Friday, 20 July 2012

Oil

I went to see my friend Greg Muttit speak in San Francisco yesterday. I took the BART (our tube) under the water and then cycled up the sunny San Francisco hills to get there.

Greg has published a book called 'Fuel on the Fire - Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq.' After the protests against the war in 2003 he just started following what was happening to the oil. It became an epic journey.

Walking out of the talk and into the sunlight, I wanted to rage and cry to see, and cycle into, an 8 lane road. To have learnt of the straight forward barbarity that had been involved in securing access to oil, for two countries, my two countries if you like - the US and the UK - where transport cultures are based on the personal car, which everyone depends on to get to work, and where we rely on petrol trucks to bring us food. How else could we imagine these systems?

Greg explained that the US and UK didn't want to simply buy the oil from Iraq because demand was rising fast and Iraqi supply wasn't keeping up. The allies wanted more investment in the oil infrastructure and saw private ownership by US and UK companies as the way to secure that. It also seemed more secure in the long term, as demand for oil is rising fast around the world, particularly in countries like Russia, China, Brazil, India - so they wanted a way to keep the oil flowing towards us. 

Iraq has 10% of the world's oil. Iraq and three of its neighbours have, between them, 60% of the world's oil. And the industries of all four were nationally owned, meaning the profits were (potentially at least) available for schools, healthcare, housing and so on.

It was not in Iraqi interest to increase oil production the way the US wanted. That would drive down the price, so they'd sell more for the same amount of money, and have none left for future generations.

That didn't satisfy the US.

So, with allies, they invaded.

*     *     *

Once they were in, they had two central missions - to establish a post-Saddam democracy, and to secure access to the oil rights.

These two were firmly opposed - quite a puzzle to put together - because it wasn't in the Iraqi national interest to give oil rights to US and UK companies, and the people of Iraq - where 90% of the economy is in the public sector - knew it.

The allies tackled this by putting in place leaders who had been in exile in the US for over 30 years and were disconnected from the Iraqi people, more aligned with US values and interest. The US provided financial and military support, housed the politicians in army-secured five star hotels and villas while people in Iraq lived without electricity, often water, and sometimes food.

The first thing the US asked the new Iraqi government to do was draft an oil bill allowing foreign companies to buy the rights to Iraqi oil, and pass it through parliament. The bill was drafted in two months and shown the US and UK governments, and western oil companies. Six months later it was shown to the Iraqi parliament. A year later it was shown to the Iraqi people.

Meanwhile the bill was leaked. The minute any Iraqi heard of it, they would start talking about it to their friends, their family, their co-workers, because it was in such opposition to Iraqi values and interests.

The bill became talked about in mosques on fridays, Greg explained. The trade unions held conferences about it, passed out leaflets. Academics joined in. Countless letters were sent to the Iraqi parliament saying, don't sign it, it's bad news. Most of the Iraqi parliament agreed, and didn't sign the bill.

Bush was video conferencing with the Iraqi president almost weekly, Greg says - from interviews with scores of ministers and civil servants. Always asking one question first - when are you going to pass the oil bill?

As time went on the US issued a deadline and threats: if the bill was not passed by September, they would remove financial and military support for the government. In that case, the government would fall.

The deadline passed, the bill was not signed - this was 2007 - it has never been signed. So they just went ahead and sold 20 year contracts to American and British oil companies anyway. Meanwhile they ransacked the offices of the trade unions that were organising the opposition to the bill, destroying computers, destroying furniture, and reinstating Sadam's law that made trade union membership illegal. 

Without the bill, those contracts are illegal. Greg outlined a few future scenarios that I won't go into.

The point is, the oil is finite.

At some point we are going to have to figure out how to get to work and get food without using very much of it.

I'm thinking about having children. And I think we're just passing the job onto them. And it's always going to be difficult.

When is the time to start?

Over 100,000 Iraqi people were killed in that war. 4,486 American soldiers died, along with 179 British service men and women. Thanks to the BBC you can see the faces and the names of each of the British dead here.

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