By seizing control of the Orinoco tar sands, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez delivered a stunning blow to US oil security. If the world economy worked in the way postulated by the globalizers his action would hardly have mattered, except to the unfortunate shareholders of the affected oil companies. However, the world economy doesn’t work that way, and Chavez’s seizure is thus of major long-term importance.
Orinoco is important, not because of current production from the region, a modest 600,000 barrels per day at a cost of $20 per barrel, economic but well in excess of the cost of Saudi or even Mexican offshore oil, but because of the size of the tar sands deposit. This has been variously estimated at between 1.2 trillion and 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, with higher estimates more recently. At the latter figure Orinoco represents 34% of all known world oil reserves, and 58 years of world oil consumption at current levels.
Since Orinoco’s oil comes in the form of tar sands, extracting petroleum is expensive, and not all the theoretically available petroleum can be extracted. However, current estimates that only around one fifth of these sands can be economically used are probably over-pessimistic; we have only been extracting oil commercially from the Orinoco tar sands and the similar Athabasca tar sands in Canada for less than a decade, so extraction technology can be expected to improve. Over the next couple of decades, production from Orinoco could be ramped up and extraction technology improved, so that the sands could take their rightful place among the world’s truly important sources of energy supply.
Thus if Orinoco and Athabasca were freely available to the world market the extreme “peak oil” theorizers would be wrong; there is enough oil supply for the world’s needs for at least 100 years at current prices. Only a sharp ramp-up in world oil usage or a disruption in the free trade patterns of world oil could prevent the United States and other major world oil users from having enough supply well past 2100. Whether burning all that oil would disrupt the world’s climate is another question (my estimate is: only modestly, provided appropriate precautions were taken) but oil supply as such should not be a problem.
Before Chavez’s action, a free world oil market seemed a reasonable assumption. There were certain rigidities, such as the US refusal to deal with Iran, but Iran is a second tier supplier and there are plenty of other countries willing to deal with it (as there were with Iraq in the days of the infamous “oil for food” program.) The main problem has been the extraordinarily rapid surge in Chinese and to a lesser extent Indian oil demand, which disrupted established market relationships and was bound to strain the system as well as raising oil prices.
In a well ordered market, other participants would have met with China and held open discussions of China’s future needs and the potential sources to satisfy Chinese demand. This would have ensured that China was reassured about the openness of world oil markets to Chinese participation, and might well have led China itself to play by the rules in a value-maximizing way. One way of convincing China that the world market was truly open to it, for example, would have been to allow the Chinese National Oil Company to buy Union Oil of California in 2005, a substantial but strictly second-tier transaction that threatened nobody.
This didn’t happen. Instead the Chinese leadership, having been brought up outside the free market system, naturally don’t expect to play by its rules. Having seen political pressure brought to bear in the US Congress to prevent them buying an oil source on the free market, China has determined to deal primarily with the “bad guys” who violate human rights or are otherwise motivated by hatred of the US and the existing world order. Since in turn Chinese checkbooks have removed any incentive to good behavior for human rights violators with natural resource deposits, human rights abuses have increased, as has anti-Americanism.
However, until now China’s actions weren’t particularly important. Sudan is not a major player in the world’s oil markets, while Iran is only a middle tier player and has other potential buyers in Europe. Human rights may thus suffer because of China’s oil purchases, and US foreign policy has taken a major hit, but the oil market itself has not been significantly affected. Even China’s deal last September to take 500,000 barrels per day from Venezuela, although economically insane because Venezuela has a much closer market in the US, was for a modest amount of oil and could not reasonably have been said to be market-disruptive.
The combination of Chavez’s visceral anti-Americanism with Chinese paranoia, when applied to the Orinoco oil sands is uniquely damaging to the stability of the world’s oil market; it is a marriage truly made in the nether regions as far as the United States is concerned.
If Hugo Chavez did not have access to non-US technology, even the simplest of embargoes would prevent him from exploiting Orinoco beyond its current state of development. The natural inefficiency of the state-run petroleum combine Petroleos de Venezuela would cause oil output to decline, particularly in the technologically complex Orinoco projects, while attempts to divert sales away from the United States would reduce Venezuela’s oil revenues. Chavez would run out of money fairly rapidly, and in the next oil price downturn would either be deposed or would return to the United States, cap in hand like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Either way, disruption to the world oil market and to US energy security would be minor and short-lived.
With Chinese help, however, Chavez is in a very different position. Chinese technology is probably not currently state-of-the-art in its ability to extract oil from sands. However China’s ability to backward-engineer technology and the resources it has available to devote to the problem would, with the US facilities already in place, quickly bring a Chinese “technical assistance” crew up to speed. At that point, there would be no further need for Chavez ever to sell another barrel of oil to the United States; he could simply ship Venezuela’s entire output to China.
Again, if the world oil market were truly free in the Adam Smith sense, this would not matter. If China bought its oil from Venezuela, and used its technological abilities to ramp up Venezuelan output, the United States could simply divert its purchases to other sellers. However, in a tight oil market this runs into a problem: in the long term, the major oil suppliers outside Orinoco, Athabasca and Russia are all in the Middle East. As it has shown in the gas market and again with its attempted suspension of deliveries to Estonia, the Russia of Vladimir Putin is a fairly unreliable supplier. In any case Russian oil production is beginning to decline, and is unlikely to be increased sharply while the country is mired in its current corruption.
Thus instead of China being forced to rely on unpleasant and unreliable Sudanese and Iranians for the additional oil it needs, the US consumer will now be subject to the tender mercies of the three major Middle Eastern oil producers, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. While the US has troops in Iraq, there probably isn’t a problem; Iraq is now believed to have oil reserves of 200 billion barrels, little more than a tenth of Orinoco but still enough to be ramped up to supplement other sources. If and when the US withdraws from Iraq, and that country either collapses into civil war or aligns itself with US-hostile Iran, the US suddenly has a frighteningly large number of economic chips placed on the fragile political stability of Saudi Arabia.
Absent a major world recession, this is a problem that is only going to get worse. The United States currently imports 58% of its oil needs; that percentage is forecast to rise to 68% by 2020. Athabasca will supply some of the excess, but environmental considerations and the difficulty and cost of extraction mean that Athabasca may not be able to be ramped up as quickly as the US would wish – the US Energy Department’s 2006 International Energy Outlook has Athabasca production at only 2.8 million barrels/day in 2030, less than 10% of US consumption in that year. China’s consumption, on the other hand, is expected to have quadrupled by 2030, with the country importing 11 million barrels/day.
If Venezuela were democratic, the United States would not need to worry – Chavez would be out of office at the latest by 2015 or so, as even the impoverished Venezuelan masses wouldn’t elect him indefinitely. If he didn’t have China to help him, an undemocratic but economically incompetent Chavez would also undoubtedly fall from power well before then. However, as Chavez moves towards dictatorship his potential longevity increases – Fidel Castro, after all, has been in office 48 years and counting. In 2030 Chavez will still be only 76, five years younger than Castro is today and with Chinese-derived oil revenues he is very likely to be still in power. The United States, desperate for oil imports, may well by that year be begging Vladimir Putin’s thuggish successors and the revolutionary regime that replaced Saudi Arabia’s monarchy for oil market mercy.
The Iraq war was not about oil. It didn’t need to be; the world oil market under the control of the United States, Japan and the EU was more or less free, so that a hostile Iraqi regime could easily be countered by a partial oil embargo and purchases elsewhere. The next war in which the United States is involved may well be about oil, however, and if the United States seeks to preserve its essential interests by assaulting the largest source of supply, with the most irredeemably hostile regime, Islam will have nothing whatever to do with it.
for The Daily Reckoning Australia