Beyond BP: Michael Klare on US Energy Policy

Why we should heed the warnings offered by Hampshire College's famed peace and world security prof.

Comments (6)
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Jerrey Roberts Photo, Courtesy of the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Michael Klare talks straight about energy and politics.

The disaster engendered by the explosion and subsequent hemorrhaging of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has thrust energy costs—economic and environmental—back into the public discourse in a way not seen since gasoline prices went ballistic in the summer of 2008. That summer, with prices hovering in the $4-per-gallon range, Hampshire College's Michael Klare published Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., New York). 

 Klare's book could not have been more timely. After all, his warnings about the dire implications of the world's growing reliance on finite energy sources—especially petroleum, natural gas, and uranium—seemed all too painfully validated by those record-high gas prices. However, shortly afterward, an epidemic of real estate foreclosures and the subsequent financial crisis and recession contributed to a near-50 percent reduction in the price of gasoline. (Of course, prices have since rebounded somewhat.)

Was Klare's ominous portrayal of the problems attending energy extraction and consumption an overstatement? Hardly, if the current crisis in the Gulf is any indication.

In view of recent comments made by BP officials—such as CEO Tony Hayward's claim that the sheer "vastness" of the world's oceans would render the environmental costs of virtually any oil spill negligible—it is easy to imagine them and other defenders of the fossil fuel status quo dismissing Klare's warnings as alarmist. But today's geopolitics of energy is in fact a scary state of affairs, and that is certainly not due to any embellishment on Klare's part.

Rising Powers is a cogent, accessible, well researched (e.g., relying on energy trade publications and statements from energy officials both in and out of government) expose of the intensifying, heavily militarized competition among the globe's largest energy-consuming nations for finite—and soon to be dwindling—sources of energy. Moreover, Klare makes clear that these remaining sources, like the oil currently gushing out of the well in the Gulf of Mexico, are becoming increasingly remote and hazardous to extract.


 Rising Powers doesn't mark the first time that Klare has been ahead of the curve in prefiguring the underlying features of contemporary geopolitics. In fact, Rising Powers can be seen as an elaboration on a broader theme—the centrality of natural resources (energy-related or otherwise) in geopolitical relations—sketched out in his previous book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. And in Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a New Foreign Policy (1995), Klare demonstrated remarkable prescience in anticipating how the so-called "Rogue State Doctrine" would provide the U.S. government with a justification for maintaining and exceeding Cold War-level military expenditures in the post-Cold War era.

In highlighting the increased likelihood of conflict accompanying the international scramble for energy reserves, Klare's overriding intent in Rising Powers is not to alarm, but rather to portray this sobering reality for what it is: a progressively volatile endgame fueled by military proliferation.

Moreover, Klare boldly asserts that this dynamic marks the beginning of a new era in global politics. Traditionally, national security considerations and state power have been defined in terms of the relative size and strength of states' military arsenals; now, state security and power are increasingly understood by policymakers as hinging on the possession of and/or access to sources of energy. Moreover, the energy-driven dynamics of international relations are creating a realignment of the global power lineup, which in turn will necessitate nothing less than a "redraw[ing] of the map of international politics" as both "energy surplus" and "energy deficit" states come to enjoy influence "disproportionate to their size and condition."

Klare's emphasis on the state as his chief unit of analysis is noteworthy. After all, in recent years many academics and journalists have remarked on the waning importance of the national state in international affairs, as transnational commerce and communication ("globalization") have superseded national boundaries. State sovereignty has also been eroded somewhat by the growth in numbers, and corresponding influence, of non-governmental organizations, and by the rise of certain supra-national entities such as the European Union.

However, Klare reasserts the importance of the nation-state as a centrally important actor in international affairs. This resurgence of the state is partly attributable to what Klare broadly refers to as the "characteristics of energy" in the post-Cold War era.

During the Cold War, Klare observes, governments for the most part relied on privately owned, international oil companies (IOCs) and market forces to secure adequate supplies of energy. However, in the post-Cold War world the high rates of economic growth experienced by the world's most populous industrializing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, have prompted "a degree of hysteria" among policymakers of all major energy importers (including, of course, those of China and India). Explaining this hysteria, Klare remarks that "[t]wo themes...predominate: fear that global energy supplies will fall short of anticipated demand and that the rising industrial powers of the developing world—with their booming economies, surging middle classes, and new automotive cultures—will trigger a brutal struggle for whatever energy there is."


Such anxieties—which, all things being equal, are not completely unfounded—have therefore compelled states to assume more and more control over energy procurement in the post-Cold War era. Consequently, of the world's 15 largest (in terms of proven oil reserves) oil companies, 13 are now government-owned "national" oil companies (NOCs). Klare notes that other scholars have described this resurgent "statist" behavior as "neo-mercantilism" or "resource nationalism." However one phrases it, it is clear that state leaders are increasingly understanding national "security" as energy security—reliable energy procurement—and not as something achieved only through the barrel of a gun.

The preoccupation of states with securing the reliability of energy through exploration and extraction might seem benign enough (leaving aside for a moment the weighty issues of diminishing and increasingly remote supplies). But understood as a matter of state security, energy procurement is inextricably bound up with military proliferation. Hence Klare's "new geopolitics of energy" is fraught with the potential for conflict, especially given the urgency that state leaders attach to finding new sources of energy.

Energy competition among what Klare calls the "energy deficit" states typically involves arms-for-energy tradeoffs with their suppliers, the "energy surplus" states. In the case of oil, arms transfers to the governments of surplus states pave the way for the deficit states' NOCs (and any IOCs headquartered in their countries) both to exploit their hosts' oilfields and to search for new ones. For deficit states, the top priority accorded to "energy security" renders considerations of surplus states' integrity (Do they respect international norms? Do they allow their citizens to exercise civil liberties?) irrelevant, for the most part.

Not surprisingly, the accelerating militarization of energy procurement increases the possibilities for armed international conflict. Klare explains how nationalism lends momentum to this process: "The long-term risk of escalation is growing even more potent because major energy importers and exporters regularly appeal to that most dangerous of emotions, nationalism, in making their claim over the management of energy flows. Nationalistic appeals, once they have gripped a populace, almost invariably promote fierce emotion and irrationality. Add to this fact that the leaders of most countries involved in the great energy race have come to view the struggle over hydrocarbon assets as a 'zero-sum' contest—one in which a gain for one country almost always represents a loss for others. A zero-sum mentality leads to a loss of flexibility in crisis situations, while the lens of nationalism turns the pursuit of energy assets into a sacred obligation of senior government officials."

The "competitive arms transfers" that represent the militarization of energy procurement also have another disturbing upshot: strengthening and legitimizing repressive, corrupt foreign regimes. In the case of U.S. arms recipients, the list is long and growing. It includes long-time allies in the Persian Gulf region—most notably Saudi Arabia—whose anachronistic social policies effectively reduce women to the status of second-class citizens; corruptible African governments in Nigeria, Chad, and Angola, where—along with off-shore drilling sites along the continent's west coast—U.S.-based oil companies such as Exxon and Chevron currently operate; and more recent allies in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region, including those Klare refers to as the "autocratic regimes" of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

While the governments of the oil-rich Persian Gulf have long been wooed with energy deficit countries' military largess, the emergence of the Caspian Sea region's governments as coveted allies may come as a bit of a surprise to some. Klare soberly sketches out a "three-way struggle for geopolitical advantage" in the Caspian Sea basin, as the U.S., Russia (Caspian states having formerly been Soviet republics) and China funnel arms and other forms of military assistance into the region in competition for influence there. Again stressing the dangers of an escalation of conflict, Klare notes that "This three-way militarizing the Caspian basin, inundating the region with advanced arms and an ever-growing corps of military advisers, instructors, technicians, and combat-support personnel. [It will] heighten traditional suspicions and rivalries that have long plagued the region. The Great Powers are not only adding tinder to possible future fires, but also increasing the risk that they will be caught in any conflagration."


Another source of "tinder" is the very real and increasing gap between the supply of and demand for energy. Klare cites energy trade journals' characterizations of the jump in energy use from 2004-2030 as "extraordinary." (China and India—"Chindia," in the parlance of some energy analysts—will play a "conspicuous role" here, representing the source of the aforementioned "fear" among policymakers of major energy importers.)

At the same time, specifically in the case of oil, Klare warns that rates of output in mature fields continue to decline; the track record regarding the discovery of new sources of "easy oil" has been disappointing; and investors have been reluctant to risk new ventures for "tough oil" in remote, hazardous or otherwise hostile environs (deep in the Gulf of Mexico, for example).

Moreover, over the long term, nonrenewable alternatives to oil are insufficient as substitutes. As he explains: "...a growing number of critical materials, including natural gas, coal, uranium, and several key minerals, also appear to be approaching their maximum levels of sustainable output. As suggested by scientists at the Army Engineer Research and Development Center of the Army Corps of Engineers, 'The earth's endowment of natural resources are [sic] being depleted at an alarming rate—exponentially faster than the biosphere's ability to replenish them.'"

As the world's largest energy consumers, China and the U.S. would seem to be the logical starting points from which to begin redirecting the increasingly militarized global race for nonrenewable energy sources. Accordingly, Klare asserts that a change from "competition to collaboration" in the U.S.-China energy paradigm could serve as an example for the rest of the world. Transcending commonly held notions of the "inevitability" of conflict between the two nations will be necessary for such collaboration to occur, along with recognizing and emphasizing what they have in common: shared status as oil-dependent energy consumers, and what Klare describes as "...a common interest in tackling the global warming dilemma. Together, [the United States and China] are projected to account for a staggering 45 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by 2030—a truly terrifying prospect, given the grievous harm in the form of intense storms, floods, droughts, fires, and pestilence that climate change is likely to inflict on both countries."


Students of international relations will recognize Klare's perspective on the geopolitics of energy as liberal and therefore internationalist, in contrast to both the realist perspective, with its emphasis on solely self-interested states vying for power in an anarchic, zero-sum world, and the unilateralist neoconservative perspective. No doubt some realists, and (needless to say) many neo-cons, would take issue with Klare's bi-and multi-lateral prescriptions for the energy challenges facing our "shrinking planet." Indeed, conservatives routinely dismiss liberal notions of the possibilities of international cooperation as "naive."

But are they really so? After all, if the United States and the Soviet Union were able to de-escalate their arms race during the Cold War, why couldn't the United States and China similarly defuse the climate of competitive tension surrounding energy procurement? Klare elaborates: "The Cold War-era arms control analogy, in fact, provides a concrete model for bringing Washington and Beijing together. At the start of the arms-control process, the United States and the Soviet Union were highly suspicious of each other. They nevertheless managed to develop negotiating forums and other mechanisms that allowed them, over time, to achieve tangible arms-control breakthroughs. A similar process should now be initiated in the energy field."

Klare then goes on to enumerate initiatives already underway that may promote U.S.-China energy cooperation. These include an ongoing mid-level discussion forum between the U.S. Department of Energy and China's National Development and Reform Commission, titled "U.S.-China Energy Policy Dialogue"; the U.S.-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum, "a periodic colloquium among industry and government officials from both countries"; and top economic officials' establishment (in late 2007) of a joint U.S.-China working group to come up with a 10-year plan for cooperation on energy and environmental issues. Following the formation of this group, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson expressed "excitement" about the prospects of "[the U.S. and China] working together toward progress" on "issues of energy security and environmental sustainability."

Clearly, then, when it comes to the prospects for cooperation between the U.S. and China on energy, the countries are not starting from scratch. More important, it is not hard to see how, given the size of their respective populations and economies, the U.S. and China could leave an indelible impression on the rest of the world's nations by translating into action the "excitement" expressed by Paulson about the possibilities for collaboration.

Whatever the prospects for geopolitical collaboration in energy procurement, the "sustainability" Paulson refers to will clearly require a substantial transformation of national energy policies from their current preoccupation with nonrenewable energy sources to concentration on renewables, including solar and wind sources. Additional measures, such as promoting energy efficiency in the construction of buildings, and even the cleaner burning of coal—the demand for which, as oil and natural gas sources begin their decline, is expected to rise in the foreseeable future—are among those advocated by Klare in the book's aptly titled last chapter, "Averting Catastrophe." (While the debate over "clean coal" need not be reviewed here, it is worth noting that many scientists and environmentalists refute the notion that coal can be burned "cleanly.") Illustrating that "considerable research and development on energy renewables is already underway in both the United States and China," Klare makes convincing cases both for the viability of renewable energy and for a new international energy paradigm in which the United States and China play leading roles.

While overcoming the "zero-sum, ultra-nationalistic impulses" that inform the energy policies of industrialized nations will be no small task, Klare is certainly not naive in appealing to our better natures by urging a "more collaborative approach to solving the world's energy challenges." Indeed, the very real and growing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico brutally underscores the need to transform the policies and practices of energy procurement into something akin to Klare's more sustainable, collaborative approach. The grievous costs of not doing so—the destruction of the Gulf's wildlife habitat and, along with it, the source of its socioeconomic sustenance—become increasingly evident with each passing day."

Jim Cabral teaches international relations and political science in the Social Science Department at Landmark College in Putney, Vt.


Comments (6)
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#1 - No duh: People and nations will start getting (more) violent as these resources get closer to running out.

#2 - Necessity is the mother of all invention. Alternative energy solutions are not further along than they are because we don't really need them yet. We will. But their is no immediate desire. The beauty of capitalism is that someone will come up with a solution when it comes time to make some money off alternative fuels. And once alternative fuels become cheaper, the public will happily consume them.

#3 - In relation to #2 and the nations that will likely hold the last large reserves of oil, what is their plan for alternative energy? It seems like most of their efforts will be to safeguard the oil rather than develop their own alternatives. In the big and long picture of things, it seems inevitable that roles will reverse.. those with the current random fortune of residing over a pile of natural resources will be powerless. Once a viable alternative is presented, they won't even need to defend their remaining reserves and will instead sell it at a discount.

Posted by J oe on 8.10.10 at 14:51

"After all the money we've spent bailing out the banks...." blah blah blah bla-blah, CP. The reality is gov't involvement created the problem - but naturally you and your ilk believe gov't is also the solution.

Shockingly, I don't work for an oil company and neither to most who share my view.

I said people and nations "will" get more violent. We aren't at a point of desperation. When the real end is near, nations and people who failed to make an alternative plan will fight for what's left. Not talking about Iraq. Nice reading comp.

"a published college professor" EEEK!!! MY GOSH! He's published AND a college professor? That is completely my bad, CP. I apologize as he clearly should not be questioned by anyone ever! I will now try to let my knees get as weak as I imagine yours are right now. I'm sorry again for questioning the opinion of a published COLLEGE professor! Again, I'm absolutely blown away!

Incidentally, I once heard a speach from a published college professor saying that the earth's food from land and sea would be exhausted soon (I believe by around this year) and we needed to board sphere-like spaceships where housing and people would be pressed against the inside wall by artificial gravity. This ship would travel through space looking for the next available inhabital planet. My point? This could be true but, as usual, nut jobs like to seem important by pushing up the timeline ...just a tad. He was a few thousand years off but he was a published college professor so perhaps I'm living in one of those ships right now but was drugged and don't know it.

But again.... this is exhausting... when oil becomes scarce enough and expensive enough, capitalism (NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) will encourage, as it always does, private citizens to create a viable alternative. Only at that point will there be a viable market for alternate fuel because people like to pay less money for stuff and gready capitalist jerks will create a product to fill that void. The ironic part is that you and your ilk cry about the lack of viable alternative energy but, when the private sector eventually creates it and profits from it, you will scream to tax the bejesus out of them. Everyone will buy electric cars when the are cheaper to buy and drive than gas powered cars. It's not a complicated concept.

To recap: Never question a college professor especially if they've been "published." Bush lied, people died, and now the US controls Iraq's oil and profits from it (is that last point right? Sounds right.) Anyone who disagrees with the hysterical big oil boogeyman narrative must work for big oil.

I would almost guess that you're a published college professor too.

Posted by J oe on 8.11.10 at 16:11

Hey Joe: In re to your #2 comment, that reminds me of how governments work. It's kind of like a street corner where it takes 50 kids to be killed crossing the street before a Stop Sign in erected or a Red Light. Always too little, too late.

And you probably live at least 1,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the oil spill and the eroding shoreline, nothing of which you know or care about. (Oh, I'm sorry - you probably went to Disney World once so you know alot about Florida). Let me tell you, I live in Tampa Bay and we know and care quite a bit about it and how it's caused by the world's growing dependency on fossil fuels while governments talk about solar, wind, etc., yet do nothing about it, decade after decade. Of course Boone Pickens is pushing naural gas, but did you ever see the documentary, "Gasland?" That ought to waken your brain a little more about natural gas and Boone Pickens.

The only thing you hear and see on TV now about the Gulf oil spill are BP ads. I'm sure the entire USA doesn't give a hoot anymore about those disastrous pictures that everyone saw for a couple of months as the millions of gallons of oil were spewing out of that broken well head. I'm also sure it wasn't even a topic at most dining room tables each day for people in the North, Midwest and where the Gulf of Mexico never enters their mind. Like you, they've probably never seen it, fished in its georgous waters or swam in it.

What do you propose to do about the shoreline in the panhandle in Florida, Louisiana and the other Gulf states whose beaches and shoreline will be as filthy and dead as what happened as a result of the Exxon Valdez, over 20 years ago and stilll not totally cleaned up? Oh, I know. It's not a necessity yet, so we don't have to fix it. Not only that - you don't have to look at it or you and your family get sick from it or lose everything you've ever worked for. I'm sure you and yours would rather starve than accept BP or government help, right? You sound like a Libertarian. You'd probably like to see Sarah Palin elected president with all her knowledge about the oil industry. (Drill, baby drill!")

It's too bad YOU weren't a college profressor. Maybe you could offer solutions instead of living a mindset of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Furthermore, in addition to the author of this article's comments, there were also quotes from Michael Klare, et al, all of which I'd love to see you debate. That debate would turn out to be akin to Katy Couric asking Sarah Palin which magazines she reads.

Posted by Artie Cab on 8.13.10 at 11:21

“the Gulf of Mexico, the oil spill and the eroding shoreline, nothing of which you know or care about.”

I know and care about it, but I suppose it’s easier in your childish mind to demonize me than to understand that smart and good people can disagree.

“while governments talk about solar, wind, etc., yet do nothing about it, decade after decade.”

Like I said… the private sector will eventually create the solution despite the best efforts of gov’t to penalize their success in the form of taxes, etc.

“…never seen it, fished in its georgous waters or swam in it.”

Ah yes… you are the expert because you are there.

“The only thing you hear and see on TV now about the Gulf oil spill are BP ads.”

Why are you making this all about you with such a nonsensical statement. I have seen and read news about it just like everyone else. Are you unaware of this here intraweb highway?

“I'm sure you and yours would rather starve than accept BP or government help, right?”

I don’t know what this statement means. I don’t think you do either.

“living a mindset of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I don’t live in that world. You, however, seem to live in a world where anything broken should be fixed by gov’t (i.e. Daddy). Most people understand that the private sector is driven to create solutions by the potential rewards… i.e.. greedy bastards who will make money – not unlike BP.

When will you realize that every expanding gov’t is not the answer to your problems?

Posted by J oe on 8.13.10 at 12:36

Passenger pigeons come to mind on the oil peaking discussion. The population dwindled eves as the most massive efforts were made to shoot them,; in the last few years, hunters would show up at lodges with rowboat or wagon filled with the hapless critters. Then, too few to maintain reproduction.

Oil is different; it will not ever completely "disappear", but simply get more expensive to get at and extract ever depleting sources. The mistake, and a deadly one, is to expect to be able to continue using it up before -or in tandem with- a mirror energy source is brought into parallel applications, scaled up in time to substitute seamlessly. That is the rub, and we are wide open naked to repeat of the August 2008 price spike, with a lower absolute production ceiling than existed 2 years ago. "Asian Tigers" China and India growth has already nearly assumed oil supply opened up by US recession. Sad fact, US will not find adequate oil supply waiting when new US growth is attempted...

VALLEY ADVOCATE Editorial Board hopefully has business advisors or writers willing to honestly research the true vulnerabilities America faces with regard to oil production limits. Next demand/production collision will bring Federal Executive Emergency Orders for motor fuel Rationing.

Even with the Strategic Reserve, the allocation will be soon imposed, because sensible policy will address need to shift oil use with all due haste. Agriculture will have first call. Long haul trucking can be shifted to rail, first in corridors with rail. Rail branch lines as exist in California will be rebuilt, prioritized by agricultural traffic, then with regard to trucking volume, etc.

Besides Michael Klare's writings, another good compendium is seen at Richard Heinberg's page; see the "MUSELETTER" 220. Many strategic planners around the world have satisfied themselves with the information about annual aggregate oilfield depletion. It requires 6% new product annually, year on year to stay even. Talk about growth is soon going to be stifled by realities of limits on liguid motor fuel. Railway haul will have to substitute for truck distribution as time passes, simply to maintain current tonnage. Chris Skrebowski offers latest compendium on the Peaking Oil saga. Also, see Christopher C. Swans book: "ELECTRIC WATER" (New Society Press, 2007) and companion website "Suntrain Transportation Corporation".

Planners with initiative, see US Rail Map Atlas Volumes from and circa 1950's
"OFFICIAL GUIDE" for information on US rail matrix prior to long haul trucking and "Just-In-Time distribution practice. Reformed US Army/Guard Railroad Operating & Maintenance Battalions will be called on to assist with rebuild of key rail corridors. After operable, rail branch lines would probably come under operating control of existing short line rail operator (see ASLRRA).

Posted by tahoevalleylines on 9.16.10 at 14:44

play nice boys.

Posted by wall street subscription on 9.22.10 at 0:25



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