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Oil at the root of many global ills, but a solution is allusive

Our addiction to carbon-based fuels is, we’re told, the single-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s particularly true of our transportation choices.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which we’ve come up with alternatives for coal, natural gas and gasoline to generate power, heat our homes and get us around. Beyond the environmental improvements – assuming, of course, the alternatives we’ve turned to are benign or much less harmful, at least – there would be perhaps even larger benefits attributed to stripping power away from oil companies and eliminating the wars, violence and international crime associated with keeping the oil flowing.

The cost savings would also be enormous. Oil companies are some of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. They’re also among the most invasive lobbyists, with connections to some of the worst meddling in electoral politics – see, for example, the Koch brothers.

Oil and other natural resources are at the root of many colonial atrocities in global history, and remain a fundamental part of today’s neocolonial pursuits. Nowhere is that more abundantly clear than in the Middle East, where the colonial and geopolitical issues that shape the region today existed from the very start. The creation of the region we know today was itself a colonial exercise, part of the spoils of war following the First World War.

The region was divided up with little thought to the history and culture of the area, arbitrarily drawn lines put in place to serve colonial aspirations, not the good of the people there.

As oil became increasingly important following the Second World War, matters only got worse. The U.S. emerged as the dominant world power, and it became entrenched in the region to secure the oil, protect corporate interests and, during the Cold War in particular, to maintain its hegemony or, at a minimum, to keep the Russians in check.

Today’s military adventurism in Iraq, Iranian tensions and support for totalitarian Gulf states all stem from the geopolitical importance of the area, largely due to oil. The sordid tale, from the earliest colonial efforts to the unethical and illegal dealings going on this very minute, can – and does – fill volumes.

Ideally, alternatives would involve neither today’s large corporations nor the war hawks intent on fanning the flames, but that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a worthwhile pursuit given the environmental benefits and the prospect of altering, if not ending the Middle East conflicts … or at least making them less important on a global stage.

From the Canadian perspective, moving away from Middle East oil during a green transition could be a selling point for this country’s admittedly dirtier tar sands. Using the funds taken from the tar sands to invest in new technologies is the key to making that argument work. Taking money out of fossil fuels is a great idea; putting that money into green options would speed up a large-scale shift away from our dependence on coal, gas and oil.

Those are prime considerations in debating royalties paid for natural resources, not only oil and gas but a host of others, from potash to nickel. If we look at the Norwegian model – the country has been setting aside most of its huge oil revenues into a fund for future generations – then we’re certainly falling down on the job here. Non-renewable resources are by and large a short-term windfall for both the companies involved in extracting them and the provincial governments who collect royalties for taking from the public trust. If we’re going to push ahead with oil extraction, there should be a greater good than short-term gains such as corporate profits.

Alternatives aren’t going to come online overnight, so there’s something to be said for taking geopolitical issues into mind given the lack of direct warmongering involved in our industry.

And make no mistake, the wars and very profitable arms sales to states in the Middle East are the primary impetus for the U.S. and other foreign powers involved in the region. That’s been confirmed time and again.

“Of course it’s about oil, it’s very much about oil, and we can’t really deny that,” admits four-star General John Abizaid, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for Iraq, in a 2007 interview.

That same year, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel weighed in on the Iraq war:

“People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.”

That U.S. position on the Middle East is nothing new, as Robert Kennedy Jr. notes in 2016 piece for Politico.

“During the 1950s, President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers — CIA Director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles — rebuffed Soviet treaty proposals to leave the Middle East a neutral zone in the Cold War and let Arabs rule Arabia. Instead, they mounted a clandestine war against Arab nationalism — which Allen Dulles equated with communism — particularly when Arab self-rule threatened oil concessions. They pumped secret American military aid to tyrants in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon favoring puppets with conservative Jihadist ideologies that they regarded as a reliable antidote to Soviet Marxism [and those that possess a lot of oil].”

In today’s climate, oil is even more politicized. We best go into the debate with our eyes open and ignorance abated.

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