1:28 p.m., May 21, 2009----Jon B. Alterman, who directs the Middle East program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, gave a talk titled “Fueling the Flames: The Politics of Oil” on Wednesday, May 20, in Mitchell Hall.
Alterman, who previously served as a foreign policy aide to former U.S. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan and authored or coauthored four books on the Middle East, focused on energy below the ground and above the ground, both in terms of political risk and in terms of the demand for oil. He also touched on emissions and carbon dioxide (CO2).
Discussing energy below the ground, Alterman said, “If you're looking at oil in the world, oil is inextricably linked to the Middle East.”
Alterman said that attempts to find oil in abundance in additional places have come up short and that, “as we find more oil, we're not finding oil in more places. It continues to be focused on the places where we already know it is.”
This is causing a problem because, “as our oil use continues to go up, oil wells produce seven percent less every year,” he said.
If oil consumption continues at the current pace, Alterman explained that an oil gap will eventually be created and that this gap “ends up being about 30-45 million barrels a day in 2017 and about 70-100 million barrels a day in 2027.”
“Filling that gap with how much oil we need is going to require tremendous investments that we're going to have to make. So it seems to me that we're going to be needing more oil and we're going to be getting it from where the oil is -- which is the Middle East,” he said.
Alterman then discussed the political risks and in relationship to the demand for oil worldwide. He said oil prices have traditionally spiked because of political unrest, and that even countries in the Middle East that don't produce oil have economies tied to oil.
“Oil is the lifeblood of this region,” Alterman said.
He said that while many individual Arabs are hostile towards the United States, that is less the case at a national level. “For all the anti-American hostility in the Middle East, if you think about the number of governments that are truly hostile towards the United States, we've gone down essentially to two -- Iran and Syria,” he said.
Alterman next spoke about the environmental impact of oil and the demand for oil. He said that when it comes to future environmental impact, the damage is going to come from the developing world, countries such as India and China, and not the developed world.
“The developing world uses more energy in a year than the entire developed world and that gap gets bigger and bigger and bigger as we go into the future,” Alterman said. “Countries like China and India, that is where the growth is coming from. If you're a country in the Middle East and you're thinking about where your markets are, where your growing markets are, your growing markets are in the East, not in the West.”
Alterman stressed that the United States is going to have less and less control over the worldwide CO2 emissions in the future because “we're not the huge emitters.”
“The United States is becoming less and less central in this whole picture,” he said. “While we remain the largest consumer, our demand isn't fluctuating very much.”
Wrapping up his talk, Alterman said, “I don't know what the future of fuel use is going to be, but I think oil is going to be relevant for a very, very long time.”
Alterman's talk was the final lecture of the 2009 Global Agenda series, “Tinderbox: Understanding the Middle East,” and also was sponsored by the University's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, the Graduate Program in Energy and Environmental Policy, and the College of Education and Public Policy
Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Duane Perry