The mid-November revelation in the Washington Post that as early as February 2001 senior executives of at least four of the country’s biggest oil companies met with aides to Vice President Cheney has reopened the debate over Big Oil’s influence on the Bush Administration’s energy policy. The immediate controversy concerns whether executives of ExxonMobil, Conoco, Shell and BP America misled the Senate Energy and Commerce committees when they denied knowledge of the meetings in testimony on November 9. The leaked documents confirm that these meetings in fact took place, but because Republican chair Ted Stevens declined to oblige the executives to testify under oath–which committee Democrats strongly protested at the time–they cannot be charged with perjury. (They could, however, be charged with making false or fraudulent statements to Congress.)
The executives’ evasive answers have renewed questions about the functioning of the secretive White House Energy Task Force, especially its unwillingness to draft policies that transcend the interests of Big Oil. The focus on industry profits and prevarication, although it’s important, misses a much more important reason for the Bush Administration’s desperate attempts to keep documents related to the task force secret. In a word: Iraq.
While Iraq was absent from the oil executives’ November 9 testimony, it is clear that the country and its immense petroleum reserves were on the minds of the Administration and its industry friends from the moment Bush assumed office, and for good reason: With Americans consuming one-quarter of the world’s daily petroleum production of 84 million barrels, scientists and industry leaders were by 2001 increasingly considering the possibility that the “age of peak oil production” was approaching much sooner than had previously been acknowledged.
Once peak oil is reached, it will no longer be possible to extract enough oil from the earth to replace what we consume, thereby setting off a potentially explosive competition for the world’s remaining supplies. In such a scenario, insuring American access to, and where possible leverage or even control over, the world’s major oil deposits would be a natural concern for an Administration umbilically tied to Big Oil, particularly in the context of escalating competition with an aggressive, energy-hungry China.
The belief in peak oil, while not universally shared, has had increasing scientific support in recent years. And it is reflected in the November 9 testimony of Chevron chair David O’Reilly, who explained that in the context of “growing demand for energy, particularly in Asia…oil production in mature basins, particularly in Europe and North America, has been declining…. Meanwhile, OPEC production has increased, but is now approaching its current capacity to deliver.” Yet Iraq has, in addition to its proven reserves–second only to Saudi Arabia’s–vast untapped fields that remain, in the words of one industry analyst, “virgin territory.”
In this context, the few documents that have been made public from the Energy Task Force (thanks to the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch) reveal not only that industry executives met with Cheney’s staff but that a map of Iraq and an accompanying list of “Iraq oil foreign suitors” were the center of discussion. The map erased all features of the country save the location of its main oil deposits, divided into nine exploration blocks. The accompanying list of suitors revealed that dozens of companies from thirty countries–but not the United States–were either in discussions over or in direct negotiations for rights to some of the best remaining oilfields on earth.