Monday, January 09, 2006

Aiming the Weapon

Edward Lucas and his colleagues at the Economist have some thoughts about the Ukraine-Russia gas dispute in the wider context of global energy politics:
On the face of it, dangers galore. But look closer. The oil market is tight, but price is a wondrous mechanism, and rising prices have spurred investment. Oil production may increase in 2006, and start to reflate that missing cushion. Though high prices may persist for several more years, the danger of disruption will recede. As for using energy as a weapon, this week's Ukrainian affair is a reminder of an old lesson: that sellers depend on buyers just as much as buyers on sellers. With oil, as Mr Chávez well knows for all his huffing and puffing, aiming this "weapon" is especially difficult, since oil, unlike gas, can be loaded on tankers and sold into a single world market. As ever, the Middle East is volatile. But as we report in a survey, Saudi Arabia, the biggest producer, has for now seen off an al-Qaeda insurgency and looks poised for a period of prosperity and reform under a new king.

China's growth is sucking in energy. In 2003 it overtook Japan to become the world's second-biggest consumer of oil after America. Energy security therefore plays a growing part in China's foreign policy. China is making alliances with oil producers regardless of the democratic or human-rights credentials of these regimes. That has already brought conflict with America. The Chinese are helping to prevent Sudan and Iran from being held to account by the UN Security Council for suspected genocide in the one case and nuclear cheating in the other. With two-thirds of the Gulf's oil exports already flowing to Asia, America will face more such challenges. But though this will be a source of friction, it need not be the catastrophe some think inevitable as the established superpower and the rising one fight it out for a dwindling resource.

In fact, oil independence is a chimera for America and China alike. Both have an interest in the security of the Gulf—but also in depending less on its oil. If the Ukraine story has a moral, it is that energy security depends on the existence of a global market free from political interference, plus maximum diversity of supply. But where energy is concerned, China distrusts the market, putting greater store on state-to-state deals and the direct control of foreign supplies. By scaring off CNOOC, a state-owned Chinese oil firm that wanted to buy America's Unocal last year, America foolishly strengthened this mercantilist instinct. Meanwhile, by failing to impose the carbon tax that would present consumers with the real cost of energy, America rejects the best way to kick its own addiction to oil and make greater use of alternatives. What a pity.
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