Is oil worth dying for?

Jim Fain

December 31, 1990|By Jim Fain

WINSTON Churchill once said, "mastery itself was the prize." He was describing his 1911 gamble in converting the Royal Navy from safe Welsh coal to the dicey oil of Persia.

Oil has been synonymous with mastery ever since, writes Daniel Yergin in a monumental new book, "The Prize" (Simon & Schuster). An energy economist, Yergin traces the saga of petroleum from the seeding of industrial capitalism through the wars of the 20th century to today's post-Cold War standoff. Saddam Hussein comes across as a rather ordinary player in his bizarre cast of transient heroes, villains and screwballs.

World War I established oil as central to the game of nations, Yergin says, when the taxicab army swept out of Paris, meters clicking, to halt the Germans in the First Battle of the Marne. No more horse cavalry. Nor war plans anchored to coal-fired locomotive railheads. Hail to the internal combustion engine, new queen of battle. Tanks, warplanes and fleets of supply trucks quickly followed.

A U.S. embargo prompted Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor while it reached for oil riches in the East Indies. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union coveting the oil of the Caucasus. Both guessed wrong. U.S. oil fueled the allies. U.S. submarines and planes destroyed Japan's tanker fleet. Allied bombers crushed Nazi coal gasification plants.

The CIA's first dirty trick sought to safeguard oil by reinstalling the Shah in Iran, a gambit that triggered his hubris and ultimate downfall.

Britain's Anthony Eden put all his chips in 1956 on seizing the Suez Canal to maintain the oil lifeline -- and was humiliated when a miffed Eisenhower cut off his emergency oil supply.

Those who say we shouldn't fight in the gulf today reveal charming naivete -- and total ignorance of history. Oil is precisely what we do fight for. It remains mastery.

As Yergin writes, "At the end of the 20th century, oil was still central to security, prosperity and the very nature of civilization." Oil transformed the map of America, dispersing cities into suburbs and leaving their cores to rot. It is how we get to work, travel, even conduct courtships. It coats us in plastic.

To the greater glory of humankind? Don't be silly. Along with the agony of wars, it despoils the planet, fouling air, water and ground. The clash between environmentalism and "progress" will be our next Gotterdammerung.

But for now life as we know it hangs by a tenuous thread to the Persian Gulf. Oil resources elsewhere are drying up. Production in the United States, once the world's highest, dropped by 2 million barrels a day in the last four years alone. By far the biggest consumer, we now import over half of what we guzzle. World oil reserves are up nearly 50 percent since 1985, virtually all found in the gulf where 70 percent of today's total is located.

That's why 400,000 Americans are bivouacked on the Saudi sands. It's why, unless Saddam backs down, we will send them into battle.

There's nothing noble or moral about any of this. It's just that, until we develop new energy sources, we have no choice.

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