Oil—A Blessing and a Curse?
TO WHAT extent do industrialized nations depend on oil and its products? Oil—and natural gas—are essential to them, and this has created, as Daniel Yergin states in his book The Prize, a “Hydrocarbon Society.” Just think of heating oil, greases, waxes, asphalts, and the items made from petrochemicals—aircraft, automobiles, boats, adhesives, paint, polyester clothes, sneakers, toys, dyes, aspirin, deodorant, makeup, recording discs, computers, TVs, telephones. Every day many people use a number of the over 4,000 oil-derived products or items that shape modern life. But what about the harm to the fabric of life that has characterized the history of oil since its beginning?
A King That “Does Not Rule Benevolently”
By the end of 1940, when war between Romania and Hungary seemed imminent, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was quick to act as arbitrator. A gesture of goodwill? What Hitler really wanted to prevent was having Romanian oil wells fall under the control of the Soviet Union. Oil was also a major factor in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the inclusion of other nations in the counteroffensive. By no means are these isolated events. So many times the determination to control oil has been the cause of conflict and suffering.
Not only is oil essential to modern life but it is also deeply rooted in the very heart of politics and the special interests of a few powerful people. As the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) recently stated, oil is not an ordinary product but “a strategic asset.” Oil has been used between nations for political leverage, through embargoes and sanctions. In addition, oil wells, refineries, and tankers have been the target of terrorist attacks—often causing terrible damage to the environment.
The oil industry has been accused of adding to the damage done to the environment by carbon dioxide emissions, which may contribute to global climate change. According to a report from PEMEX (Mexican Petroleums), one of the world’s biggest oil enterprises, contaminants are emitted during various phases of petroleum processing. Although gasolines are cleaner now—nearly six years after the Kyoto Protocol, when 161 nations met to take steps to reduce the threat of global climate warming—many feel that little has changed. On the other hand, OPEC says that “oil is the creator of the wealth and prosperity enjoyed today” by many countries. But is this always the case?
Some would point to damage that has resulted from the drilling of oil wells and the construction of pipelines. Others might point to the increasing number of unemployed in Saudi Arabia, the country richest in oil deposits. Alí Rodríguez Araque, president of OPEC, says: “The governments of the industrialized nations are taking enormous advantage of the sacrifices which they demand of producers, refiners and consumers.”
CorpWatch, an organization that works to hold corporations accountable on issues such as environmental justice, states: “Oil is still King. But it does not rule benevolently.”
What will be the future for oil?