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By Michael T. Klare
Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, U.S. military forces hadn't even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilized to fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.
Who says President Trump doesn't have a coherent foreign policy? Pundits and critics across the political spectrum have chided him for failing to articulate and implement a clear international agenda. Look closely at his overseas endeavors, though, and one all-too-consistent pattern emerges: Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to prolong the reign of fossil fuels by sabotaging efforts to curb carbon emissions and promoting the global consumption of U.S. oil, coal and natural gas. Whenever he meets with foreign leaders, it seems, his first impulse is to ply them with American fossil fuels.
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By Michael T. Klare
That Donald Trump is a grand disruptor when it comes to international affairs is now a commonplace observation in the establishment media. By snubbing NATO and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, we've been told, President Trump is dismantling the liberal world order created by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the end of World War II.
Cowboys and Indians are at it again.
Americans who don't live in the West may think that the historic clash of Native Americans and pioneering settlers is long past because the Indians were, after all, defeated and now drive cars, watch television, and shop at Walmart. Not so.
That classic American narrative is back big time, only the Indians are now the good guys and the cowboys—well, their right-wing representatives, anyway—are on the warpath, trying to grab 640 million acres of public lands that they can plunder as if it were yesteryear.
Meanwhile, in the Dakotas, America's Manifest Destiny, that historic push across the Great Plains to the Pacific (murdering and pillaging along the way), seems to be making a return trip to Sioux country in a form that could have planetary consequences.
@mikewfritz / Twitter
Energy Transfer Partners is now building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion oil slick of a project. It's slated to go from the Bakken gas and oil fracking fields in northern North Dakota across 1,100 miles of the rest of the Dakotas and Iowa to a pipeline hub in Illinois. From there, the oil will head for refineries on the Gulf Coast and ultimately, as the emissions from fossil fuels, into the atmosphere to help create future summers so hot no one will forget them. Keep in mind that, according to global warming's terrible new math, there's enough carbon in those Bakken fields to roast the planet—if, that is, the Sioux and tribes allied with them don't stop the pipeline.
This time, in other words, if the cavalry does ride to the rescue, the heroes on horseback will be speaking Lakota.
Last Stand at Standing Rock
If built as planned, the Dakota Access Pipeline will snake through the headwaters of the Missouri River, a life-giving source of fresh water for millions of people who live downstream, including Native Americans. It's supposed to pass under that river just a few miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. Protestors point out that, eventually, the pipeline is likely to leak into that vital watershed and the contamination could prove catastrophic.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which green-lighted the project's design, and Energy Transfer Partners have continued to insist that there is no such risk—even though, suspiciously enough, they decided to change the pipeline's route to avoid the water supply of North Dakota's capital, Bismark. As ever, tribal leaders point out, they were ignored rather than consulted in the planning stages, even though the project was to pass directly through their lands.
When the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to bring especially carbon-heavy tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, was killed thanks to years of fierce environmental protests, the stakes were raised for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Keystone was a disaster for the energy industry. In its wake, opponents claim, the new project was fast-tracked without the usual environmental reviews so that construction could be completed before a Keystone-style opposition formed. Fast as they were, it turns out that they weren't fast enough.
Keep in mind that such a project wasn't exactly a first for the native peoples of the region. In the wake of their defeat and confinement to reservations in the 19th century, they lived through a profound transformation of their landscape. Settlers let cattle loose on meadows cleared of wolves, cougars and bears. The rude stamp of progress followed: fences, roads, dams, mines, sawmills, railroads, power lines, towns, condos, resorts. And in the 21st century, vistas increasingly pockmarked with fracking's drill rigs and service roads.
In the Dakota prairies, hundreds of species of grass and flowers were replaced by monocultures of soy and corn, while millions of cattle were substituted for herds of free-roaming bison. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, the neighboring Sioux and Cheyenne lost 200,000 more acres of valuable reservation farmland to dams built without their permission. Entire villages had to relocate. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just the latest of these assaults and yet, in every way, it's potentially more disastrous. As Lakota Chairman David Archambault puts it, "To poison water is to poison the substance of life."
Slaughter, internment and neglect were bad enough, say tribal leaders, but threatening the people's life-giving water was the last straw. As a result, thousands of Native Americans drawn from 280 tribes across the country and even around the world are now camping out at the construction site where the Dakota Access Pipeline nears the tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Almost 2 million signatures have been gathered on a petition opposing the pipeline, dozens of environmental groups have signed on to the resistance and tribes nationwide have expressed their solidarity.
On Sept. 3, the private security guards hired by Energy Transfer Partners used pepper spray and dogs on those trying to block the pipeline. This eruption of violence halted work until U.S. District Judge James Boasberg could rule on the tribe's request for an injunction to block construction while its case was heard in court.
On Sept. 9, while conceding that "the United States' relationship with Indians has been contentious and tragic," he denied that request. Then, in a move described even by the Sioux as stunning, the Obama administration suddenly stepped between the protesters and the pipeline construction crews. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called for a halt to the process until the permitting procedure could be reviewed.
Although putting an oil pipeline under a major river should have triggered an environmental review, the Corps chose not to do one. Now, it will take a second look. The administration also committed itself to finding better ways to include Native Americans in future land-use decisions.
Where this goes next is anyone's guess. The construction halt could, of course, be lifted if the protesters were to disperse under a false sense of victory. The Sioux now plan to litigate vigorously against the pipeline. One prediction, however, is easy enough. The unity and purpose experienced by the people in that encampment will resonate powerfully for years to come. A movement has been born along the banks of the Missouri River.
Native Americans have played the crucial role in this campaign to "keep it in the ground," just as they were leaders in the successful struggle to block the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would have carried dirty crude across Canada to the Pacific, and the building of a massive coal export port on Canada's Pacific coast. As Native American leader Winona LaDuke puts it, "For people with nothing else but land and a river, I would not bet against them."
This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the cowboys have been engaged in a not-so-old-fashioned range war over who can best manage 640 million acres of public lands now owned collectively by the American people. Backed by the Koch Brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislators across the American West—where most of the public lands are located—are calling on the federal government to cede control and management of them to counties and states. This would include some of our most beloved national parks.
In Utah where I live, the Republican-dominated legislature has put forward the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). It's the latest round in a 30-year feud pitting conservationists and businesses tied to tourism and recreation against ranchers and miners. At stake: whether to give the last publicly controlled wild places in the state formal wilderness status and federal protection or (though this isn't often directly said) let private interests exploit the hell out of them. Every few years the Utah legislature's "cowboy caucus" has pushed just such a "wilderness bill" filled with poison pills and potentially devastating loopholes that the local conservation community can't abide.
Billed this time as a potential grand bargain to settle who controls public lands and how they can be used, the PLI has proven no different. It was, in fact, generated by local fears that President Obama might use his wide-ranging powers under the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument in the state as he left the Oval Office. This was exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996, establishing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of land in southern Utah's spectacular canyon country, already the home of five national parks.
That 1906 act, passed while Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, gives the president wide-ranging authority to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. Since activities like drilling for oil and gas, mining, timber cutting and grazing are barred or tightly restricted on such protected lands, Western politicians tend to regard them as a tool wielded by conservationists to suppress economic development.
Grave Robbing for Fun and Profit
Sure enough, the nightmare of the cowboys is being realized. A coalition of five tribes, all either presently in Utah or claiming ancestral lands there, is now pushing a bold proposal for just such a national monument—a park co-managed by the five tribes and the U.S. National Park Service (which in itself would be a significant first for the Native American community). It would include 1.9 million acres of the ancestral grounds of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain and Ute Indian tribes and would be known as the Bears Ears after the area's most famous landmark, twin buttes that are said to resemble a bear's ears.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewel recently toured the proposed monument and was amazed by what she saw, including spectacular cliff-house ruins, as well as paintings and rock carvings depicting clan signs, shamanic visions and ghostly herds of bighorn sheep and elk. Bears Ears would possess more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including many of the oldest and most spectacular ruins in the U.S. Members of the coalition of tribes regard them and the ground littered with their ancestors' artifacts and bones as sacred.
A grassroots group, Utah Dine Bikeyah, did extensive groundwork collecting data and interviews to create cultural maps of the region. The extraordinary archaeological and historical record they built effectively made their case that the ancestors of the coalition tribes have relied on that landscape for hunting, gathering and ceremonial activities for centuries. The Utah conservation community, which had mapped out its own plans for such a monument, stepped aside for the tribal proposal.
Protecting the Bears Ears is considered an urgent matter. A mere handful of rangers currently patrol thousands of square miles of rugged canyons where the looting of archaeological sites for fun and profit is a rural tradition. In remote outposts like Blanding, Utah, Indian grave robbing was considered an acceptable family pastime until agents from the FBI infiltrated the black market for artifacts and busted a prominent local family. Ute leader Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk expresses a motivating concern of the tribal leaders.
"Without swift action we fear that the archaeological and cultural riches of the Bears Ears will suffer shameful, disgraceful dissolution and obliteration," she said.
Her fear is well founded. In recent years, for instance, rural county commissioners have led illegal all-terrain-vehicle rallies on a route through Recapture Canyon that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers shut to motorized traffic because it crosses several key archaeological sites.
State and county politicians were not content to challenge the BLM's closure of that canyon in court. Instead, they openly promoted such rides to defy the feds. The last of these protests in 2014 did, in fact, significantly damage unprotected archeological sites. The indigenous community saw it as a shocking show of disrespect, like driving directly over cemetery graves. The well-armed vigilantes who rode through Recapture Canyon were led by Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and the famous hothead of the Bundy clan.
You may remember the colorful Bundy boys. After all, they became the stars of the "cowboy rebellion" against federal regulation on public lands. In 2014, BLM rangers were dispatched to Nevada to remove Cliven Bundy's cows from lands on which they had been grazing illegally for 20 years. The feds claimed that he owed the taxpayers a million bucks in unpaid grazing fees. He, on the other hand, insisted that such public lands belonged to the ranchers whose grandparents first grazed them.
The rangers sent to enforce the law were met by hundreds of armed cowboys, many of whom took up sniper positions around them. Faced with such overwhelming firepower and the prospect of bloodshed, they withdrew and a range war was on.
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
That retreat in Nevada undoubtedly emboldened the Bundy clan and their militia allies to seize Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. Well-armed, they occupied the visitor center at that bird refuge, leaning on every cowboy cliché in the book. They dressed the part with chaps, boots, buckles and Stetson hats, carried American flags, and regularly posed with their horses for news photographers.
In the end, despite the Marlboro Man look and the Clint Eastwood demeanor, the Bundyites came across as the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The "constitutional revolution" they wanted to spark by seizing Malheur fizzled amid a festival of cognitive dissonance and irony: men carrying assault rifles and threatening to use them proclaimed themselves "peaceful protesters" and, while declaring it off limits, attempted to "return" land to the American people—land that they already owned.
Federal agents eventually arrested all of the principal players in both the earlier Nevada standoff and the Malheur fiasco, except for one killed at a roadblock when he charged armed rangers and reached for his gun. Trials began on Sept. 7 and are slated to last for months.
Given the open hostility of state and local politicians to the protection of sacred sites, as well as their willingness to break the law and offer tacit support for vigilantes like the Bundys, tribal leaders decided to take their concerns about protecting their ancestral grounds to the top. A delegation traveled to Washington and met with President Obama, while a media campaign was begun to persuade others to endorse the plan.
A broader coalition of tribes and the conservation community rallied to the idea, especially because it was the first time that Native American tribes had proposed such a monument. The vision of a park to honor sacred indigenous lands, shaped and directed by Native Americans themselves, caught the public imagination. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both written editorials urging the president to create such a park and Utah polls show a solid majority of citizens in favor of it.
Peace Pipes, Not Oil Pipes
The genocidal policies that accompanied settlement across North America crested in Sioux country at the close of the 19th century. The survivors of the vanquished indigenous nations there were interned on reservations. Their children were taken from them and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their language and ceremonies banished. This was—and was meant to be—a form of cultural genocide.
In the Bears Ears and Sioux country today, however, the culture of Native Americans endures. The descendants of those warriors who died defending their homeland and of those children taken from their families and their native cultures have proven remarkably resilient. They are once again defending their world and, as it happens, ours too, because even if you don't share the Missouri River watershed, you live on a planet that is being rapidly transformed by the sort of toxic cargo that will fill a future Dakota Access Pipeline.
In the Hollywood Westerns of my youth, Indians were often one-dimensional villains who committed atrocities on good white folks trying to bring civilization to the frontier. As with so many notions I inherited in my youth, reality has turned out to be another story.
Certainly, before the onslaught of colonialism, the way indigenous people across the planet viewed what we now call our environment has come to seem like sanity itself. The land, as the Sioux and other tribal peoples saw it, was a living being saturated with spirits that humans should both acknowledge and respect.
The Indians whom the cowboys and bluecoats fought didn't share European concepts of cash, property, profit, progress, and, most importantly, technology. Once upon a time, we had the guns and they had the bows and arrows, so we rolled over them. But here's the wondrous thing: a story that seemed to have ended long ago turns out to be anything but over. Times have changed, and in the process the previous cast of characters has, it seems, swapped roles.
An economy hooked on carbon is threatening life on Earth. The waters of seas and oceans are warming fast; the weather is becoming unpredictable and harsh. Perhaps it's time to finally listen to and learn from people who lived here sustainably for thousands of years.
Respecting Sioux sovereignty and protecting the sacred sites of tribes in their own co-managed national monument could write the next chapter in our American story, the one in which the Indians finally get to be heroes and heroines fighting to protect our way of life as well as their own.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TomDispatch.
[This essay is excerpted from Noam Chomsky's new book, Who Rules the World?]
In January 2015, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced its famous Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight, a threat level that had not been reached for 30 years. The bulletin's statement explaining this advance toward catastrophe invoked the two major threats to survival: nuclear weapons and “unchecked climate change." The call condemned world leaders, who “have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe," endangering “every person on Earth [by] failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization."
Sunday, April 17 was the designated moment. The world’s leading oil producers were expected to bring fresh discipline to the chaotic petroleum market and spark a return to high prices. Meeting in Doha, the glittering capital of petroleum-rich Qatar, the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with such key non-OPEC producers as Russia and Mexico, were scheduled to ratify a draft agreement obliging them to freeze their oil output at current levels. In anticipation of such a deal, oil prices had begun to creep inexorably upward, from $30 per barrel in mid-January to $43 on the eve of the gathering. But far from restoring the old oil order, the meeting ended in discord, driving prices down again and revealing deep cracks in the ranks of global energy producers.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the Doha debacle. At the very least, it will perpetuate the low oil prices that have plagued the industry for the past two years, forcing smaller firms into bankruptcy and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in new production capacity. It may also have obliterated any future prospects for cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers in regulating the market. Most of all, however, it demonstrated that the petroleum-fueled world we’ve known these last decades—with oil demand always thrusting ahead of supply, ensuring steady profits for all major producers—is no more. Replacing it is an anemic, possibly even declining, demand for oil that is likely to force suppliers to fight one another for ever-diminishing market shares
The Road to Doha
Before the Doha gathering, the leaders of the major producing countries expressed confidence that a production freeze would finally halt the devastating slump in oil prices that began in mid-2014. Most of them are heavily dependent on petroleum exports to finance their governments and keep restiveness among their populaces at bay. Both Russia and Venezuela, for instance, rely on energy exports for approximately 50 percent of government income, while for Nigeria it’s more like 75 percent. So the plunge in prices had already cut deep into government spending around the world, causing civil unrest and even in some cases political turmoil.
No one expected the April 17 meeting to result in an immediate, dramatic price upturn, but everyone hoped that it would lay the foundation for a steady rise in the coming months. The leaders of these countries were well aware of one thing: to achieve such progress, unity was crucial. Otherwise they were not likely to overcome the various factors that had caused the price collapsein the first place. Some of these were structural and embedded deep in the way the industry had been organized; some were the product of their own feckless responses to the crisis.
On the structural side, global demand for energy had, in recent years, ceased to rise quickly enough to soak up all the crude oil pouring onto the market, thanks in part to new supplies from Iraq and especially from the expanding shale fields of the United States. This oversupply triggered the initial 2014 price drop when Brent crude—the international benchmark blend -- went from a high of $115 on June 19 to $77 on November 26, the day before a fateful OPEC meeting in Vienna. The next day, OPEC members, led by Saudi Arabia, failed to agree on either production cuts or a freeze, and the price of oil went into freefall.
The failure of that November meeting has been widely attributed to the Saudis’ desire to kill off new output elsewhere—especially shale production in the U.S.—and to restore their historic dominance of the global oil market. Many analysts were also convinced that Riyadh was seeking to punish regional rivals Iran and Russia for their support of the Assad regime in Syria (which the Saudis seek to topple).
The rejection, in other words, was meant to fulfill two tasks at the same time: blunt or wipe out the challenge posed by North American shale producers and undermine two economically shaky energy powers that opposed Saudi goals in the Middle East by depriving them of much needed oil revenues. Because Saudi Arabia could produce oil so much more cheaply than other countries—for as little as $3 per barrel—and because it could draw upon hundreds of billions of dollars in sovereign wealth funds to meet any budget shortfalls of its own, its leaders believed it more capable of weathering any price downturn than its rivals. Today, however, that rosy prediction is looking grimmer as the Saudi royals begin to feel the pinch of low oil prices, and find themselves cutting back on the benefits they had been passing on to an ever-growing, potentially restive population while still financing a costly, inconclusive, and increasingly disastrous war in Yemen.
Many energy analysts became convinced that Doha would prove the decisive moment when Riyadh would finally be amenable to a production freeze. Just days before the conference, participants expressed growing confidence that such a plan would indeed be adopted. After all, preliminary negotiations between Russia, Venezuela, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia had produced a draft document that most participants assumed was essentially ready for signature. The only sticking point: the nature of Iran’s participation.
The Iranians were, in fact, agreeable to such a freeze, but only after they were allowed to raise their relatively modest daily output to levels achieved in 2012 before the West imposed sanctions in an effort to force Tehran to agree to dismantle its nuclear enrichment program. Now that those sanctions were, in fact, being lifted as a result of the recently concluded nuclear deal, Tehran was determined to restore the status quo ante. On this, the Saudis balked, having no wish to see their arch-rival obtain added oil revenues. Still, most observers assumed that, in the end, Riyadh would agree to a formula allowing Iran some increase before a freeze. “There are positive indications an agreement will be reached during this meeting... an initial agreement on freezing production,” said Nawal Al-Fuzaia, Kuwait’s OPEC representative, echoing the views of other Doha participants.
But then something happened. According to people familiar with the sequence of events, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and key oil strategist, Mohammed bin Salman, called the Saudi delegation in Doha at 3:00 a.m. on April 17th and instructed them to spurn a deal that provided leeway of any sort for Iran. When the Iranians—who chose not to attend the meeting—signaled that they had no intention of freezing their output to satisfy their rivals, the Saudis rejected the draft agreement it had helped negotiate and the assembly ended in disarray.
Geopolitics to the Fore
Most analysts have since suggested that the Saudi royals simply considered punishing Iran more important than lowering oil prices. No matter the cost to them, in other words, they could not bring themselves to help Iran pursue its geopolitical objectives, including giving yet more support to Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Already feeling pressured by Tehran and ever less confident of Washington’s support, they were ready to use any means available to weaken the Iranians, whatever the danger to themselves.
“The failure to reach an agreement in Doha is a reminder that Saudi Arabia is in no mood to do Iran any favors right now and that their ongoing geopolitical conflict cannot be discounted as an element of the current Saudi oil policy,” said Jason Bordoff of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Many analysts also pointed to the rising influence of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entrusted with near-total control of the economy and the military by his aging father, King Salman. As Minister of Defense, the prince has spearheaded the Saudi drive to counter the Iranians in a regional struggle for dominance. Most significantly, he is the main force behind Saudi Arabia’s ongoing intervention in Yemen, aimed at defeating the Houthi rebels, a largely Shia group with loose ties to Iran, and restoring deposed former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After a year of relentless U.S.-backed airstrikes (including the use of cluster bombs), the Saudi intervention has, in fact, failed to achieve its intended objectives, though it has produced thousands of civilian casualties, provoking fierce condemnation from U.N. officials, and created space for the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, the prince seems determined to keep the conflict going and to counter Iranian influence across the region.
For Prince Mohammed, the oil market has evidently become just another arena for this ongoing struggle. “Under his guidance,” the Financial Timesnoted in April, “Saudi Arabia’s oil policy appears to be less driven by the price of crude than global politics, particularly Riyadh’s bitter rivalry with post-sanctions Tehran.” This seems to have been the backstory for Riyadh’s last-minute decision to scuttle the talks in Doha. On April 16, for instance, Prince Mohammed couldn’t have been blunter to Bloomberg, even if he didn’t mention the Iranians by name: “If all major producers don’t freeze production, we will not freeze production.”
With the proposed agreement in tatters, Saudi Arabia is now expected to boost its own output, ensuring that prices will remain bargain-basement low and so deprive Iran of any windfall from its expected increase in exports. The kingdom, Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg, was prepared to immediately raise production from its current 10.2 million barrels per day to 11.5 million barrels and could add another million barrels “if we wanted to” in the next six to nine months. With Iranian and Iraqi oil heading for market in larger quantities, that’s the definition of oversupply. It would certainly ensure Saudi Arabia’s continued dominance of the market, but it might also wound the kingdom in a major way, if not fatally.
A New Global Reality
No doubt geopolitics played a significant role in the Saudi decision, but that’s hardly the whole story. Overshadowing discussions about a possible production freeze was a new fact of life for the oil industry: the past would be no predictor of the future when it came to global oil demand. Whatever the Saudis think of the Iranians or vice versa, their industry is being fundamentally transformed, altering relationships among the major producers and eroding their inclination to cooperate.
Until very recently, it was assumed that the demand for oil would continue to expand indefinitely, creating space for multiple producers to enter the market, and for ones already in it to increase their output. Even when supply outran demand and drove prices down, as has periodically occurred, producers could always take solace in the knowledge that, as in the past, demand would eventually rebound, jacking prices up again. Under such circumstances and at such a moment, it was just good sense for individual producers to cooperate in lowering output, knowing that everyone would benefit sooner or later from the inevitable price increase.
But what happens if confidence in the eventual resurgence of demand begins to wither? Then the incentives to cooperate begin to evaporate, too, and it’s every producer for itself in a mad scramble to protect market share. This new reality—a world in which “peak oil demand,” rather than “peak oil,” will shape the consciousness of major players—s what the Doha catastrophe foreshadowed.
At the beginning of this century, many energy analysts were convinced that we were at the edge of the arrival of “peak oil”; a peak, that is, in the output of petroleum in which planetary reserves would be exhausted long before the demand for oil disappeared, triggering a global economic crisis. As a result of advances in drilling technology, however, the supply of oil has continued to grow, while demand has unexpectedly begun to stall. This can be traced both to slowing economic growth globally and to an accelerating “green revolution” in which the planet will be transitioning to non-carbon fuel sources. With most nations now committed to measures aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases under the just-signed Paris climate accord, the demand for oil is likely to experience significant declines in the years ahead. In other words, global oil demand will peak long before supplies begin to run low, creating a monumental challenge for the oil-producing countries.
This is no theoretical construct. It’s reality itself. Net consumption of oil in the advanced industrialized nations has already dropped from 50 million barrels per day in 2005 to 45 million barrels in 2014. Further declines are in store as strict fuel efficiency standards for the production of new vehicles and other climate-related measures take effect, the price of solar and wind power continues to fall, and other alternative energy sources come on line. While the demand for oil does continue to rise in the developing world, even there it’s not climbing at rates previously taken for granted. With such countries also beginning to impose tougher constraints on carbon emissions, global consumption is expected to reach a peak and begin an inexorable decline.According to experts Thijs Van de Graaf and Aviel Verbruggen, overall world peak demand could be reached as early as 2020.
In such a world, high-cost oil producers will be driven out of the market and the advantage—such as it is—will lie with the lowest-cost ones. Countries that depend on petroleum exports for a large share of their revenues will come under increasing pressure to move away from excessive reliance on oil. This may have been another consideration in the Saudi decision at Doha. In the months leading up to the April meeting, senior Saudi officials dropped hints that they were beginning to plan for a post-petroleum era and that Deputy Crown Prince bin Salman would play a key role in overseeing the transition.
On April 1, the prince himself indicated that steps were underway to begin this process. As part of the effort, he announced, he was planning an initial public offering of shares in state-owned Saudi Aramco, the world’s number one oil producer, and would transfer the proceeds, an estimated $2 trillion, to its Public Investment Fund (PIF). “IPOing Aramco and transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” the prince pointed out. “What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.”
For a country that more than any other has rested its claim to wealth and power on the production and sale of petroleum, this is a revolutionary statement. If Saudi Arabia says it is ready to begin a move away from reliance on petroleum, we are indeed entering a new world in which, among other things, the titans of oil production will no longer hold sway over our lives as they have in the past.
This, in fact, appears to be the outlook adopted by Prince Mohammed in the wake of the Doha debacle. In announcing the kingdom’s new economic blueprint on April 25, he vowed to liberate the country from its “addiction” to oil.” This will not, of course, be easy to achieve, given the kingdom’s heavy reliance on oil revenues and lack of plausible alternatives. The 30-year-old prince could also face opposition from within the royal family to his audacious moves (as well as his blundering ones in Yemen and possibly elsewhere). Whatever the fate of the Saudi royals, however, if predictions of a future peak in world oil demand prove accurate, the debacle in Doha will be seen as marking the beginning of the end of the old oil order.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.
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“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” President Obama said on a recent trip to Michigan. “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.
To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks. Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.
The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive. In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable. As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”
President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint. But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis. There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore; Herculaneum, Missouri; Sebring, Ohio; and even the nation’s capital, Washington, DC and that’s just to begin a list. State reports suggest, for instance, that "18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint."
Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood. The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered and their neurological development undermined.
From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony and abandonment by the local, state and federal governments that should have protected them. Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.
Two, Three ... Many Flints
In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world’s largest corporation. GM’s Buick plant alone once occupied “an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide,” according to the Chicago Tribune and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of “this automotive city.” Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.
The crisis that attracted President Obama’s attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.
As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster. Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so. Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint’s population is majority African American and Latino and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line. Of its 100,000 residents, 65 percent are African American and Latino and 42 percent are mired in poverty.
The president should be worried about Flint’s children and local, state and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It’s already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community.
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Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has refused to provide Flint’s residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the U.S. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg. Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.
Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Go. Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.
There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America. It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country. In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably. Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.
In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline. It was lauded at the time as a "gift of God" by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the U.S. During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched. Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.
Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools and other buildings until 1978. Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.
Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings and workplaces across the U.S. remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live. Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls.
However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today. As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint’s water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil and air.
Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.
In truth, the U.S. has scores of “Flints” awaiting their moments. Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs—just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster. Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive. Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.
The Future of America’s Toxic Past
A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint’s chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster. If clueless, corrupt or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed—that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America’s children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.
Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country’s poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.
There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.
President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city’s damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it’s time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America’s children and face the terrible human toll caused by “the American century.”
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