Focus: Oil

It is the great liberator that has changed the course of history. But it has brought misery as well as wealth, and the latest global convulsions triggered by this corrupting substance show how perilous is the world's dependence on it. By Adrian Hamilton
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The Independent Online

Someday someone - perhaps a composer is already at work on it - will write a great operatic cycle on the rise and fall of oil. In Wagner's Ring it was gold that was taken from the Rhinemaidens, to the curse of all who possessed it until the commodity could be returned to the river whence it came.

In the case of oil, it is "black gold" that has been wrested from the earth where it has lain for millions of years, to bring wealth and misery in equal measure upon those who find it, those who own it and those who consume it. Only when the world can move away from the corrosive and corrupting substance can society be at ease with itself.

That is one narrative as the world faces the prospect that the peak of oil production is being reached and that, from now on, output will fall, prices will rocket and the industrialised and industrialising nations will find themselves in a fierce scrabble to ensure available supplies. The queues lining up in the forecourts of Britain's petrol stations are but a taste of misery to come.

Then there is a different narrative, in which oil has been the great liberator of the past century, the fuel that has enabled hundreds of millions of ordinary people to embrace travel and an industrialising world to gain the energy to fuel its power and drive its manufacture.

Without it, the citizen would have remained trapped and economies would have been unable to prosper. Look only to New Orleans, a city emptied, to see what happens when you have no electricity and no transport.

And on to this narrative. Of course, there is the tale of the industry that made it happen, the global oil giants that prefigured the worldwide companies of today, the "seven sisters" - half of them, the bastard children of John D Rockefeller's dismembered Standard Oil that controlled for so long the supply and distribution of the fuel and which gave rise, in its turn, to a counter-cartel of oil-exporting countries in Opec.

It is no accident that Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Russian oligarchs have virtually all made their money out of the privatisation of the Soviet hydro-carbons industry, nor that three of the top 10 companies in the world are oil giants.

Oil isn't new. It has been around since Babylonian times, a sulphurous tar used to light buildings and throw death and destruction on the enemy. It isn't the only fuel or the only international commodity to have made the wealth of nations and given power to conquerors. The Romans invaded the UK not for its green and pleasant land but for its tin, lead and other resources. The Hittite Empire grew strong on its possession of iron in Anatolia, just as the Spanish did on gold and silver from the Americas. The industrial revolution in Britain and across Europe, was fuelled by coal. But coal was found relatively close to the plants that used it. And it took the sweat of thousands of labourers to dig it out.

Oil is unique in the extent to which it relies not on manpower but on knowledge and technical investment to find it, get it out, process it and refine it. Money is what it takes to develop it, and money is what you make from it. It is also unique in the extent to which it is found not where it is needed but in the most isolated and most inhospitable parts of the world. It's not that oil, and natural gas, don't exist elsewhere. In traces and small quantities they crop up almost everywhere.

But only in certain parts are the oil and gas caught in reservoirs big and porous enough to "gush" out in the volumes that make it worthwhile. These, by a quirk of fate, lie largely in the deserts of Arabia and the Middle East, and the offshore waters of the continental shelves.

Oil is politics and politics is oil. For the producer it brings revenues beyond measure but few jobs and little local direct benefit, a sure recipe for corruption and conspicuous government consumption. Which is exactly what has happened in Nigeria and Kuwait. To the producing country, at least, oil is a curse. Even Saudi Arabia has found its finances wrecked and its society pulled apart by it, while no one could argue that it has been the saviour of either Iran or Indonesia.

For the consumer, oil brings endless concerns about security of supply and foreign dependence. A sure recipe for political meddling and unholy alliances between Western states and foreign tyrants. Not for nothing has America, which once had plentiful supplies of its own and now depends on imports for half its consumption, forged special links with Saudi Arabia and other producers.

Nor can oil be excluded, to put it mildly, from President Bush's calculations when he invaded Iraq and instructed his troops to direct themselves first to guarding the oil installations. Iraq, with the greatest untapped reserves of the Middle East, was meant to provide a new, more secure source of oil for America to counterbalance an ever more volatile Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein's greatest sin in Western eyes had not been to oppress his own people. That they had ignored for decades. Nor had it been to invade Iran. That was considered useful in keeping the land of the Ayatollahs in check. It was to take over Kuwait and then threaten Saudi Arabia's oil.

And so it is that the invasion of Iraq to unseat him has helped bring about a further oil crisis, the third in 30 years in which the price of oil has doubled, strategic reserves have been broken into and oil supplies overstretched. The first crisis, in 1973, was brought about by the Arab imposition of selective cut-backs in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war. The second was caused by the fall of the Shah in 1978. The latest has been engendered by rising demand in China, falling supply because of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and a shortage of refining capacity. One crisis could be regarded as a warning; two as shock treatment. A third can only be viewed (by many of the experts, at least) as the beginning of the end.

Is it? Because oil is so huge an industry, and so vital to the world's economy, it lends itself to the more apocalyptic visions of the future. When the energy crisis of 1973 broke out and rationing books for petrol were issued for the first time since the Second World War, the air was full of the direst predictions. Prices would soar for ever. Supplies would run out.

The prophecies were not all wrong. The effective tripling of oil prices did do terrible damage to an already over-inflationary world economy, helping to cause a slowdown lasting three years. The world was using up its available resources at an unsustainable rate. If the West had continued to use energy at the rate of the early Seventies, it would have hit a crunch point within a generation if not sooner.

But price brought its own response. Higher prices induced greater saving and more efficiency. They also encouraged new supplies, notably from the North Sea but also Asia and Africa, and accelerated use and transport of national gas. Western reliance on Opec, which seemed so absolute in 1973, appeared a thing of the past a few years later as North Sea supplies came on line and American offshore production built up.

When the second oil shock of 1978 occurred with the fall of the Shah and the temporary cessation of Iranian oil exports, the reduction in flows was greater than in 1973 and the immediate spiralling up of prices was even sharper. But the effect was short-lived. Alternative oil supplies were available and the world's economy was better balanced.

The question now is whether this third shock is a replay of 1973 or 1978 or perhaps different and more frightening than either. The price of oil, which had steadily fallen throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has now doubled and redoubled again. The cost of Gulf oil, which was $17 (£9) per barrel at the beginning of 2000, had reached $35 by the end of last year and now stands at well over $60 per barrel. And once more, as the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, accepted in his speech to the TUC last week, we are back to dependence on Opec to supply the extra oil we need this year, next year, and well into the future. It's as if we have spent the past 30 years escaping a trap only to find ourselves right back in it: a world dependent on oil and reliant on the most volatile part of the globe to supply it.

The immediate squeeze may not be as bad as the markets fear. It owes much to the peculiar combination of Hurricane Katrina, which has shut down oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and a tightness in worldwide refining capacity, which could ease substantially in the coming year when new oil supplies are also expected from the Caspian. Already crude oil prices are falling back from their peaks, as Tesco and Asda's decision to reduce the cost of petrol has shown. But it is the remorseless rise in demand from India and China that is of most concern in the longer term. We have bought time since 1973 largely through pushing non-Opec supplies from the North Sea and Russia to the point where they can't be expected to do much more. If we are to use more oil at the present rate of growth, most of it will have to come from Opec, which may not be able or want to provide it.

The end of the oil era is upon us. Soon oil output from conventional sources will peak. The strain will then have to be taken by other fuel sources and changes in demand. What we don't know is how high the price will have to go and how great the supply shocks will be before we get there; whether the market alone will effect a solution or whether governments will have to act to suppress demand and preserve supplies.

The Ring cycle ended with the gold returned and the earth once more at peace. But it is as well to remember that in Wagner's epic the gods who had built a great new home through labour bought by the gold destroyed themselves.

Adrian Hamilton's books include 'The Biggest Business' and 'The North Sea Impact'.

The Stats

4: Biggest non-state-owned companies: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron-Texaco

6m tons: Amount of petroleum products that end up in the sea every year

17m: Barrels of oil consumed every day in the US, more than any other country

71.7m: Barrels of oil consumed worldwide every day

260bn: Barrels of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, more than any other country

1,000bn: Barrels of proven oil reserves left in the world. This should last us 40 years