By Robert Slater, author of Seizing Power: The Grab for Global Oil Wealth
oil spill has deservedly captured the media's attention. It has been the dominant story in America all spring and summer. But to look at the wider picture, the spill is part of a much larger story -- the fact that oil, the world's most cherished resource, is running out.
But few watching their television sets or listening to radios have learned of that larger picture during the Gulf oil spill. And that larger picture has far greater implications for the world.
Naturally, television anchors focus on the nitty-gritty details: How many barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf this week? How quickly the spill will be stopped? Who is responsible? That is hardly surprising that the media focuses on today, not on what is perhaps going to happen in 100 to 150 years.
Still, the BP oil spill, while its attendant loss of oil was tiny compared to the total amount of oil consumed yearly in the United States, is an unpleasant reminder that, because of the way we are consuming oil, there will be none left sometime in the next century or two.
It so happens that long before the BP oil spill -- four years ago to be exact -- I began a book on the crisis in the oil world that published recently called
Seizing Power: The Grab for Global Oil Wealth
(John Wiley & Sons under the Bloomberg Press imprint). In that book, I dealt with how the inevitable depletion of oil might play itself out over the next century, the very aspect that the television anchors are ignoring.
My main theme was this: the world supply of oil is running out. What I could not say in the book -- because the BP oil spill had not yet occurred -- but will say now is that the BP oil spill in the Gulf is but the latest, jarring reminder that as oil is consumed and depleted in growing numbers, the competition for what oil is left is inevitable, making the world a more dangerous place.
The crisis will perhaps not come for 100 to 150 years, but it will come. The answer is apparent: finding other cost-efficient fuel to run the engines of industry in the developed and developing world. For that to happen, the price of oil has to skyrocket so high that oil consumers will yearn for alternative sources of energy.
However, as developing countries, most notably China and India, seek a middle-class existence, their demand for oil grows exponentially, causing oil prices to spiral, increasing the amount of oil used and thus shortening the time before the world runs out of oil. Chinese and Indian demand cannot be stopped even if the world decreed that Asian demand was a bad thing. It is a tidal wave and it is too powerful to roll the Asian demand back.
So great are the riches from the soaring oil prices that resulted from the spreading Asian demand that some oil producing states, such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran, are flexing their muscles and becoming international bullies in their eagerness to fatten their treasure chests. That muscle-flexing is what is likely to make the world more dangerous.
The BP oil spill will not hasten the day that oil runs out. The amount of oil lost in the Gulf is far too small comparatively to cause that. But the spill shines light on the larger picture -- on the inevitable diminishing of oil available around the world.
But what could hasten the day that oil is fully depleted are the efforts of such oil bullies as Russia, Iran, Venezuela and others who seek to capitalize on a new global phenomenon: the shift of oil power from the developing world to Third World countries. As oil makes these petro aggressors more powerful, they become increasingly greedy.
Until another fuel is found the world risks being at the mercy of these tyrants whose insatiable appetites for higher oil prices heighten competition and spur the threat of violence, domestic as well as global.
Rather than exploit their newfound oil for the good by helping their people, these "bad guys" seek to line their own pockets and ignore the chance to improve the welfare of their own people, spurring the likelihood of violence at home.
As the supply of oil diminishes, these same "bad guys" watch in envy as other newly minted oil actors reap the benefits of newfound oil. Violence among these oil actors seems around the corner.
But it is not just envy that could spur the world to greater tensions and even violence. It is the mere fact that the oil consumers of the world, their appetites for oil growing in leaps and bounds, are competing for less and less oil.
As oil prices soar, countries that could not have dreamed of being an oil producer suddenly have an incentive to invite foreigners to help them develop oil. The presence of all these new oil producers and the lessening amount of oil creates a kind of free-for-all.
Skyrocketing demand has boosted oil prices from $30 a barrel a decade ago to $135 a barrel in June 2008. The price today is $76, still a relatively high price for oil compared with earlier periods in the last half century. As long as demand for oil grows, oil prices will remain high, and the kindling wood for new rounds of violence among oil actors will lay there waiting to explode.
In conclusion, the BP oil spill does not hasten an oil Armageddon, but it's a grim reminder that other factors in the oil world -- factors that I write at length about in
-- just might well hasten that day.
Robert Slater has written best-selling books on American business leaders including Jack Welch, George Soros, Michael Ovitz and Donald Trump. He was a reporter for 20 years (1976-1996) in the Time Magazine Jerusalem Bureau.