Many years ago, an enormous and belligerent giant fell asleep. Lush lands grew over him. People arrived and set up cities that evolved into civilizations. Then, one day, the giant awoke, roared with rage and stood up, throwing off the civilizations that had lived on him for so long.
This is not a children’s story — it is a metaphor for the greatest danger of our times. Global civilization, developed and developing, rests upon the Sleeping Giant of Oil Dependence.
Oil Dependence is easy to understand. Oil fuels nearly all global transportation. This means that global trade, which must move people and goods, is almost entirely oil dependent.
Oil Dependence is a Faustian pact that locks modern life to oil. No nation and no form of government is free from the yoke, and no citizen, from African farmer to newly-minted Chinese consumer to European anarchist, can escape its influence.
Expensive or volatile oil prices create tremors that can wake the Sleeping Giant. Recessions, high food prices, civil unrest – these are all examples of such tremors. Enough of them will make the giant roar with rage, stand and throw civilization into chaos.
In today’s climate of relatively low oil prices, the giant appears to slumber. But that’s misleading, because indicators point to higher future prices. Take the Chinese. Last year they bought more cars than the Americans. The future thirst of the Chinese and other rising countries for oil is avid. But cheap new supplies are hard to come by. Newly discovered oil fields are expensive and not coming online fast enough, whilst the old fields dry up. And Middle Eastern oil producers need oil money to pacify their populations, agitated since the Arab Spring. That will eventually push prices higher.
Only getting transport off oil- Fuel Choice– will move us off the Sleeping Giant of Oil Dependence.
At the heart of the problem lies a fateful combination of geology and Middle Eastern geography. Middle Eastern oil producers — currently organized into the OPEC oil cartel – have geological conditions that allow them to produce oil very cheaply. As a result, OPEC oil producers can manipulate oil prices to a far greater extent than other producers, thus controlling the global oil market. Other oil producing countries – like the US – are constrained by a geology that makes it expensive to produce oil. So though US oil production ranks number two, its influence on global prices is comparatively modest. Middle Eastern oil remains the most strategic in the world.
But this is not the whole picture. Squint and re-count. There is not one sleeping giant. There are two.
Picture our global civilization, atop the Oil Dependence Sleeping Giant. And, directly beneath it, rests another – the Sleeping Giant of Islamic Fundamentalism.
Islamic Fundamentalism is a complex growing threat, linked to many wider influences, such as the Sunni –Shiite conflict and disintegrated Cold War alliances. The success of the Taliban, Al Quaeda and Islamic State (IS, or Daesh) attest to its growing strength.
Like the lower Sleeping Giant of Islamic Fundamentalism, the lair of the upper Sleeping Giant Oil Dependence is the Middle East.
The growth of Islamic State has garnered much recent attention, as has the link between IS and oil. IS captured key Iraqi and Syrian oil fields, selling oil and reportedly making over $1 million per day. It assigned a unique internal council to oversee both oil and weapons, a combination which helped expand its murderous regime. Calls to boycott IS oil have proven to be nothing but impractical rhetoric. The unquenchable thirst for oil means there is always a buyer, somewhere.
Were the Sleeping Giant of Fundamentalist Islam to wake and take control of Middle Eastern oil supplies or trading routes, generations of carefully-built equilibrium could be thrown into chaos.
Global civilization did not intend its peace and stability to be so vulnerable to local affairs in the Middle East. But Oil Dependence ensures it is.
Influence over Islamic Fundamentalism is limited. By contrast, the upper Sleeping Giant — Oil Dependence – is something we can control.
If we exercise Fuel Choice, we can move civilization off the Sleeping Giant of Oil Dependence. Doing so will reduce our vulnerability to the instability caused by fundamentalism in the Middle East.
Despite global efforts since the 1970s Oil Crisis- the world today is more oil-dependent than ever before. Technology seems to have failed us with an “on-time” solution. Grandiose abandoned schemes and policies litter the landscape. The reality is bleak- the planet’s roads contain more than a billion oil-dependent vehicles. And that fleet is growing.
Why is the past blighted with such failure? Did past policies help or hurt? Which technologies are key, for our future? Where do market dynamics fit in? Can natural gas really save us from oil dependence? Which countries are the most advanced? What needs to happen to move off Oil Dependence fast?
In the last five years, in my work as Head of Oil Alternatives and Energy Research at the Israeli Institute for Economic Planning, I have worked in conjunction with top levels of governmental leadership, industry and start-ups in an effort to reduce global Oil Dependence, using Israeli technology and policy as a starting point. This work saw two highly significant government decisions. In 2011, the government committed $350 million to Oil Alternative technologies. And in 2013, the government committed to be 60% Oil Independent by 2025.
Given that oil is the most traded commodity in the world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there is more to this topic than meets the eye.
I will be answering some of these questions and covering Oil Dependence, technologies, policies and strategies.
The need to understand and separate the wheat from the chaff is more urgent now than ever.
Please join me. I welcome your comments and look forward to continuing this dialogue.