An ever more dangerous dependency

Posted in Iraq , Broader Middle East | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Nikolas Busse| Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led the United States into the region with the bulk of the world's energy reserves, and Washington has been quick to start exploiting the economic advantages of its position. American companies are active in the Gulf and central Asian regions; in such countries as Azerbaijan (oil reserves) and Georgia (oil pipeline to Turkey) the old regional superpower Russia is being forced to watch as the United States secures its strategic interest.

Germany has so far shown little interest in this game of influence and oil, believing that a well-functioning world market offers the best guarantee of reliable supplies. It considers additional political or military efforts unnecessary; after all, the German Economics Ministry says, the oil-producing countries are keen to sell.

Past experience seems to confirm that view. Even the oil crisis of the mid-1970s was basically a price crisis; the basic supply was not threatened. Throughout all political crises in recent decades, oil and gas imports have never subsided, whether they are from the Middle East or Russia. Even the Soviet Union was a reliable supplier.

Nonetheless, a debate over the future of German energy provision has been started in Berlin's foreign policy institutions. Such researchers as Friedemann Müller of the Science and Politics Foundation and Frank Umbach of the German Society for Foreign Policy see the persistent political instability in the Middle East as an underestimated threat.

The two academics are above all concerned by statistics showing that in 30 years Europe will be far more dependent on energy imports than it is today. In 2000, the European members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still produced 48 percent of their own oil, thanks mostly to the North Sea reserves, but the International Energy Agency estimates that this share will drop to 15 percent by 2030. Most of the shortfall will have to come from the Middle East.

Given the latest political turbulence in this region, this is worrying. Since Sept. 11, 2001 caused new disruptions, perhaps even a war of cultures between the Western world and the Islamic world, oil has begun to look more like a potential political weapon. The authoritarian rulers in the Gulf region could be tempted to ward off Western attempts at political intervention - and democratization - by raising prices or reducing supplies, and if Islamists came to power in one of these countries, oil supplies would be seriously threatened. What's more, the Gulf states are no longer as dependent on the West as a buyer; already, 60 percent of Gulf oil is sold to Asia, a share that is likely to increase further, given the rapid economic growth of southeast and east Asia.

Dependence on imported gas, Germany's second most important source of energy, is also increasing. In 2000, the European OECD countries bought 36 percent of their gas abroad, a share that will rise to 63 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Europe currently buys 66 percent of its gas imports in Russia and the rest from Africa. This gives Moscow, in particular, substantial political leverage. Müller argues that the Russian government is already trying to channel gas supplies from other countries, such as Turkmenistan or Kazakstan, to Europe across its own territory so as to gain influence on volumes and prices. “There's a clear conflict of interest here between Russia and Europe,“ Müller says.

Windmills won't be able to change all of this. Even the German Economics Ministry says that alternative sources of energy will account for no more than 7 percent of German energy provision in the medium term. The planned abandonment of nuclear energy will worsen the problem, which is why people like Umbach believe it is time for Germany to link energy and security policy. The United States did this quite a while ago, diversifying imports so that the United States today is less dependent on individual supplier countries. Müller's conclusion: The Europeans should buy more oil from the Caspian region and more gas from Iran.