Energy Policy

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Plane Meets Plow: The Curious End of Total S.A. CEO Christophe de Margerie

[Photo tweeted by @Enel_Aire, post time stamped 2014-10-21 at 09:45 (time zone unknown)]

[Photo tweeted by @Enel_Aire, post time stamped 2014-10-21 at 09:45 (time zone unknown)]

Forgive my skepticism about the accident Monday night that took the life of Christophe de Margerie. CEO of French oil and gas company Total S.A. We’ve been told by enough analysts that several target countries, including Russia, are under siege, though these experts don’t refer to this openly as asymmetric warfare. The recent and ongoing drop in petroleum prices threatens cash inflows to those countries whose economies rely on oil revenues — Russia and Iran among them. The death of an oil industry executive isn’t unexpected given the amount of money in play; people die daily for far less cash.

Not as much as Moscow, mind you, but we get snow where I live in flyover country USA. Any time between mid-October and mid-April we can expect some frozen precipitation. A blizzard in October isn’t unheard of — we had one 17 years ago this week, in fact. I’ve lived with six months of snow per year for most of my life.

Which is why the photo here of the crash site looks sketchy to me.

Early reports indicated the plane carrying de Margerie hit or was hit by a snowplow driven by a drunken operator, in poor visibility. It’s not clear exactly which hit the other based on different accounts across the internet. A Russian reconstruction video furnished to Le Figaro shows the plane’s wing clipping a vehicle upon landing — but the video exerts more effort on the fire and smoke than it does on the initial impact. Note in this second video of the plane after the crash during daylight hours that the wing which hit the plow as characterized in the video is missing.

At least one article claimed debris was spread 200 meters by the plane after impact. Perhaps the wing was in that debris, but it’s not reflected in the Russian reconstruction video. A more recent report said the snowplow was parked on the runway.

Ultimately, what we see is a plane that flipped over — either tipped over by the force of a plow, or flipped over after impact.

And no snow. This particular photo is rather pixelated, but it doesn’t reflect reduced visibility due to snowfall. There’s no snow in the second video link above, though visibility has worsened. Continue reading

The Fossil Fueled Military Battles Climate Change

“The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country.” Thus begins DOD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaption Road Map, released yesterday to much acclaim.

But then two paragraphs later, it refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” not a threat.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of
the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these
impacts.

A few more paragraphs later, it admits this report primarily looks at climate change’s impact on DOD, not its impact on the US.

Our first step in planning for these challenges is to identify the effects of climate change on the Department with tangible and
specific metrics, using the best available science.

I don’t mean to be churlish — and I do recognize that DOD is quite forward-thinking, among government agencies for its awareness of and initial preparations for climate change.

But that’s sort of the point. This is as good as it gets. And only secondarily does even one of the most progressive agencies in government, with respect to climate change, get to this kind of admission.

Maintaining stability within and among other nations is an important means of avoiding full-­scale military conflicts. The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability. These developments could undermine already-fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently-stable governments, as well as increasing competition and tension between countries vying for limited resources.   These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism. Here in the U.S., state and  local governments responding to the effects of extreme weather may seek increased [Defense Support of Civil Authorities].

Climate change is going to be hell. It’s going to cause wars. And it will even require addition DOD resources domestically, in the form of Reserve troops to help local authorities cope with emergencies. And — though DOD doesn’t say it, certainly not in its publicly released document — the US is one of the places that will struggle with governance of the internal effects of climate change, even if they’ll do better than, say, Bangladesh or some harder hit countries. Certainly the US is no model of proactive government preparing for these disasters!

Meanwhile, here’s what else DOD does in the name of fulfilling its responsibility for the security of the country. (h/t OTB)

To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago.

[snip]

What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.

Behind all these aircraft stands the supporting personnel and infrastructure necessary to any air operation. These range from ground crews and air traffic controllers to maintainers, armorers and intel personnel. Then there are the people in the air operations center who put together the air tasking order that details all the air activities for a 24-hour period. There are more people and more complexity when it is a joint and coalition operation.

Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. This is in a fairly benign environment.

That is, even while DOD notes — laudably, given how dysfunctional our government is — that climate change is going to destabilize countries and will even require deployment of the Reserve to limit instability in our own country, it is burning up fossil fuels at an alarming rate, even in its relatively circumscribed operation against ISIL.

This report edges us closer to the point where we call climate change a threat to the US, rather than just a threat multiplier to all the other things looming out there.

But until we’re there — until we recognize that climate change has killed far more people in the US since 9/11 than terrorism — we will continue to burn fossil fuel as a first or second response to threats on the other side of the world.

Is Someone Funding Saudi’s Oil Flood?

Iran, Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Russia, Ecuador, Iraq, Angola. Those are the countries the budgets of which will face significant shortfalls if the Saudis succeed in their bid to drive the oil price down below $90/barrel for the year or more. Kuwait, the Emirates, Qatar — all Saudi partners (albeit reluctantly, in Qatar’s case) in whatever the hell it is doing — can afford the cuts, with Libya on the bubble.

New reports make it clear the Saudis intend to keep prices low for some time — and will force customers to lock in for a year.

Some, like Zero Hedge’s Tyler Durden, have suggested this ploy is part of the plan the US and Saudis made when the Saudis finally agreed to engage in combat against ISIL.

I’m not sure I buy that though. Cutting prices will make it far harder for Iraq’s Shia led government to invest in the fight against ISIL. So long as Western sanctions continue, it will destabilize Iran significantly, not only making it a lot harder for Iran to help Iraq and Syria, but also undermining the government that has chosen to deal with the US. The cuts will also destabilize Iran’s allies in Venezuela and Ecuador. Oligarchic forces have been trying to foment a coup in the former country for some time and this may well help to do so.

The cut, made just before winter strengthens Vladimir Putin’s hand with Ukraine and the rest of Europe, and made in such a way that may make Europe as dependent on the Saudis as they are on Russia, will make it harder for Putin to play the waiting game that otherwise was bound to achieve his objectives in Ukraine. Without that Ukrainian victory, Putin will be unable to invest resources as heavily in Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Saudis have been trying to undercut Russia for some time and — to the extent the ruble exchange with the dollar doesn’t shelter Russia from these changes [Update: though see Mark Adomanis on how this is hurting Russian consumers] — this price cut will hurt Russia too.

Ultimately, though, I suspect the US is just as much the target of this move as Iran and Russia are. Since the US refused to take out Assad last year and inched forward with its Iran deal, the Saudis have been worried about having Shia Iran and Iraq take over its role as the swing producer in the world, mirroring what happened in 1976 when the US replaced Iran’s Shah with the Saudis. By destabilizing the government in negotiations with the US, the price cut will make it a lot harder to achieve such a deal.

Just as importantly, the US is now a petro-state. And this price cut will make fracking (and deepwater drilling) unprofitable. We’ve been fracking largely to give ourselves some breathing room from the Saudis; cutting the price will make it far harder for us to sustain that effort (and will make some renewables uncompetitive).

To me, then, this move looks like part of an effort to force the outcome the Saudis have been chasing for a decade and even more aggressively since the Arab Spring: to paralyze Shia governments just as the chaos of ISIL threatens to remap the Middle East.

The Saudis may well claim to be supporting our fight against ISIL, but the long-term commitment to dropping oil prices, looks more like an effort to undercut it.

All that said, something remains unexplained here. The Saudi break-even point is $90/barrel. Oil prices are already below that and may drop still further. And the Saudis rely on bribery just as much as some other petro-states to keep their populace from rising up. How will the Saudis sustain this for a year or more, if that’s what they’re doing (especially since they are at least purportedly contributing to the ISIL fight)?

Saudis have low debt-to-GDP right now, so it may be they’ll just finance this play. But I wonder whether some cash rich Asian country has backed this move? What better way to end US hegemony than to ensure it gets sucked into another unwinnable war in the Middle East, wallowing in really cheap oil for the middle term, with the understanding that it will replace the US after the US exhausts itself with this latest Mideast adventure?

Sure, low oil prices might help Democrats retain the Senate. Low oil prices certainly will avoid any immediate backlash against the ISIL war. So it may well be this is part of a deal with the Obama Administration. But if so, it seems like a counterproductive deal, because it’s going to make it even harder to achieve any success against ISIL.

Disappearing Kurdish Oil

The other day, a Houston judge threw out an order that would have prevented the sale of a tanker of Kurdish oil the Kurds and the central government were squabbling about.

The Kurdistan Regional Government can bring $100 million of crude ashore inTexas after a U.S. judge threw out a court order that would have required federal agents to seize and hold the cargo for the Iraqi Oil Ministry until a court there decided which government owns it.

U.S. District Judge Gray Miller in Houston said he lacked authority under federal laws governing property stolen at sea to decide the dispute. Both Iraq’s central government and the regional government claim control of 1 million barrels of Kurdish crude waiting in a tanker moored in international waters off the Texas coast for almost a month.

Miller ruled yesterday that Iraq’s national oil ministry lost control of the crude when the Kurdish government pumped it without authorization from oilfields in the northern part of the country. Iraq failed to convince Miller that the oil was misappropriated when it was loaded into a tanker in the Mediterranean Sea after being pumped across Turkey in an Iraq-owned pipeline.

“Kurdistan’s unauthorized export of oil over land -– and later overseas –- may violate Iraqi law, but it does not violate U.S. maritime law,” Miller said.

After which you’d assume the tanker would come ashore and make the Kurds some money they can use to fight ISIS, right?

That didn’t happen. Instead, the tanker disappeared.

A tanker near Texas loaded with $100 million of disputed Iraqi Kurdish crude has disappeared from satellite tracking, the latest development in a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse between Baghdad and the Kurds.

The AIS ship tracking system used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Reuters on Thursday showed no known position for the United Kalavrvta, which was carrying 1 million barrels of crude and 95 percent full when it went dark.

Several other tankers carrying disputed crude from Iran or Iraqi Kurdistan have unloaded cargoes after switching off their transponders, which makes their movements hard to track.

Read the whole article — there’s apparently a lot of Kurdish oil disappearing, which makes sense given the legal fights over who owns it (not to mention US selectivity about when to enforce national rights, as we have in Libya of late, and when not to, as we’re apparently not in Iraq).

Still, the prospect of buying and selling Kurdish oil off the books sure would free up money for other purposes (especially given Hunt Oil’s involvement in Kurdish drilling, which happened with a great deal of winking and nodding).

Why Challenge the Washington Consensus Now?

A number of outlets are reporting on the BRICS move to establish a competitor to the World Bank.

The so-called BRICS countries agreed to form an international development bank with aspirations to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa said Tuesday that the New Development Bank will start with $50 billion in capital and $100 billion as a currency reserve fund for liquidity crises. Operating details still need to be resolved.

Still, the BRICS bank, which could add more member nations, represents a bid to expand the influence of the BRICS emerging markets and act as a counterbalance to institutions run by the U.S. and other developed nations, experts said.

“This is about the consolidation of BRICS 2.0,” said Marcos Troyjo, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and co-director of the BRICLab Center. “If BRICS 1.0 was about capturing investor attention to the scale of their economic relevance, BRICS 2.0 is about embarking on institution building.”

I absolutely understand the reason for the move. These large countries have been demanding more influence over the World Bank for years, to no avail. And US policies like Quantitative Easing have been really damaging to some of the countries, particularly Brazil. Though, this move may well come too late for Brazil and certainly for Dilma Roussef.

“I don’t think that if Brazil was now to be thinking about these plans from the drawing board, it would really be thinking about a Brics development bank,” says James Lockhart-Smith, a Latin America risk analyst at Maplecroft in New York. “It would be more focused on restarting growth in the country.”

But at a time of slow growth, Brazil probably needs these economies on side more than ever. Add to that, trade with economically troubled Argentina – traditionally one of its biggest trading partners – has become more difficult in recent years.

So while I understand the move, I wonder why now — aside from the fact that the World Cup provided a handy excuse for a meeting in Rio de Janeiro. It may be too late for Dilma, and India’s new neoliberal Prime Minister Narenda Modi seems like an odd fit for the group.

Meanwhile, consider this. While Russia won’t get any of the big perks in the new bank (it will be headquartered in Shanghai, India will pick the first President, Brazil will pick the first Chairman, and the bank will be denominated in — really! — dollars), Putin was also making other interesting moves in the hemisphere, at least according to RT (definitely click through for Putin’s expression, which surely is staged to be that stern).

Moscow and Havana have reportedly reached an agreement on reopening the SIGINT facility in Lourdes, Cuba – once Russia’s largest foreign base of this kind – which was shut down in 2001 due to financial problems and under US pressure.

[snip]

Russia considered reopening the Lourdes base since 2004 and has sealed a deal with Cuba last week during the visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin to the island nation, reports Kommersant business daily citing multiple sources.

Russia shut down the base to more easily reschedule debt held by the US. Along with reopening the base, Russia will forgive a bunch of outstanding Cuban debt to Russia.

The timing of this — a year after Snowden’s disclosures, but more importantly, as the US continues to try increasingly unilateral sanctions against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine — makes a ton of sense. The US refuses to believe it can’t impose its will in Ukraine, in spite of increasing reluctance from our European partners, especially Germany, to ratchet up the pressure. Reopening a front in America’s back yard as the US bunkers down on Ukraine makes perfect sense.

For some reason, the US appears to have believed it could simply impose its will indefinitely on the rest of the world. They appear not to have considered that, at some point, such behavior would provide the rest of the world cause to fight back.

Trent Franks and the EMP Threat to the Electrical Grid

At a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing for Department of Homeland Security today, Trent Franks implored DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to consider the threat of electromagnetic pulse or geomagnetic disturbance to the electrical grid because “we have additional information that seems to indicate the threat is more significant than we have been aware of.”

Franks also submitted an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization requiring the Director of National Intelligence to report on the threat EMPs pose to the US through 2025.

I have no idea whether this is credible or not. Franks is not one of the Members of Congress I consider to be the most reliable (and our resident desert rat has even less complimentary things to say).

But golly. Franks sure seems worried about the EMP threat of late.

 

Unread Reports as the Big Data Dump? Not Really.

The very same week the President released his breathless report on Big! Data!, the Washington Post has a story criticizing the sheer number and types of reports Congress requires from the Federal bureaucracy.

It started out with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.

Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.

[snip]

But as the numbers got bigger, Congress started to lose track. It overwhelmed itself. Today, Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in. And it does not try to save copies of all the ones that are.

So some agencies cheat and send in nothing. And others waste time and money sending in reports — such as the one on dog and cat fur — that simply disappear into the void.

To support its case, WaPo focuses on one report requiring Customs and Border Patrol to report on how much dog and cat fur products are being shipped into the US, which is probably a needless report (which is also probably why WaPo picked it out of the 4,291 it identified).

And WaPo — a member of the Fourth Estate that purportedly serves as a check on power — comes to this very dangerous conclusion.

The problem is that there is no system to sort the good ones from the useless ones. They all flow in together, which makes it hard for congressional staffers to spot any valuable information hidden in the flood.

First, the press is part of that system! Rather than throwing cat and dog fur, perhaps WaPo could have tried to distinguish those that were critical from those that are questionable and those that are clearly frivolous.

Moreover, it is the height of irresponsibility to absolve Congressional staffers — whose bosses are the only ones that can eliminate useless reports — of responsibility for reading the reports they get. Either the staffers must be held accountable for reading the reports, or for eliminating them. That’s how you fix the system. That’s why we’re paying them.

Ultimately, too, I’m not sure I buy the WaPo’s argument that these are useless reports. 4,291 seems like a not unreasonable amount of data for legislators to receive and read about the world’s biggest (perhaps now second biggest) economy, about DOD’s $526 billion budget, about the many federal benefit programs, about the expanding police state.

And if you look at the actual list (rather than WaPo’s admittedly snazzy but not very informative infographic on them), many — perhaps even most — of the reports make a lot of sense.

Consider the reports listed for General Services Administration, an entity with an annual budget of $26 billion, which has the ability to effect great change as the source of enormous spending, and one that has routinely experienced significant spending scandals.

  1. Activities and status of advisory committees in existence during the previous calendar year
  2. A report on the status of the high-performance green building initiatives under this subtitle
  3. Administration’s alternative fueled vehicle program
  4. A description of lost opportunities for waste-heat recovery from the project described in paragraph (A)
  5. A report on the use of photovoltaic energy in public buildings
  6. Violations by Federal agencies of Federal Records Act of 1950, as codified 1950
  7. Reports by Inspector General of particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies in the administration of programs and operations of the agency
  8. Activities of the Inspector General
  9. Accessibility to public buildings by the physically handicapped
  10. Prospectus proposing a building project or lease
  11. Location, space, cost, and status of each public building, the construction, alteration, or acquisition of which is to be under authority of the Act, and which was uncompleted as of the date requested
  12. Building project surveys as requested by either the Senate or House
  13. Use of underutilized public buildings and property for facilities to assist the homeless
  14. Summary of excess property disposal reports
  15. Evaluation of the operation of programs for donation of Federal surplus personal property; excess personal property transferred
  16. Excessive stocking of property, above reasonable inventory levels, by executive agencies
  17. Administration of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949
  18. Contracts to facilitate the national defense entered into, amended, or modified
  19. Acquisition cost of surplus real or related personal property conveyed for care or rehabilitation of criminal offenders during previous fiscal year
  20. Results of investigations of the cost of travel and the operation of privately owned vehicles to Federal employees while engaged in official business
  21. Annual determination of the average actual cost per mile for the use of a privately owned motorcycle, automobile, and airplane
  22. A plan to comply with Section 432 relating to energy and water conservation at General Services Administration facilities

Reports 1, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 17, and 18 are simply reports Congress needs to ask for to ensure there’s some visibility into the Agency, to ensure they’ll be informed if GSA finds something wrong itself. Reports 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 13, 14, 19, and 22 measure the efficacy of efforts to use GSA’s buying power to do some social good  (and report 9, on ADA accessibility, involves significant legal compliance).  Reports 15 and 16 address an area susceptible to graft.  Reports 20 and 21 are not only key to cost-benefit analysis of how Federal employees travel, but they apparently are tied to one of GSA’s most requested links. Some of these are also reports tied to an action, like buying a building. And all that amounts to less than 1 report for every $ billion American taxpayers give to GSA. If anything, there are a few more reports — that might identify obviously politicized or excessive spending, which is a persistent problem with GSA — that are missing.

Admittedly, that’s just one random agency. But aside from some entities the Federal government runs itself (like American Samoa and DC) as well as some Commissions over which there have been political fights in the past I’m not seeing a whole lot of waste here — though there may be some inefficiency in how the information is requested. I might grant that in the era of big data we need to automate this — in effect, give Congress a better way to Big! Data! the bureaucracies it oversees (though that would be awfully susceptible to abuse), but I don’t see a lot of information that shouldn’t be required from the bureaucracy.

I’m reminded how, 2 years ago, James Clapper claimed ODNI had to produce too many reports and should be permitted to eliminate 30 of them. He tried to get rid of the annual report on how many people have security clearance (one of the few ways we can measure the ballooning secret government). He tried to get rid of reports on Department of Homeland Security’s notoriously useless intelligence agency. He tried to eliminate reports on Chinese spying on the US and nuclear lab security, both persistent security issues. He tried to eliminate a report informing Congress what the privacy staffs of intelligence agencies are doing. In short, in the guise of onerous reporting, he tried to eliminate crucial oversight  (as well as a paper trail that could be FOIAed) on several areas of great public concern.

Or consider this: DOD cannot pass an audit. The biggest military in the world still is not required to account for the money it spends, both to itself and Congress.

And yet a newspaper is saying we require too much reporting from the great big bureaucracy?

I don’t buy it.

Taking Kaplan’s Defense of Empire on Its Face

Robert Kaplan wrote a predictably horrible defense of empire that a number of people are giving the appropriate disdainful treatment.

Against my better judgement, I’d like to take a different approach and treat it as a useful piece (though not one I agree with or find palatable at all).

I think its useful, in part, against the background of the NSA disclosures. Key players in NSA discussions — people who travel some of the same circles as Kaplan, even — premise their treatment of the disclosures from an exclusively national perspective, completely ignoring that the NSA (and its GCHQ poodle) is different precisely because it depends on and serves as a key instrument of authority in an empire (or global hegemon, if the term empire gives you the willies). Approaching and assessing NSA’s behavior solely from a national perspective not only represses the obvious reasons why NSA’s dragnet of other countries’ citizens matters, but it also fails to assess our actions in the proper light, even from the standpoint of efficacy. NSA’s tasking choices reflect not our national interest, but rather the needs of the empire, which is why a relatively minor country like Venezuela gets prioritized along with Russia and China. That’s why we made Huawei such a high priority target: because it presents a unique threat to the functioning of our empire.

I would like to get to the point where we can discuss the NSA disclosures not just in terms of what they mean for Americans’ civil liberties as well of those who may not enjoy Fourth Amendment protection but nevertheless are citizens in a US order, but also whether the prioritization of complete dragnet and offensive spying and hacking serves the interests to which they’ve been put, that of the American global hegemon.

And here’s where I think Kaplan, in spite of his racism and paternalism and selective history, serves a useful role at this point in time. He claims, cherry picking from history, that only empires can provide order.

Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires, Western or Eastern. Anarchy reigned in the interregnums.

And then he asks whether or not America can afford to sustain its own empire.

Nevertheless, the critique that imperialism constitutes bad American foreign policy has serious merit: the real problem with imperialism is not that it is evil, but rather that it is too expensive and therefore a problematic grand strategy for a country like the United States. Many an empire has collapsed because of the burden of conquest. It is one thing to acknowledge the positive attributes of Rome or Hapsburg Austria; it is quite another to justify every military intervention that is considered by elites in Washington.

Thus, the debate Americans should be having is the following: Is an imperial-like foreign policy sustainable?

[snip]

Once that caution is acknowledged, the debate gets really interesting. To repeat, the critique of imperialism as expensive and unsustainable is not easily dismissed.

Perhaps predictably Kaplan dodges his own question, never seriously answering it. Instead of answering the question that he admits might have answers he doesn’t much like, he instead spends a bunch of paragraphs, in all seriousness, arguing that Obama is pursuing a post-Imperial presidency.

Rather than Obama’s post-imperialism, in which the secretary of state appears like a lonely and wayward operator encumbered by an apathetic White House, I maintain that a tempered imperialism is now preferable.

No other power or constellation of powers is able to provide even a fraction of the global order provided by the United States.

And by dodging his own question by launching a partisan attack, Kaplan avoids a number of other questions. Not just whether the American empire is sustainable, but whether there’s something about the means of American empire that has proven ineffective (which is really a different way of asking the same question). Why did Iraq end up being such catastrophe? Why did we lose the Arab Spring, in all senses of the word? Why, even at a time when the US still acts as global hegemon, is instability rising?

There are some underlying reasons, like climate change, that the imperialists would like to distinguish from our oil-based power and the dollar exchange it rests on.

But even more, I think, the imperialists would like to ignore how neoliberalism has gutted the former source of our strength, our manufacturing, has led us to increased reliance on Intellectual Property, and has not offered the people in our realm of influence the stability Kaplan claims empire brings. People can’t eat, they can’t educate their children, they can’t retire because of the policies Kaplan and his buddies have pushed around the world. And the US solution to this is more trade pacts that just further instantiate IP as a core value, regardless of how little it serves those people who can’t eat.

The NSA is intimately a part of this, of course. The reason I find it so hysterical that NSA’s one defense against China is effectively the IP one — the NSA doesn’t steal IP and give it to “private” companies to use. But that’s just another way of saying that the empire we’ve rolled out has failed to protect even the increasingly ineffective core basis of our power, its IP.

I’ve said this before, but what is happening, increasingly, is that the US has to coerce power rather than win it through persuasion — persuasion that used to be (at least for our European allies) increased quality of life. It’s a lot more expensive to coerce power, both in terms of the military adventures or repression you must engage in, but also in terms of the dragnet you must throw across the world rather than the enhanced communication of an open Internet. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration, for all of Kaplan’s claimed post-Imperialism, seems to be doubling down on more coercive (or, in the case of trade agreements, counterproductive) means of retaining power.

And so Kaplan, who’s so sure that empire is a great thing, might be better considering not empire in the abstract (indeed, abstracted to the point of suppressing the many downsides of empire), but the empire we’ve got. He seems to implicitly admit he can’t rebut the claim that our empire is no longer sustainable, but since he can’t he changes the subject. Why is our empire unsustainable, Robert Kaplan? And for those who believe the US offers a good — or even a least-bad — order for the globe, what do you intend to do to return it to sustainability?

Dragnets and austerity aren’t going to do it, that’s for sure.

Update: Thanks to Wapiti for alerting me to my huge error of substituting Kagan (generic neocon name) for Kaplan’s actual last name. Sorry for the confusion.

The Navy SEALs Bring You Izahgneb! Saving Libya’s Crude for Marathon Oil!

I discovered NSC spokesperosn Caitlin Hayden has a (little used) twitter feed today when she tweeted this article.

The article not only explains why Navy SEALs were ordered to take over a ship absconding with Libyan oil.

Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. The economy entirely depends on it; turn off the taps and everything grinds to a halt. Libyans quite rightly regard the oil as their common property, a national resource to be shared for the good of all. The vast majority of Libyans hold jobs that are financed, directly or indirectly, by the sale of oil.

Given this history, it makes perfect sense that the control of oil should rest with the central government. Take that away, and the government doesn’t just lose control over its most important source of finance — the very notion of central authority will also be compromised, perhaps fatally. And in present-day Libya, the fate of democracy is closely linked with the viability of government itself.

This is why both Libya’s government and the international community have viewed the federalists’ threats to sell off the oil under their control as a dangerous challenge to the stability of the government in Tripoli. Last week, Jathran’s forces finally made good on that threat: they used one of the oil terminals under their control to fill up a North Korean-flagged tanker called the Morning Glory.

[snip]

Had the story ended there, the result would have been an unmitigated disaster for the government. Tripoli’s impotence and dysfunction would have graphically exposed for all the world to see. The floodgates for the wholesale looting of Libya’s oil resources would have opened. The forces of anarchy would have cheered. (It’s worth noting that a prime minister has already lost his job for even allowing the tanker to load in the first place.) But that’s when Washington stepped in.

Not long after the tanker arrived in international waters, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, the USS Roosevelt (pictured above), brought the SEALs into range. (By the way, Obama authorized the move at 10 PM on Sunday night Washington time, as the world was preparing for the Crimean referendum.) They boarded the tanker without a shot fired and took it over.

But it bitches that no one recognized the successful operation as a “master stroke.”

President Obama pulled off a master stroke this week. He deployed U.S. military force in support of an infant democracy that desperately needs our help. The result was a resounding success, a vivid illustration of how the United States can put its unchallenged power to positive ends.

[snip]

The reaction in Washington: a giant yawn. Deafening silence from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are always quick to demand U.S. military action in situations where it will usually make things worse. Fox News barely noticed. Nor was there a word of praise from the president’s liberal allies on Capitol Hill. Even the New York Times ran a perfunctory report.

Now, frankly, I did notice. I shared the puzzlement I saw a few others express as to the legal basis for our SEALs policing stolen property. I was also rather curious about the legal status of the operation, which presumably relied on secrecy and also clearly (given the detention in Cyprus of suspected intended buyers) involved close cooperation with the intelligence community. (The Washington Times called it a “covert operation,” though they may not have been using the term in its technical sense.) And then shortly after, our government started crowing about its involvement, including this DOD statement noting that “The boarding operation [was] approved by President Obama.” And now, with this rare tweet from Hayden, official approval of this article that is thick with propaganda.

Behold the anti-Benghazi, ladies and gentlemen, a successful operation in which our brave Navy SEALs return stolen property to poor Libya, saving the unity of the country and a fledgling democracy.

Mind you, as I was looking for that DOD statement, I noted a slight change in the description of the operation.

A March 11 statement from Libya’s National Oil Company stated, “the crude oil loaded upon the vessel “Morning Glory”, which is now at Essider Terminal in Libya, is the property of NOC and its Partners.” A March 9 State Department statement said, “The oil belongs to the Libyan National Oil Company and its joint venture partners. These partners include U.S. companies in the Waha consortium.”

That March 17 statement, however, described, “The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company.” And a March 19 one not only added, “U.S. forces took control of the tanker in international waters at the request of the governments of Libya and Cyprus,” but repeated that “The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company.” Those partners — which both NOC and State were happy to reference before the SEALs valiantly rescued the crude — seem to have disappeared from the Administration’s messaging.

ConocoPhillips owns a 16.3% stake in the Waha Concession, and an even bigger stake in some less productive ventures. Marathon Oil also owns a 16.3% stake (and Hess a 8.2% stake).

So while Caitlin Hayden would like you to believe this was a heroic op that saved the Libyan democracy from disintegration — I’m sure the SEALs acquitted themselves against 3 armed Libyans quite courageously and it may well help the Libyan state — it also happens to be an operation that served to rescue around $8 million of crude owned by American companies.

Two more details. As Guardian pointed out in its initial coverage of the rebels’ seizure of the oil, reliable sources of oil to Europe are increasingly important as the US tries to face down Vladimir Putin on Europe’s East.

Just as importantly, Marathon has been trying to find a way to get out of its stake in Libya.

Libya has blocked efforts by U.S. company Marathon Oil to sell its stake in one of the country’s top oil ventures by moving to preempt a deal, sources said, highlighting the struggle investors face in cutting exposure to Libya’s unrest.

Two years of turmoil since the Arab Spring and tough contract terms have prompted oil firms to reassess their role in Libya, and U.S. companies appear keenest to leave as they lack the proximity and infrastructure links that make North Africa attractive to their European peers.

Sources told Reuters in July that Marathon was considering the sale of its stake in Libya’s Waha Oil Company, which has a maximum output capacity of 350,000 barrels per day (bpd) and produces the OPEC member’s main light sweet crude grade.

In addition to the hit this would have on Marathon’s bottom line (the Libyans have first bid here and informed Marathon they’d pay less than market rates), it would open up yet another new front for China to invest in big reserves. The last thing the US wants in China extending its influence in Africa.

Again, I’m not questioning the courage or excellence of the SEALs, nor am I diminishing the importance of oil to propping up the Libyan state right now. But it seems the push to turn this into a heroic narrative also serves to obscure the degree to which this is also about using our military to ensure the viability of this exploration so as to ensure US oil companies continue to exert influence — and keep pumping oil — in Libya.

Yes, this was not the catastrophe that Benghazi was (which has been magnified in any case). But that doesn’t mitigate that the overthrow of Qaddafi risks spiraling even further out of control into yet another colossal catastrophe of American (and European) intervention.

Minority Report on Ukraine, or What’s Venezuela Got to Do with It?

I freely admit to being the oddest of the quadruplets in the Emptywheel sensory deprivation pool, producing the quirky minority report from time to time.

Which may explain the following graphic with regard to current geopolitical tensions.

[Source: Google Trends and Google Finance]

[Source: Google Trends and Google Finance]

 As you can see, not every trending burp in the news about either Venezuela or Ukraine produced a corresponding bump in the fossil fuel market. Some trend-inducing news may have nothing at all to do with energy. It’s quite possible I may not have captured other key businesses as some of them don’t trade publicly, or are don’t trade in a manner readily captured by Google Finance.

But there are a few interesting relationships between news and price spikes, enough to make one wonder what other values may spike with increased volatility in places like Venezuela (which has the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the western hemisphere), and Ukraine (which lies between the EU and the largest natural gas deposits in the world, and the world’s eighth largest oil reserves).

Of course there’s an additional link between these two disparate countries. Both of them have already seen similar upheavals in which the U.S. played a role — Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, and the 2002 attempted coup in Venezuela.

When someone made noise about an Afghan Muslim being a key locus of the latest unrest in Ukraine, I couldn’t help but think of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline for natural gas which has yet to be realized, primarily for a lack of adequate political will among nation-states with a vested interest in its success.

It also made me think of news reports from this past summer when Turkmenistan, sitting on the fourth largest natural gas reserves in the world, expressed a readiness to export gas to Europe. This would cut into Russia’s sales, but not for a few years, requiring continuation of existing relationships for the next three to five years. Note the pipelines, existing and planned on the following U.S. State Department map (date unclear, believed to be post-2006).*

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emptywheel I think I just saw 10 top Neocons cast their 2016 presidential vote for Hillary. Doesn't she have to collect signatures first?
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emptywheel @Popehat Don't forget counterproductive escalation! Perfect expertise!
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