Michael Klare: The oil world in chaos

One small aspect of a trip I took to El Paso, Texas, back in the 1970s remains in my mind: the weather.  No, not the weather in El Paso, which is more or less the same much of the year, but the weather on the local television news.  I remember watching a weatherman begin his report in — of all places at the time — the Persian Gulf and sweep swiftly and dramatically across the globe (and its various weather perturbations) before finally reaching El Paso where things were, of course, predictably hot and dull.  It might have been my earliest introduction to the charms of the weather to television news, which could be summed up this way: plenty of drama — storms, floods, droughts, fires, wrecked homes, weeping survivors, shipwrecked people — and no politics to muck things up.  Just Ma Nature, just The Weather!

What was then a strange phenomenon on one city’s news has since become the definition of all TV news.  At this point who hasn’t watched countless weather reporters struggling against the slashing winds and driving rain of some oncoming hurricane while shouting out commentary or heading into the waters of what had only recently been a town or city in the hip waders that are now requisite gear for flood coverage?

Only one problem: climate change threatens to screw up the formula.  That phenomenon has complicated weather coverage by inserting human (that is, fossil fuel) politics where only the periodically awesome destructive power of nature and raw human emotion once were.  All too often, bad weather may now be traced back, at least in part, to our endless burning of fossil fuels.  On the whole, however, onscreen news coverage continues to ignore that reality even as it features the weather ever more prominently.  In a sense, the news has been coopting climate change.  A small sign of this is the way the tag “extreme weather” has become commonplace as reports of floods ravaging the Southwest, fires the West, and tornadoes the South and the Great Plains proliferate.  Extreme weather, in other words, has gained its place in our consciousness largely shorn of the crucial factor in that extremity: the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases humanity has been dumping into the atmosphere.

Case in point: the staggering fire that continues to ravage the tar sands regions of Alberta, Canada, after an uncomfortably hot and dry winter and early spring that left local forests little more than kindling (in a world in which fire seasons are extending and intensifying globally).  With the industry that extracts those carbon-heavy tar-sands deposits endangered — their work camps incinerated, the city of Fort McMurray, which supports their operations, devastated, and tens of thousands of climate refugees created — you would think that some sense of irony, if nothing else, might have led the onscreen news to focus on climate change this one time.

But no such luck (at least as far as I could tell), even if the extremity of that fire was indeed big news.  There were, of course, mainstream exceptions to this — in print.  Among others, perhaps our finest environmental journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, weighed in early, as did Justin Gillis of the New York Times with a similarly themed front-page story. Otherwise, to this day, extreme weather remains the great-grandchild of the TV weather reporting I first saw in El Paso four decades ago.

Fortunately, at TomDispatch, Michael Klare continues to follow the world of oil exploitation and the extremity that accompanies it with a keen eye. For the petro-states of our planet, the “weather,” it seems, has been undergoing a distinct change for the worse.  For them, extremity of an unsettling sort is becoming a way of life. Tom Engelhardt

The desperate plight of petro-states
With a busted business model, oil economies head for the unknown
By Michael T. Klare

Pity the poor petro-states. Once so wealthy from oil sales that they could finance wars, mega-projects, and domestic social peace simultaneously, some of them are now beset by internal strife or are on the brink of collapse as oil prices remain at ruinously low levels. Unlike other countries, which largely finance their governments through taxation, petro-states rely on their oil and natural gas revenues. Russia, for example, obtains about 50% of government income that way; Nigeria, 60%; and Saudi Arabia, a whopping 90%. When oil was selling at $100 per barrel or above, as was the case until 2014, these countries could finance lavish government projects and social welfare operations, ensuring widespread popular support.  Now, with oil below $50 and likely to persist at that level, they find themselves curbing public spending and fending off rising domestic discontent or even incipient revolt.

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Michael Klare: The coming world of ‘peak oil demand,’ not ‘peak oil’

In a Greater Middle East in which one country after another has been plunged into chaos and possible failed statehood, two rival nations, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been bedrock exceptions to the rule.  Iran, at the moment, remains so, but the Saudi royals, increasingly unnerved, have been steering their country erratically into the region’s chaos. The kingdom is now led by a decrepit 80-year-old monarch who, in commonplace meetings, has to be fed his lines by teleprompter.  Meanwhile, his 30-year-old son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has gained significant control over both the kingdom’s economic and military decision-making, launched a rash anti-Iranian war in Yemen, heavily dependent on air power.  It is not only Washington-backed but distinctly in the American mode of these last years: brutal yet ineffective, never-ending, a boon to the spread of terror groups, and seeded with potential blowback.

Meanwhile, in a cheap-oil, belt-tightening moment, in an increasingly edgy country, the royals are reining in budgets and undermining the good life they were previously financing for many of their citizens.  The one thing they continue to do is pump oil — their only form of wealth — as if there were no tomorrow, while threatening further price-depressing rises in oil production in the near future.  And that’s hardly been the end of their threats.  While taking on the Iranians (and the Russians), they have also been lashing out at the local opposition, executing a prominent dissident Shiite cleric among others and even baring their teeth at Washington.  They have reportedly threatened the Obama administration with the sell-off of hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets if a bill, now in Congress and aimed at opening the Saudis to American lawsuits over their supposed culpability for the 9/11 attacks, were to pass. (It would, however, be a sell-off that could hurt the Saudis more than anyone.)  Even at the pettiest of levels, on Barack Obama’s recent arrival in Saudi Arabia for a visit with King Salman, they essentially snubbed him, a first for a White House occupant. All in all, a previously sure-footed (if extreme) Sunni regime seems increasingly unsettled; in fact, it has something of the look these days of a person holding a gun to his own head and threatening to pull the trigger. In other words, in a region already aflame, the Saudis seem to be tossing… well, oil onto any fire in sight.

And in a way, it’s little wonder.  The very basis for the existence of the Saudi royals, their staggering oil reserves, is under attack — and not by the Iranians, the Russians, or the Americans, but as TomDispatch energy specialist Michael Klare explains, by something so much larger: the potential ending of the petroleum way of life.  Tom Engelhardt

Debacle at Doha
The collapse of the old oil order
By Michael T. Klare

Sunday, April 17th was the designated moment.  The world’s leading oil producers were expected to bring fresh discipline to the chaotic petroleum market and spark a return to high prices. Meeting in Doha, the glittering capital of petroleum-rich Qatar, the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with such key non-OPEC producers as Russia and Mexico, were scheduled to ratify a draft agreement obliging them to freeze their oil output at current levels. In anticipation of such a deal, oil prices had begun to creep inexorably upward, from $30 per barrel in mid-January to $43 on the eve of the gathering. But far from restoring the old oil order, the meeting ended in discord, driving prices down again and revealing deep cracks in the ranks of global energy producers.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Doha debacle. At the very least, it will perpetuate the low oil prices that have plagued the industry for the past two years, forcing smaller firms into bankruptcy and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in new production capacity. It may also have obliterated any future prospects for cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers in regulating the market. Most of all, however, it demonstrated that the petroleum-fueled world we’ve known these last decades — with oil demand always thrusting ahead of supply, ensuring steady profits for all major producers — is no more.  Replacing it is an anemic, possibly even declining, demand for oil that is likely to force suppliers to fight one another for ever-diminishing market shares.

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HSBC and Citibank aided firm at center of international bribery scandal

Huffington Post reports: No business can operate without bankers — not even the bribery business.

British financial giant HSBC and American bailout kingpin Citibank processed transactions, managed money and vouched for Unaoil, a once-obscure firm that is now at the center of a massive international corruption scandal. Police raided Unaoil’s Monaco offices and interviewed its executives on Thursday, a day after The Huffington Post and Fairfax Media first exposed the company’s practices. Law enforcement agencies in at least four nations are involved in a wide-ranging probe of the company and its partners.

Halliburton, KBR and other corporate conglomerates relied on Unaoil to deliver them lucrative contracts with corrupt regimes in oil-rich nations. But without the help of banks like HSBC and Citibank, none of Unaoil’s operations would have been possible. [Continue reading…]


Global investigation launched on bribery and corruption in the oil industry

Fairfax Media and the Huffington Post report: he FBI, US Department of Justice and anti-corruption police in Britain and Australia have launched a joint investigation into revelations of a massive global bribery racket in the oil industry.

The news comes as Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post can reveal that US giant Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root are embroiled in the Unaoil bribes-for-contracts scandal through their operations in former Soviet states.

The biggest leak of confidential files in the history of the oil industry also unveils rampant corruption inside Italian oil giant Eni in many of the countries in which the firm has been contracted by national governments to manage their oilfields.

Texas firm National Oilwell Varco, Singapore conglomerate Keppel, Norway’s Aker Kvaerner and giant Turkish joint venture GATE are also implicated. Information from hundreds of thousands of emails to Unaoil’s chief executive, Cyrus Ahsani, show individual executives and managers from Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), which split in 2007, knew or suspected that Unaoil was acting corruptly to win contracts in Kazakhstan.

Managers from Eni, Spanish Firm Tecnicas Reunidas, French firm Technip, drilling giant MI-SWACO and Rolls-Royce not only actively supported bribery but were offered, or pocketed, their own kickbacks. And US defence giant Honeywell and Australian firm Leighton Offshore agreed to hide bribes inside fraudulent contracts in Iraq. [Continue reading…]


Leaks reveal industrial scale bribery operation involving major U.S., European and Asian companies


Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post report: A massive leak of confidential documents has for the first time exposed the true extent of corruption within the oil industry, implicating dozens of leading companies, bureaucrats and politicians in a sophisticated global web of bribery and graft.

After a six-month investigation across two continents, Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post can reveal that billions of dollars of government contracts were awarded as the direct result of bribes paid on behalf of firms including British icon Rolls-Royce, US giant Halliburton, Australia’s Leighton Holdings and Korean heavyweights Samsung and Hyundai.

The investigation centres on a Monaco company called Unaoil, run by the jet-setting Ahsani clan. Following a coded ad in a French newspaper, a series of clandestine meetings and midnight phone calls led to our reporters obtaining hundreds of thousands of the Ahsanis’ leaked emails and documents.

The trove reveals how they rub shoulders with royalty, party in style, mock anti-corruption agencies and operate a secret network of fixers and middlemen throughout the world’s oil producing nations.

Corruption in oil production – one of the world’s richest industries and one that touches us all through our reliance on petrol – fuels inequality, robs people of their basic needs and causes social unrest in some of the world’s poorest countries. It was among the factors that prompted the Arab Spring.

Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post today reveal how Unaoil carved up portions of the Middle East oil industry for the benefit of western companies between 2002 and 2012. [Continue reading…]


How Saudi Arabia turned its greatest weapon on itself

Andrew Scott Cooper writes: For the past half-century, the world economy has been held hostage by just one country: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Vast petroleum reserves and untapped production allowed the kingdom to play an outsize role as swing producer, filling or draining the global system at will.

The 1973-74 oil embargo was the first demonstration that the House of Saud was willing to weaponize the oil markets. In October 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia abruptly halted oil shipments in retaliation for America’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The price of a barrel of oil quickly quadrupled; the resulting shock to the oil-dependent economies of the West led to a sharp rise in the cost of living, mass unemployment and growing social discontent.

“If I was the president,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger fumed to his deputy Brent Scowcroft, “I would tell the Arabs to shove their oil.” But the president, Richard M. Nixon, was in no position to dictate to the Saudis.

In the West, we have largely forgotten the lessons of 1974, partly because our economies have changed and are less vulnerable, but mainly because we are not the Saudis’ principal target. Predictions that global oil production would eventually peak, ensuring prices stayed permanently high, never materialized. Today’s oil crises are determined less by the floating price of crude than by crude regional politics. The oil wars of the 21st century are underway. [Continue reading…]


Michael Klare: A take-no-prisoners world of oil

It’s evident that we’re still on a planet where oil rules. The question increasingly is: What exactly does it rule over? After all, every barrel of oil that’s burned contributes to a fast-approaching future in which the weather grows hotter and more extreme, droughts and wildfires spread, sea levels rise precipitously, ice continues to melt away in the globe’s coldest reaches, and… well, you know that story well enough by now. In the meantime, Planet Earth has a glut of oil on hand and that, it turns out, doesn’t mean — not for the major oil companies nor even for the major oil states — that the good times are getting ready to roll.

Of all the powers struggling with that oil glut and the plunging energy prices that have gone with it, none may be more worth watching than Saudi Arabia. While exporting its own extremists and its extreme brand of Islam from Afghanistan to Syria, and lending a decades-long hand to the destabilization of the Greater Middle East, that kingdom has itself been a paragon of stability. Nothing, however, lasts forever, and so keeping an eye on the Saudis is a must. That’s especially so since the latest version of the royal family has also made what might be called the American mistake (with the backing of the Obama administration, no less) and for the first time plunged the Saudi military directly into a typically unwinnable if brutal war in neighboring Yemen. Combine the destabilizing and blowback effects of wars that won’t end, including the Syrian one, and of oil prices that refuse to rise significantly and, despite the kingdom’s copious money reserves, you have a formula for potential domestic unrest. Already the royals are cutting their domestic subsidies to their own population, pulling billions of dollars in aid out of Lebanon, and exploring a possible $10 billion bank loan.

As TomDispatch’s invaluable energy expert Michael Klare suggests today, when oil prices began plummeting in 2015, the Saudis launched an “oil war of attrition,” imagining that others would be devastated by it (as OPEC partners Nigeria and Venezuela already have been) but that the royals themselves would emerge triumphant.  Should the unimaginable happen, however, and should the kingdom itself begin to come unglued in a Greater Middle East that is increasingly the definition of chaos — watch out. Tom Engelhardt

Energy wars of attrition
The irony of oil abundance
By Michael T. Klare

Three and a half years ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) triggered headlines around the world by predicting that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia to become the world’s leading oil producer by 2020 and, together with Canada, would become a net exporter of oil around 2030. Overnight, a new strain of American energy triumphalism appeared and experts began speaking of “Saudi America,” a reinvigorated U.S.A. animated by copious streams of oil and natural gas, much of it obtained through the then-pioneering technique of hydro-fracking. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Wall Street Journal crowed in an editorial heralding the IEA pronouncement.

The most immediate effect of this “revolution,” its boosters proclaimed, would be to banish any likelihood of a “peak” in world oil production and subsequent petroleum scarcity.  The peak oil theorists, who flourished in the early years of the twenty-first century, warned that global output was likely to reach its maximum attainable level in the near future, possibly as early as 2012, and then commence an irreversible decline as the major reserves of energy were tapped dry. The proponents of this outlook did not, however, foresee the coming of hydro-fracking and the exploitation of previously inaccessible reserves of oil and natural gas in underground shale formations.

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Putin’s reward for doing a deal with OPEC overshadowed by risks

Bloomberg reports: Neither a recession nor a collapse in revenue has yet been enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that it’s time to join with OPEC and cut oil output to boost prices. His reasons may be pragmatic rather than political.

Russia’s Energy Minister Alexander Novak and his Saudi Arabian, Venezuelan and Qatari counterparts agreed to freeze output at January levels on Tuesday. The world’s second-largest crude producer faces numerous obstacles to any deal that would actually cut production, even if Putin decides it’s in the national interest. Reducing the flow of crude might damage Russia’s fields and pipelines, require expensive new storage tanks or simply take too long.

In Siberia, Russia’s main oil province, winter temperatures can go below minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit). That’s a challenge for anyone thinking of turning off the taps.

The oil and gas that flows from wells always contains water, so once pumping stops, pipes may freeze, Mikhail Pshenitsyn, who has worked for more than 10 years in the Russian oil industry, said by e-mail. The problem goes away in summer, but there’s still the risk of a long-term reduction in output because a halted reservoir can become polluted with salts and residues, he said.

Production from a shut-in well might never be restored in full, Maxim Nechaev, director for Russia at consulting firm IHS Inc., said by phone. [Continue reading…]


Oil nations feel the strain of  OPEC’s continuing price war

The Telegraph reports: Oil is arguably Saudi Arabia’s best weapon against both Russia and Iran. Although the kingdom’s finances are under severe strain from the collapse in export revenues it can still fall back on its $655bn (£423bn) of foreign assets while Russia and Iran will feel the impact of another year of weak oil prices more acutely.

After a year of carnage in the oil industry, it is now clear that it will take more time for Al-Naimi’s strategy of allowing weaker prices to do the job of totally shutting down higher cost producers.

A 60pc slump in oil prices since last November has caused havoc but the main target of Opec ‘s campaign, shale oil in the US, has so far proved to be remarkably resilient.

Hardest hit have been the high cost producers in areas such as the North Sea where prices below $50 per barrel have placed the entire offshore industry at risk.

Energy consultant Wood Mackenzie now fears that 140 fields in the waters off north-east Scotland, where oil has been pumped since the 1970s, could be closed down over the next five years if oil prices remain so low. [Continue reading…]


The crude reality of declining crude oil prices

Hisham Melhem writes: The crashing price of oil, which dominated the world of energy in the last six months, and promises to stay with us for much of 2015, has brought cheers to American consumers and tears to the oil tsars of Russia, Iran and Venezuela in particular. If the price of oil remains in the neighborhood of $60 per barrel (bbl) for much of this year, the economic impact on Russia, Iran, Venezuela and maybe Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria and Libya could be ruinous. The sharp decline in oil revenues could force both Russia and Iran to review and maybe reduce their financial and material support for the Assad regime in Syria. Some optimists speculated that the crude reality brought about by the changing energy landscape may force Iran to show more flexibility in its nuclear negotiations with the P 5 + 1 in return for a quicker process of sanction relief. The precipitous fall in the price of oil has forced governments all over the world as well as the international financial institutions to review their investments and risk assessments for 2015 and beyond.

The foreign currency reserves that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have accumulated will help them navigate the turbulent markets in the immediate future, but even these economies will be forced to adjust their balance payments and maybe cut back on subsidies and social programs, in the absence of a market “correction” that would restore the price range that prevailed in the last 5 years. A sustained low price of oil could lead a country like Venezuela to default on its debts, a severe contraction in the Russian economy, and dramatic and unprecedented consequences on the Iranian economy, which is – like Russia’s economy- already teetering because of painful international sanctions. In Iraq, Libya and Yemen, very low oil prices could plunge these countries deeper into violence. So far, the three largest economies in the world; the United States, China and Japan (two major importers of oil) have benefitted from the decline of oil prices. However, if the current low price prevails for some time, this could impact those American companies that have invested large resources in the production of shale oil in States like Texas and North Dakota, who incur higher production costs.

The story of energy, specifically the production of oil and gas in the last 20 years has been one of wild transient fluctuations in global oil prices. Prices swung from a record high of $145 bbl in July 2008 to a precipitous low of $30 bbl in December of the same year in the wake of the financial crisis. The price of oil completely collapsed in 1998 to an incredible low of $10 in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. Last June, the price of Brent crude hovered around $115, by January 2, benchmark Brent has plummeted to $57.11 bbl. But for all the turmoil in the energy markets in the last few decades, most analysts kept saying that the “fundamentals” of the market i.e. energy prices will continue to rise, that the market will remain susceptible to the production levels of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers notably Russia, and that we are not likely to see a radical change in this supply model any time soon. But a “made in America” revolution may be changing some of the old energy assumptions. [Continue reading…]


Venezuela, Iran, and Russia hit hard by plunging oil prices

Following OPEC’s decision not to cut oil production, Daniel Yergin writes: No country clamored more loudly for OPEC production cuts than Venezuela. Once an oil powerhouse, Venezuela depends on oil revenues for up to 65% of government spending. But its production has fallen by a third since 2000. Owing to gross mismanagement, Venezuela’s economy is already in chaos, its political system in crisis and unrest is mounting. And Venezuela would be the No. 1 loser if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, as production from Canadian oil sands would displace Venezuelan heavy oil from its largest single market, the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Iran also clamored loudly for a production cut. High prices earlier this year give Tehran some budget cushion, but the government has little leeway for the next fiscal year. Iran depends on oil for half of its budget, and the country is already suffering from sanctions, which have cut its oil exports almost in half. Lower prices will prolong Iran’s recession.

A few days ago President Vladimir Putin said that Russia, the world’s largest oil producer and not a member of OPEC, is preparing for lower, even “catastrophic” oil prices. Oil provides over 40% of the Russian budget, but Mr. Putin has built up foreign exchange reserves worth a few hundred billion dollars, in part to cope with an oil-price collapse. Still, in an economy that is heavily dependent on imports of food and consumer goods, the falling value of the ruble means rising prices for imports, in effect slashing the incomes of consumers. Combined with the effect of sanctions from the Ukraine crisis, this means Russia is headed for recession. [Continue reading…]


OPEC said to consider sparing Iraq, Iran and Libya from oil cuts

Bloomberg reports: OPEC is considering exemptions for three nations from any potential oil-production cuts, two people with knowledge of the proposal said. Saudi Arabia’s oil minister said he doesn’t anticipate a difficult meeting when the group meets on Nov. 27 to decide its response to slumping crude.

Iraq, Iran and Libya wouldn’t have to reduce supplies should the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agree to cut output at its gathering in Vienna, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in line with their national policies. Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, told reporters in the Austrian capital yesterday that it’s not the first time the oil market has been oversupplied.