Can We Survive the New Golden Age of Oil?

A flurry of new finds has analysts giddy over a new age of energy abundance. Just don't ask about global warming.

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Just months after an enormous discovery of natural gas off the coast of Israel, a local company has reported another potentially big strike -- an estimated 1.4 billion barrels of oil, in addition to more natural gas. The company, Israel Opportunity Energy Resources, says it will start drilling by the end of the year. All of a sudden, Israel has found itself a focus of the world's hydrocarbon interest.

Energy experts are tittering about a prodigious new golden age of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Israel and Cyprus could become substantial oil and natural gas exporters, in addition to some other surprising places including French Guiana, Kenya, North Dakota, and Somalia. All in all, say increasingly mainstream projections, the world is moving into a period of petroleum abundance, and not the scarcity that most industry hands embraced just months ago. Plus, the United States, or at least North America, may be on the cusp of energy independence while OPEC's days of über-influence are numbered.

What these experts have not said, however, is that while this new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, it could also accelerate the swamping of the planet in melted Arctic ice. So much new oil may flood the market that crude and gasoline prices might moderate and lessen consumer incentives to economize. "In the absence of U.S. leadership, I tend to agree with NASA's James Hansen that it is 'game over for the planet,'" Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University, told me in an email exchange.

This unspoken flaw in the golden-age scenario suggests it might not unfold so smoothly. The projected turnaround of oil's sagging fortunes may indeed herald economic salvation for the U.S. and global economies. But the environmental consequences could also trip up its full realization.

Hansen famously made his apocalyptic remark (and repeated it last month in the New York Times) while discussing Canadian plans to expand exports of Albertan oil sands to the United States through a new Keystone XL pipeline to the Texas Gulf coast. Significant as they are, however, the sands are only one component of the projected global flood of new oil. Excluded from his appraisal are millions of additional barrels per day expected in the next decade and beyond from North Dakota's Bakken shale oil, plus the deep waters off Angola, Brazil, Ghana, the U.S. Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.

In that context, Hansen's staunch opposition to Keystone resembles less a strong defensive position than the proverbial finger in the dike. Two weeks ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that carbon dioxide emissions last year already neared an important line: the point at which the probability of global temperatures sticking to a maximum 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-Industrial Revolution levels dips below 50 percent. Carbon emissions reached a record 31.6 gigatons in 2011, just under the targeted 2017 maximum of 32.6 gigatons, the point at which the IEA wants emissions to start dropping. If the new oil finds are developed fully, you will instead "blow through your emissions targets," says Frank Verrastro, director of energy and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Intentionally or not, the golden-age scenario seems tailored for the current international political and economic landscape. In the United States, President Barack Obama's administration is muddling along in climate change discussions, as emissions containment has been out of political favor since the 2009 congressional failure to pass cap-and-trade legislation. The Republican Party has by and large branded climate change a hoax, and Democrats barely discuss it. World leaders are due to gather in two weeks in Rio de Janeiro for the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit, the precursor to the landmark 1997 Kyoto talks on climate change. But Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have already sent their regrets. After the disappointment of 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, they seem to have little stomach for another go at climate talks in an atmosphere of economic crisis and political dissonance. And in an election season, Obama hardly has the political strength to do much other than embrace the golden-age scenario.

The question now is whether the issue of global warming will remain marginalized in the United States and abroad for another year, or two, or three -- or decades? The golden-age projections suggest a lengthier time frame. But the nature of cyclical politics argues differently. The accepted mainstream climate change science remains bruised but not demolished. And the absence of any detailed analysis of environmental risk from golden-age enthusiasts, as well as their frequently dismissive attitude toward the issue when it is raised, lends them a surreal political quality. By failing even to suggest how the forecast bonanza squares with exhaustive reporting of rising temperatures, the projections seem aspirational rather than objectively data-driven.

Where the oil-age theorists seem likely to experience almost no pushback is in the revolution in natural gas, with a flood of the fuel already flowing or on its way from Australia, Mozambique, Qatar, Tanzania, the United States, and elsewhere. In both China and the United States, this gas glut is leading utilities to convert coal-fired power plants to natural gas fueling, which burns far cleaner. "We're already seeing coal being pushed out due to low gas prices, which is undoubtedly having a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions," says Paul Faeth, a senior fellow at CNA, a Washington think tank. Stacy VanDeveer, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, told me that both the gas and oil could be viewed as net positives by climate change groups to the degree that they serve as bridge fuels "to a much more efficient and mostly renewable energy future."

Ultimately, we can expect a middle ground -- neither unfettered development of every hydrocarbon asset on the planet, nor a shackling of the most prized reserves in the service of climate change targets. John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Co., is an unapologetic golden-age proponent, but also argues for emissions reductions. The cutbacks, he told me, must happen over multiple decades, and not faster -- any quicker pace would invite a backlash.

"The proponents of dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases too soon and faster than economies can absorb will actually create a more severe and longer lasting and more difficult future for the environment because of the negative reaction they will create, leading to prolonged adherence to carbon fuels for political reasons," he says.

For the same reasons, the new golden age may be good, but not as great as the forecasters suggest.



Stay Out of Syria

Foreign intervention to topple Bashar al-Assad's bloody regime risks a fiasco on par with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let's be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria. The United States, Europe, and the Gulf states want regime change, so they are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and helping arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. It is also the most the United States can and should do.

President Barack Obama does not want to intervene directly in Syria for obvious reasons, and he is right to be cautious. The United States has failed at nation-building twice before in the Middle East. The Libyan example of limited intervention by using air power alone could suck the United States into a protracted and open-ended engagement. One cannot compare Libya to Syria. The former is a relatively small, homogeneous, and wealthy society. Syria has a population four times larger, which is poor and wracked by an increasingly violent civil war across religious lines. Moreover, the chance that the United States can end the killing in Syria by airpower alone is small.

The argument that the United States could have avoided radicalization and civil war in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991 is unconvincing. Similar arguments are now being offered to talk Americans into jumping into Syria. Iraq was not a mature nation-state and was likely to fall apart. The fact that it imploded into civil war when the United States roto-rootered Saddam's regime should have been expected.

U.S. intervention in Syria will likely lead to something similar: civil war and radicalization. Syrians have never agreed on basic questions of identity and policy, and it is unlikely that they will decide these issues peacefully today.

With America's economy in the dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters, and its people fatigued by foreign wars, this is no time to intervene in Syria. Washington has no staying power if things go wrong. It wants regime-change on the cheap -- to bomb and withdraw. And if things go wrong, will we leave the Syrians in the lurch or get sucked into another complicated quagmire? The administration can ill afford to leave a failed state behind in Syria or to have it unfurl into civil war.

Even more pressing will be the need for post-conflict reconstruction. Syria is a nation the size of Iraq whose population has outstripped its water and economic resources. Unlike Iraq, it has insufficient sources of revenue to quickly rebuild its infrastructure. What if there is massive looting and chaos? Syria produces little the world wants to buy. It hardly produces enough electricity for three hours of power a day. The school system is in a shambles. Do Americans want to pay for putting Syria back together? More to the point, should they let Washington start what it would not finish?

If anyone tells you they are going to build democracy in Syria, don't buy it. Democracy is unlikely to succeed there anytime soon. The two social indicators that predict the success of democratization with any accuracy are median population age and per capita gross domestic product. According to a recent study, autocracies with a median population age of over 30 years old are most likely to transition to liberal democracies -- Syria has a median age of 21. This is the same as Iraq's and just slightly older than Gaza's and Yemen's. Because of its poverty and youth, political scientists give it small chances of becoming democratic and stable any time soon. Beware of drinking the democratization Kool-Aid.

Anyone who believes that Syria will avoid the excesses of Iraq -- where the military, government ministries, and Baath Party were dissolved and criminalized -- is dreaming. Syrian government institutions and the security forces will fall apart once the revolution prevails. They are overwhelmingly staffed by Baathists, Alawites, and other minorities, recruited for loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad -- no revolutionary government will keep them on. Their dismissal will provide fodder for a counterinsurgency, promoting greater chaos across the country.

Syria's new rulers will also face a daunting set of challenges upon taking power. They will be obliged to employ the hundreds of thousands of jobless Syrians who have sacrificed for the revolution, lost family, and struggled in the face of tyranny.

If the United States becomes militarily involved -- destroying the presidential palace in Damascus and military installations -- it will own Syria. Will it discipline the dozens of militias that have sprung up to represent the revolutionary forces? If the death toll rises after the Assad regime is taken out, will the United States continue to dedicate itself to stopping the killing?

Syrian opposition figures have estimated that running the government for the first six months after the fall of Assad will cost $12 billion, and have made it clear that they will ask international donors for financial support. This is chicken feed. Anyone who knows anything about Syria knows that it will take a lot more than $12 billion to stabilize and rebuild the country. The United States currently spends $12 billion dollars every three months in Afghanistan. In 2010, the United States was spending $6.7 billion in Afghanistan every month, as well as $5.5 billion in Iraq. Few Americans believe this money was well spent. It is rash to expect Syria to cost less.

If the United States has learned anything, it is that it cannot sort out issues of power-sharing and national identity for Middle Eastern countries. The road to national unity does not go through Washington. In the end, Syrians must find their own way and choose their own national leaders. Ahmad Chalabi and Hamid Karzai turned out to be bad choices for Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

There is no indication that the United States could do a better job of picking winners in Syria. Burhan Ghalioun, the original leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), seemed to have all the qualities of a future Syrian president, but his own party members attacked him for treason within months of confirming him as leader. He was forced to resign on May 17, setting the stage for a showdown between the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its political rivals over who will be the SNC's new leader. Militias, the names of which we don't even know and with ideologies that could turn out to be closer to Osama bin Laden's than George Washington's, are competing on the ground for cash and Kalashnikovs.

Syrians are divided because they have no tradition of unity and the Baathists have destroyed politics for a half-century. Nothing the United States can do will erase that legacy of political underdevelopment.

It seems heartless to stand by and do so little as massacres, such as the atrocity carried out at Houla, continue. More than 13,000 Syrians have been killed in the last 14 months of revolution. But there is no reason to believe U.S. intervention can staunch the violence. American troops killed over 10,000 Iraqis in the first month of invasion in 2003. A further 100,000 Iraqis were killed by the time they left -- and even now, Iraq remains in turmoil and a new dictatorship seems to be taking shape. Car bombs are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, and the government cleaves to Iran rather than the United States.

The cost in Iraq was high. The chances that the United States would end the killing by destroying Syria's Baathist regime is not good.

In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria on a golden platter. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom, and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them.

The United States can play a role with aid, arms, and intelligence -- but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria's future and determine the victors of this conflict. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must take charge of their revolution and figure out how to win it. It is better for Syria, and it is better for America.