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Edward Lucas: How the West is losing the energy cold war

Picture yourself as the autocratic leader of a small-ish former Soviet republic, bubbling with oil and gas and keen to sell it. But where? One route is old, cheap and easy. It leads north, to Russia. But memories of the Kremlin’s imperial embrace are still fresh. The other is new, costly and tricky. It goes west, in both senses – via your neighbour, Georgia, and to supply Western customers direct.

Azerbaijan, a country of 8 million people on the Caspian Sea, plumped for the western route. After all, America was the strongest country in the world and Russia – back in the 1990s – was weak. So Azerbaijan supported the building of a $4 billion, 1,000-mile-long, million-barrels-a-day oil pipeline from Baku, its capital, via Tbilisi, in Georgia, to Ceyhan, a port on Turkey’s southern coast. BTC, as it is known, is the only oil pipeline from the former Soviet Union not controlled by the Kremlin.

Azerbaijan also supported the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline into eastern Turkey. Europe, with US backing, wants to extend it all the way to Austria. That project is named Nabucco – an operatic touch that underlines its importance in saving Europe from energy slavery.

Now not only is that plan in tatters but much else besides. As the shock waves from Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia echo across the region, Western interests are toppling like dominos. Almost unnoticed in Britain, Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, paid a near-disastrous visit to Azerbaijan last week. Its President, Ilham Aliyev, inflicted a series of public snubs, including phoning the Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev, the moment that a meeting with Mr Cheney finished. A disgruntled Mr Cheney apparently then failed to appear at an official banquet. Azerbaijan seems to be ruling out supplying gas to Nabucco.

The reason is simple – Mr Aliyev does not want his country to suffer Georgia’s fate. It all too easily could. Like Georgia, Azerbaijan is not shielded by Nato. Talks on a US military presence have got nowhere. Relations with the EU are dormant, not helped by rigged elections and bullying of the opposition. Russia has been stirring up the Lezgin ethnic minority, whose homeland straddles the border between Russia and Azerbaijan. Mr Aliyev, an instinctive fence-sitter, has been talking nicely to Russia’s energy giant Gazprom. It has offered to buy his country’s entire gas exports – at world prices.

Just across the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have stitched up a deal to build a new gas export pipeline north to Russia. That further kiboshes Western hopes of finding gas from Central Asia to fill Nabucco, which is threatened by the rival South Stream project across the Black Sea, promoted by Russia.

It gets worse. Even Turkey, the linchpin of Western security planning in the region, is wobbling. It depends on a Russian pipeline across the Black Sea for most of its gas. The Kremlin has been assiduously cultivating Ankara, just as the EU has been giving it the cold shoulder. The sight of a semi-independent Kurdistan emerging as the result of the US invasion of Iraq has chilled relations further.

Iran is the other beneficiary of Georgia’s defeat. If the westward route is blocked, the choice for Central Asia and the Caucasus is to deal either with the mullahs of Tehran or with the former KGB men in Moscow. Neither offers much comfort to the West. Iran has said that it will block a gas pipeline across the Caspian – a vital link in the Nabucco project.

It may seem hard to get worked up about this in Britain. But if energy supplies to the rest of Europe are under Russia’s thumb, Britain’s security is deeply compromised. The absurdity is that Europe should be laying down terms to Russia. Not only is the EU the Kremlin’s largest customer, Europe’s economy is more than ten times larger than Russia’s, its population more than three times bigger. The magnet of European integration has brought peace to the western Balkans: if it is a choice between snuggling up to Russia or getting on track to join the EU, countries such as Serbia choose West over East. The same is happening, tantalisingly, in Belarus, where the autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko is desperately flirting with Europe in the hope of staving off the day when his country is swallowed up in a new Russian-run superstate. Belarus has released all its political prisoners and is hoping that the EU will now relax sanctions.

The West used to be deluded about the former KGB regime in Russia. Belatedly it has shed its illusions. But it is still fatally divided and distracted. Germany and Italy prize their economic ties with Russia far above the interests of nominal allies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. British Eurosceptics react with garlic and silver bullets when a common European foreign policy is discussed. America is far away, bogged down in two other wars. It is not going to fight harder for Europe than Europe itself will do. Russia knows this, and believes it has a green light to push ahead. Turn down the heating: this is going to be a long winter.

Edward Lucas is the author of The New Cold War

London Times


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Dominic Lawson: The sheer hypocrisy of this debate on oil

Oil makes hypocrites of us all. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general who last year took office declaring that his main goal was to fight “man-made climate change”, has spent most of his weekend in Jeddah attempting to persuade King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to ramp up the kingdom’s oil production.

This is just the global edition of Gordon Brown’s earlier plea to the Saudis to “do something” about the high price of oil; a remarkable display of diplomatic chutzpah from a man who, as Chancellor, spent a decade telling us that increasing the price of petrol on British forecourts through fiscal means was very much in the best interests of the whole planet.

Meanwhile the US Senate has threatened to launch a prosecution of OPEC for its alleged fixing of the world oil market, to the detriment of the American consumer. The American legislature’s hypocrisy in this matter takes a different form to ours: the politicians who are now howling with rage about the shortage of oil supply are in essence the same people who have long blocked the oil industry from developing vast deposits both in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off their own coastline – about 80 per cent of the US continental shelf is out of bounds, on environmental grounds.

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Víctor M. Quintana Silveyra: O cooperan… o Hugo Chávez

O cooperan… o Hugo Chávez
El aumento a la gasolina está oficialmente “congelado” durante dos meses por decisión de Felipe Calderón. Pero en Chihuahua, si no se establecen subsidios emergentes a los combustibles de uso doméstico será mucho más lo que va a congelarse.

De 1997 a la fecha han perecido más de 600 personas en Chihuahua durante la temporada de frío, tan sólo 44 en la de 2006-2007, a consecuencia de hipotermia, intoxicación por monóxido de carbono y quemaduras. Ahora se pronostican menos días fríos, pero con temperaturas más extremas que el año pasado. De hecho, el termómetro ya alcanzó los 10 grados bajo cero en el municipio de Balleza.

Ante la amenaza de varias ondas frías, gobierno, sociedad y partidos han demandado que se subsidien los combustibles de uso doméstico.

El gobierno federal ha respondido con la misma canción de otros años, es decir, con programas ineficaces e insuficientes.

Por un lado dice que volverá a subsidiar el gasóleo, el cual sustituyó desde 1997 al petróleo diáfano, el más utilizado por las clases populares. Se dijo oficialmente que el diáfano se dejaba de producir por Pemex “porque los narcotraficantes lo utilizaban para mover sus aviones”. Así, se dejó a los pobres sin un combustible barato y eficiente y no disminuyó un gramo el trasiego de drogas. Y el gasóleo resultó tan sucio e ineficiente que los pobres tuvieron que arrumbar o malbaratar sus calefactores. Ahora el gasóleo subsidiado lo utilizan sobre todo los hoteles, los restaurantes y las fundidoras, y el oligopolio de las gaseras con base en la frontera se vio muy beneficiado con el aumento del consumo de gas LP y natural.

El gobierno federal también trata de conformar a la gente con el programa Oportunidades Energético, pero es un programa que sólo cubre a 60 mil familias en toda la entidad, muy concentradas en la zona serrana y con la ínfima cantidad de 100 pesos bimestrales.

Por eso la única posibilidad real y efectiva para apoyar a la gente de las clases populares y medias en la temporada de frío es subsidiar el gas LP y el gas natural porque los precios de éstos han rebasado con mucho los salarios. Según un estudio del Frente de Consumidores (Fedeco) de Chihuahua en abril de 2001 el llenado de un cilindro de 30 litros costaba 3.5 días de salario mínimo; ahora en 2007, 5.7 días. Dado este costo no todas las familias pueden comprar estos cilindros por lo que han optado por los de 10 litros que las gaseras no surten a domicilio.

Además hay que hacer largas filas en los días más fríos para llenarlos con los consiguientes costos de tiempo y de traslado. Así, dos terceras partes del salario se irán a calefacción. En Ciudad Juárez el salario promedio es de poco más de 5 mil pesos y para adquirir el gas natural de un mes de consumo se gasta 17 por ciento del mismo.

Si el gobierno federal no tiene la sensibilidad para entender la urgente necesidad de la gente de Chihuahua por calentarse a bajo costo, hay quienes piensan acudir a la solidaridad de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

Desde hace dos años el presidente Hugo Chávez puso en marcha el Programa de Petróleo de Calefacción CITGO-Venezuela para apoyar a varias miles de familias estadunidenses a adquirir petróleo y diesel para calefacción con un descuento de 40 por ciento el galón. Durante el invierno 2006-2007 el programa atendió a 400 mil hogares necesitados en 16 estados del país del otro lado del río Bravo con 100 millones de galones, entre ellos a 173 comunidades indígenas.

El programa ha tenido tanto éxito que en un año duplicó el volumen de energéticos entregado. Tiene una ventaja adicional: se trata de un proyecto de pueblo a pueblo, pues se implementa a través de una organización llamada Corporación Ciudadana de Energía, que coordinada con CITGO, filial estadunidense de Petróleos de Venezuela, se pone en contacto con organizaciones sociales y comunidades para surtirles los energéticos que requieren. Y algo muy interesante: otra ventaja más es que el gobierno de Chávez ha decidido que del 60 por ciento que tiene que pagar la gente por el combustible, 30 por ciento se pague en dinero y con el 30 por ciento restante se formen fondos comunitarios que se queden en cada localidad para generar empleos productivos.

Así, la solidaridad bolivariana: dar a la gente el calor que los neoliberales congelan.

* La Jornada
* http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/11/16/index.php?section=opinion&article=025a2pol

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