On January 19, the Vienna Diplomatic Academy hosted a panel discussion on the global politics behind oil titled “The Struggle Over Oil – Conflicts, Profits and Alternatives”. Three members of the Montanuniversitaet Leoben SPE Student Chapter attended, here are their impressions.
The panelists were Prof. Philippe Le Billon, geographer at the University of British Columbia, and Manana Kochladze, biologist, founder of the environmental watchdog group Green Alternative and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2016. Moderator of the discussion was the Head of the Politics Department at the University of Linz Prof. Karin Fischer.
The opening statements were dedicated to the question of who are the “main actors” in the political and economic oil network, as well as what role they play, and what drives them. Looking at reserves, Prof. Le Billon stated that the two biggest players are Saudi Arabia (conventional) and Venezuela (heavy oil); however, looking the resources, the United States are the clear leader ahead of Russia. He also provided an insight in the economics of oil production: Assuming 100USD oil price, 20USD are lifting costs. This number will only vary slightly despite oil price changes. The oil producing countries’ governments take another 33USD as royalties etc., 40USD go to the consumer countries’ governments as taxes and corporate profit would only be 7USD. In the current price environment, this means that ca. 1/3 of the oil price are lifting costs (as they are quite independent of the oil price), governments take 63%, and only a mere 3-4% are left up for the international oil companies (IOCs). This implies that IOCs are striving to reduce lifting costs.
Mrs Kochladze focused her opening statement on the communities, and their role: Only in the past 20-30 years, oil companies started to involve the locals in their business and saw them as equal stakeholders in projects – a cause for many conflicts in the past, some of which lasting until now. Another aspect of her statement was the way how the mindset of oil companies, and especially the governments of oil producers, works when it comes to justifying big investments: Economically challenging projects such as transit pipelines are split into sections, which will increase the profit and throughput per dollar spent: Imagine a pipeline that costs 1bn USD and has an expected throughput of 1bcf of gas, that would mean 1bcf/USD. But splitting the pipeline into four sections, which obviously have the same throughput, the performance will increase to 4bcf/USD, making the project look a lot better! However, the overall economic feasibility remains the same and often even questionable).
The topic of the discussion slowly moved into the direction of conflicts over oil, and how they affect the geopolitical situation. The consensus that was reached was that there are five different reasons for conflicts over oil:
- “Peak Oil” – the struggle over the remaining reserves
- Geopolitical aspect – oil as a strategic resource, and as a diplomatic “weapon”
- Climate change – migration and other social changes caused by it
- Environmental conflicts – both unarmed resistance against projects as well as “environmental terrorism” (i.e. violent opposition) as means to deal with oil companies and (often autocratic) governments of the oil producing countries
- “Conflict Oil” – like blood diamonds, oil is a major economic factor for any party involved in armed conflicts
It was also stated that oil was the “excrement of the devil”, as it is not only the cause for conflicts, but also for the local communities, which are often suppressed to make prestigious projects possible.
“Oil is a very practical fuel. Thus, it will be hard to replace it in transportation, but it is fairly easy to replace in other areas, such as heating and energy production, or for the production of packing material.”
Philippe Le Billon
Finally, the question of how to cope with increasing oil prices, the environmental impact of oil and finding alternatives to fossil fuels was raised. As we live in the “Oil Age”, petroleum simply is our most important natural resource. A population increase will inevitably lead to an even higher consumption, both by direct causes such as transportation and heating, and by indirect ones, such as the production of many consumer goods. Visionary takes on this problem will be needed to succeed – and electrical mobility is seen as such a thing by the panelists. Moreover, the private car will – according to the panelists – vanish from cities, and the bicycle should become the number one means of transportation there.
The second half of the session was dedicated to questions from the audience. Geopolitical questions, such as the role of Iran and China as well as of the new US government were discussed as well as more technical ones in the direction of the feasibility to get rid of fossil energy sources altogether in the near future, or the impact of a transition towards e-mobility on environment and global economy.
The geopolitical aspect was answered in the following way: While the decision of US President Trump to include Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State) in his cabinet may not mean too much (and is not even unusual as Dick Cheney, Vice President under George W. Bush was CEO of Halliburton), the nomination of Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency) is clear signals towards the energy sector: He is assumed to facilitate hydraulic fracturing operations in the US, securing the US role on the global oil market on a longer time. As for China, the focus will probably be to spend the accumulated money on oil projects in the Caucasus and the Balkans, thus weakening the role of Russia for Europe’s supply security. The lifting of sanctions against Iran on the other hand will primarily have regional effect: the mid- and downstream industry in the neighboring countries will be affected, as those will be the countries that will have to ensure the transportation to the consumers in Europe.
The discussion was concluded with the final statement that oil demand has peaked, and will probably decline in the developed countries. However, especially in the US there is a significant correlation between oil price and consumption, which will not assist in moving on towards other resources.
(We would like to point out that the above opinions, especially on political topics, are the reproduction of the ones stated in the panel discussion, they do not necessarily reflect the ones of the Student Chapter.)