When you hear politicians claim that the next war is “not about the oil,” rest assured: It’s about the oil.

Although the revolts in the Middle East involve genuine disputes within the nations – Egypt, Libya, Syria – the superpowers – US, NATO, China, Russia – exploit these conflicts as surrogate wars over the Middle East’s valuable energy resources.

In April, in a first of a series of meetings, the five members of the UN Security Council – China, Russia, France and the US, all states with nuclear weapon arsenals on their soils – insisted that Iran abide by the UN's Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Israel has refused to sign. Israel likely possesses nuclear weapons capability, which they refuse to confirm or deny.

These nations, along with their ally Israel, do not want Iran to join the nuclear weapons club. They insist that Iran abide by the UN's Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some observers find this hypocritical of the nuclear powers, which makes this a hard sell to the Iranian people and to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, families of slain Iranian scientists have sued the US, Britain, and Israel for an alleged undeclared clandestine war inside Iran, assassinating nuclear scientists, blowing up nuclear facilities, and terrorizing the population. According to the New York Times, the US and Israel authored the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iranian nuclear plants.

For its part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has inflamed conflict by disparaging Israel, denying the Holocaust, and disputing Israel's right to exist. Iran is also allegedly linked to Hezbollah attacks on Israeli civilians such as the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last July.

Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging them to abandon nuclear technology all together and join the world in the development of renewable energy. Greenpeace – founded in 1971, as a peace group sailing boats into nuclear test zones – has always recognized that war is both a human rights and environmental issue.

“The high handed posturing of Iran’s principle accusers, requires some scrutiny,” wrote Naidoo. "Together they stand for four decades of bad faith. Under the NPT they promised to disarm… They have not done so!”

Lebanon protest 2003
Photo 03/15/2003: Greenpeace Lebanon activists hold signs reading 'Oil kills' during a protest against the US-led war in Iraq.

The persistent war-making against Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria is about one primary goal – a goal shared by the US, Russia, China, and the European nations – to control the world’s dwindling oil supply.

Resource wars

Oil company cheerleaders proclaiming huge supplies of oil are dead wrong. Peak oil is as real as rain, and it is here now. Not 2050. Not 2020. Now.

Oil production has been flat since 2005. This is not by choice. The producers cannot increase production because new fields cannot keep pace with declining production from old fields. Every producing oil field on Earth is in decline (unless it is brand new), and peak discoveries are well behind us. The graph below, from Exxon Mobil, shows peak oil occurring now and peak discoveries 50 years ago.

Exxon Mobile chart, from 'The Oil Drum'

Because of oil field depletion, maintaining world oil production at its current level into the future would require bringing a new Saudi Arabia (3-billion barrels annually) into full production every three years. There exists on Earth not one single promising oil field that remotely approaches those requirements.

SaveTheArctic Photo 02/25/2012: Actor Lucy Lawless and Greenpeace New Zealand activists on the second day of their protest to stop a Shell-contracted drillship from departing Port Taranaki for the remote Arctic, where its exploratory oil drilling programme threatens to devastate Alaska's coastline.

During the last century human society burned the best half of recoverable hydrocarbons, representing 500-million years of captured sunlight. Idle societies squandered this energy on drag races, traffic jams, private jets, sprawling homes, and overheated office buildings. But more than any other single wasteful enterprise, the great industrial empires squandered this one-time storehouse of high-quality fuel fighting over that very fuel.

We won’t “run out of oil” because, simply, we’ll never get it all, but peak oil is here, the world’s largest and best reserves are still in the Middle East, and the world’s military regimes – which run on petroleum – know this. 

Blood and Oil 

In 2010, the US Military Joint Forces Command predicted the end of “surplus oil production capacity” and warned, “the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10-million barrels per day.” The US military is concerned. At full strength in Iraq & Afghanistan, the US deployed about 190,000 soldiers, using about 10 million gallons of fuel per day, equivalent to the amount of fuel consumed each day by a city of 20 million people. 

Oil has fueled and driven warfare for the last century. In 1912, on the eve of the First World War, Winston Churchill said flatly, “You have got to find the oil ... purchased regularly and cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty in war.” 

Oil proved to be the primary strategic resource during World War II. During the war, the US built the world’s longest pipeline – from Texas to the Atlantic – and produced about 6.3 billion barrels of oil. By comparison, Germany produced a mere 200 million barrels, about 3% of US production, much of it from expensive “synthetic oil” produced from coal. 

Desperate for fuel, Germany entered North Africa and Russia in 1941 to reach the Baku oil fields in the Caspian foothills. German War Production Minister, Albert Speer, conceded in his post war interrogation that oil “was a prime motive” for these invasions. Predicting victory at Baku, Hitler declared, “Now I have oil! Proceed to India!” But Hitler’s army literally ran out of gas. German supply trucks got half their normal fuel mileage in the roadless, muddy terrain. Rommel abandoned empty, fuel-gobbling tanks in the Egyptian desert west of El Alamein. “We have the bravest men,” he declared, “but they are useless without enough petrol.”

Japan was also desperate for oil to fuel their imperial wars in Asia. They made fuel from potatoes and pine roots, invaded the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) to seize the oil fields, and ditched planes and pilots at sea for lack of fuel to return home.  Japan also ran out of gas. Once American and British ships cut off Japan’s fuel line from Indonesia, the Pacific war was over. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were motivated by American experimental zeal and a weapons race, not by military necessity.

Privatizing Warfare

The new Middle-Eastern conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran – are still about the oil. Today, America is occupying foreign oil fields and securing pipeline routes to feed its petrol habit and reap profits. NATO allies, equally desperate for the last dregs of Earth’s once great store of hydrocarbons, play along with the U.S.

Prior to the 1990 Gulf War I, Halliburton president and rightwing henchman Dick Cheney revealed, “We're there because … that part of the world controls the world supply of oil, and whoever controls the supply of oil … would have a stranglehold on ... the world economy.”

So there you have it. All this bloodshed is over dwindling oil reserves. Meanwhile, war has become the largest business on Earth, worth trillions of dollars, Euros, Rubles, and Yuan every year. Most citizens think of war as a terrible dysfunction of society, but to the modern private military profiteer, war is an opportunity to get rich.

The US military began to privatize war production in 1985 with the “Logistics Civil Augmentation Program” and first used the private army to construct, maintain, and secure two petroleum pipelines in Southwest Asia.

In 2005, US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld said, “It is clearly cost-effective to have contractors for a variety of things that military people … cannot be deployed to do.” It now appears that those privatized tasks included torture, sexual abuse, political assassinations, and murder of private citizens. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh revealed Rumsfeld memos that “encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.”

In 2002, Rumsfeld lied to the US public and Congress, claiming: "We know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons.” This pretense justified a US invasion that has left nearly 1 million people dead or wounded, mostly private Iraqi citizens. Former, Iraqi Health Minister Ali al-Shemari reported 100 bodies-per-day going through the Bagdad morgue.

The civilian deaths included outright murder by US private “security” firms such as Blackwater. Private firms CACI, and Titan Corp. were central to the Abu Ghraib prison torture in 2003 and 2004. However, unlike military personnel, the private companies avoided prosecution for those crimes.

When a company like Blackwater – and its founder Erik Prince – get caught, they simply sell off the company and disappear. Blackwater employees faced US federal court charges of murdering innocent Iraqi citizens, illicit weapons-smuggling, money laundering, tax evasion, and war crimes. In 2010, Prince – who proudly compared his killing spree to the Christian Crusades – sold his companies, negotiated a $42 million fine with the US government, and moved to Abu Dhabi. The $42 million “fine” represented less than 1% of their government fees, at public expense, a minor cost of doing the dirty business.

According to a US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act lawsuit over 1999 DynCorp actions in Bosnia, both DynCorp and Halliburton – ex-US-Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former company – “were engaging in perverse, illegal and inhumane behavior and were illegally purchasing women, weapons, forged passports and participating in other immoral acts,” that allegedly included child abductions. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2005 that lobbying groups representing “thousands of firms, including ... DynCorp International and Halliburton subsidiary KBR, both of which have been linked to trafficking-related concerns,” attempted to stall legislation that would ban human trafficking by US contractors.

The survivors of war also pay a price for their proximity to the death, destruction, cruelty, and tragedy. In March 2008, US Army psychiatrist, Colonel Charles Hoge, told the U.S. Congress that almost one-third of troops on their third deployment suffer mental-illness. A study in the US Archives of Internal Medicine showed a similar one-third of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffered psycho-social disorders, post-traumatic stress, depression, homelessness, and marital problems, including domestic violence. In 2007, 121 US soldiers killed themselves, and over two thousand others tried and seriously mutilated themselves.

The civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have also felt these socially debilitating effects of war. In Afghanistan, ten thousand villages and their fields and surrounding environments have been obliterated, energy and water infrastructure has been destroyed, and water has been contaminated with toxins and bacteria. People have been left sick, homeless, hungry, and without resources.

Natural costs of war

On top of all this, the environment itself is a victim of war. Afghanistan forests have been destroyed directly by bombings and fire, and indirectly by refugees in need of firewood and armies selling lumber to buy guns and supplies.  Migratory bird populations have dropped by 85%.  Mountain leopards have lost habitat, are now endangered, and have been slaughtered by refugees, who trade them for food or safe passage.

Paul Horsman surveying Burning Oil Wells 1991
Photo 09/19/1991: Greenpeace campaigner Paul Horsman surveying burning oil wells, Al Burgan oilfield, Kuwait.

War pollutes air, soil and water with toxins such as cyclonite, rocket propellants, and depleted uranium ammunition which causes kidney damage and cancer. The children of modern war victims – civilians and soldiers – show an increase in birth defects from depleted uranium, chemicals, and nerve agents. Abandoned landmines throughout the Middle East kill and maim men, women and children.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the fleeing Iraqi army spilled one million tons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf, killing some 25,000 migratory birds and causing smog, acid rain, and toxic fumes. When water treatment plants were destroyed, raw sewage flowed directly into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, increasing Typhoid fever tenfold.

Death, maiming, slavery, sexual abuse, depression, homelessness and the destruction of both civil society and our ecosystems: These are the costs of war not paid by the profiteers. War remains the greatest ecological disaster and human rights tragedy on Earth.

Deep Green is Rex Weyler's column reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.