The Greater Middle East has much of the proven oil and natural gas reserves in the world, and it is those hydrocarbon resources that give the region its central position in US policy. But the dependence by the US and its allies on petroleum is promoting a disturbing religious fanaticism and authoritarianism in the Muslim world, because of where the oil lies. Moreover, burning hydrocarbons causes global warming and sea level rise, threatening American coastal cities like Miami with being submerged, menacing the Southwest with extended drought and forest fires, and contributing to extreme weather events like more powerful hurricanes and typhoons.
“Among the goals of “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles” are:
A smart electrical grid that works with renewable energy sources, and smart metering systems that enable homes, businesses and electric cars to feed energy back into the system.
More efficient energy production and storage technology.
A carbon-free transportation infrastructure and public transit system, with greater options for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Solar energy on every rooftop.
A decentralized water treatment and supply system.
More efficient and affordable technologies for capturing and cleaning wastewater, stormwater and other urban water.
Developing environmentally friendly technologies for desalinating ocean water.
Policies that encourage homeowners to use low-water landscaping, rainwater catchment systems, and systems to capture, purify and reuse graywater.
An increased number of underpasses for wildlife and crossings to connect and enlarge wildlife habitats.
Supporting native plants and animals with green rooftops, native gardens, neighborhood green spaces and other land-use strategies to break down barriers between urban and natural space.”
The US uses around 19.5 million barrels a day of petroleum. Despite hydraulic fracturing and ethanol, the US still imports around 7.6 million barrels a day (despite what the boosters say, there is no prospect of the US avoiding oil imports). Moreover, US allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Japan are also big oil importers and their security depends on the Middle East. The US as a superpower has to look out for that security.
What do the Middle East exporters do with the revenues they receive from the US and its allies? Saudi Arabia spreads an intolerant form of Islam, first the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, now more recently the so-called “Salafis” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, who have agitated against human rights, women’s rights and secular principles. Saudi Arabia claims over $800 billion in reserves, built up from its oil sales, and is deploying that money to shape the Muslim world in an rigid and hateful direction. Do we really want to be making involuntary donations to that cause?
Likewise, oil millionaires in places like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who are not government figures (in fact they may be anti-government) are also supporting disturbing movements. In northern Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Succor Front (Jabhat al-Nusra)– both al-Qaeda affiliates– are said to receive monies from the Salafi billionaires of Kuwait.
Iran also uses its oil income to promote Khomeinism, an intolerant form of Shiite Islam, in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda’s Usama Bin Laden gave as one reason to hit the US on 9/11 that the West was siphoning off Mideast oil at bargain prices because of complaisant regimes like Saudi Arabia. If we didn’t need their oil at all, we couldn’t be accused of stealing it.
The Gulf oil monarchies (with the exception of Qatar) have played a negative role in the region’s attempt to move to more democratic forms of governance, backing authoritarianism in e.g. Egypt.
Competition for gas and oil resources also drives conflict in the region. Gas fields in the Mediterranean off Gaza, Israel and Lebanon are disputed. The Israelis want to drill for oil in the Palestinian West Bank. Likewise, fundamentalist rebels in northern Syria are pumping petroleum to get money to use against the Baath regime. No one has ever killed anyone else to get hold of their wind turbine or roof solar panel.
Oil money, violent conflict, authoritarianism and religious fanaticism appear to go hand in hand in the region. In contrast, Muslim-majority non-oil states are capable of producing secular-minded regimes and vital labor and leftist movements.
Resources like oil actually harm the normal economy by artificially hardening currencies, hurting artisans, farmers and factory workers since their goods are unreasonably expensive for importers. Much of the Middle East might be better off economically without the curse of oil. Likewise, having a high-priced primary commodity like oil in government hands pushes countries away from democracy. Among countries with 25% or more of their economy coming from oil sales, only Norway has managed to remain a democracy.
The way for the US and its allies to become less dependent on the Middle East, increasing their security, and at the same time to reduce the baleful influence of the oil-driven fundamentalists, is to stop using petroleum for fuel. This step would also have the beneficial effect of reducing carbon emissions– 28% of the over 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide the US dumped into the atmosphere is from transportation, mainly petroleum-fueled.
A crash program to move to solar, wind and wave energy and an end to hydrocarbon subsidies, is the way forward. Encouraging people to move to the cities (a process already underway especially since 2008), better central city planning, and better mass transit fueled by renewables, could have a tremendous impact in reducing oil use. (These processes have already reduced US oil use by 2 million barrels a day since 2007, because of the effects of the 2008 crash and its aftermath an continued relatively high petroleum prices). The right state and Federal policies could revitalize cities like Detroit and also much reduce America’s dependence on dirty and unstable oil.
But for those who have to drive given lack of convenient public transit, the electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid plug-in (PHEV) should be the automobiles of choice. There are now large numbers of models using this technology. If you are in the market for a new car and can afford something in the $30,000 range, it is absolutely crazy not to get a plug-in hybrid. Several, including the Volt and the Prius PHEV, have seen major price drops for 2014 into that range for the no-frills version. At the moment, there is a substantial Federal income tax break for purchasers. Some states also encourage such purchases. If you buy a hybrid and drive it more than three years, and get no more than 40% of your electricity from coal, you will be carbon neutral for the rest of the life of the automobile, even given the carbon it takes to produce the car and its battery.
Charge ahead California has announced a campaign to put a million EVs on the road in that state in only 12 years, and it seems actually a doable project. California sends $40 billion a year out of the state to pay for gasoline, some of it to Saudi Arabia, where it fuels Salafism. If you have a house and put solar panels on the roof and charge the car off them, you have free fuel that pays for the car and the panels in short order.
We don’t need to put Draconian sanctions on Iran or risk harming the economies of allies like Japan and South Korea. We shouldn’t need to keep a naval HQ at Manama in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. We shouldn’t need to kowtow to Saudi Arabia and its increasingly militant and authoritarian policies. We shouldn’t have to watch as Gulf-style patriarchy and hatred of foreigners is imposed on an open, modern society like Tunisia.
We need to take petroleum out of the equation, both for geostrategic reasons and to reduce carbon emissions by nearly a third. The US and its allies will be far better off in both regards, and the world we are building will be a brighter one.