanon, which says they lie in its own territorial waters. And Argentina, jealous of Brazil’s growing clout, appears determined to extract greater advantage from its own energy resources, even if this means inflaming tensions with Spain and Great Britain.
And these are just some of the countries involved in significant disputes over energy. Any clash with Iran—whatever the motivation—is bound to jeopardize the petroleum supply of every oil-importing country, sparking a major international crisis with unforeseeable consequences. China’s determination to control its offshore hydrocarbon reserves has pushed it into conflict with other countries with offshore claims in the South China Sea, and into a similar dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. Energy-related disputes of this sort can also be found in the Caspian Sea and in globally warming, increasingly ice-free Arctic regions.
The seeds of energy conflicts and war sprouting in so many places simultaneously suggest that we are entering a new period in which key state actors will be more inclined to employ force—or the threat of force—to gain control over valuable deposits of oil and natural gas. In other words, we’re now on a planet heading into energy overdrive.
Michael Klare is a TomDispatch regular, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses global energy conflicts, click here or download it to your iPod here.
Cross-posted with permission from TomDispatch.com.
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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