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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 16:05 GMT
A war for the pipelines?
Oil pipelines
Some commentators have asked if it's all about oil
By the BBC World at One programme's Andrew North

Just four years ago Taleban officials were at the Texas headquarters of the US energy company Unocal to discuss building a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan.


We're hostage to oil, that's as simple as you can put it. We have let the economic considerations take precedence

Larry Johnson
Former CIA officer
The discussions did not get far and the project was abandoned the following year after the US launched cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan - part of an earlier assault on Osama Bin Laden.

But some say the current military campaign has a hidden objective - to revive that pipeline and open the way for US companies to build further facilities to carry central Asian oil.

If the US has an oil and energy agenda in its war on terrorism, it is not in Central Asia.

Fuelling the war

Some oil experts have dismissed the notion of a hidden proposal outright.

Petrol filling station
Oil may not be driving this war, but it is a crucial issue
"There was discussion of the pipeline to carry gas to Pakistan, but it was abandoned way before current events because of political, economic and stability problems," said Paul Stevens, professor of petroleum policy and economics at Dundee University.

"So the idea that oil is now driving this war is totally unrealistic. It would be more sensible to be considering a pipeline on the moon."

But oil is nonetheless becoming an issue in this conflict in another way: the growing concerns about the future security of supplies from the world's key oil-producer, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi supplies

In the home of Islam's two holiest places, there is widespread sympathy for Osama bin Laden's aims as well as opposition to the US strikes, and that has left the traditionally pro-western royal family exposed.

But the crisis means Saudi Arabia is more important than ever for the stability of world oil supplies.

Even before the events of 11 September, energy security was a concern for President Bush.

Now the administration is considering moves such as boosting America's strategic oil reserves.

Al-Saud, Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz
The crisis means Saudi Arabian oil is more important than ever
And it could decide to give the go-ahead to controversial plans to expand oil drilling in Alaska.

But even if this happens, this new oil won't be sufficient to replace imports - which account for more than half of America's needs.

"Its own drilling output is dwindling and Alaska wouldn't replace it," said Leo Drollas, chief economist at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.

"The key thing is Saudi's spare capacity - 51 per cent of the world total - and that would be even more important if the US decided to expand war to attack Iraq, thereby almost inevitably leading to Baghdad suspending exports."

Treading carefully

Such concerns have made the Bush administration very careful in what it has said about the Saudi government, despite anger in some US military and intelligence circles over allegations that the monarchy turned a blind eye to fundraising for Osama bin Laden within the kingdom.

Iraqi oil plant
Baghdad would likely suspend imports if the US attacked
"We're hostage to oil, that's as simple as you can put it. We have let the economic considerations take precedence," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer with close links to serving intelligence officials.

Some say this crisis should be the spur for the US and other Western nations to make more use of renewable and other energy sources, to reduce their reliance on oil.

But that will not happen overnight and in the meantime, the more pessimistic say the US has to be ready for the possibility of serious disruption to oil supplies because of instability in Saudi Arabia.

One senior military figure who has served in top posts in previous administrations told the BBC that if this were to happen, the US would be prepared to send in its forces to take control of the oil fields.

See also:

05 Nov 01 | Business
Opec mulls output cut
03 Nov 01 | Middle East
Bin Laden popular in Saudi Arabia
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US nurtures Saudi ties
29 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan: the pipeline war?
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