Predicted, Not Prevented: Oil, Pirates and Power

Reported Incidents of Somali Pirate Attacks and Hijackings in the Gulf of Aden - UNOSAT

Reported Incidents of Somali Pirate Attacks and Hijackings in the Gulf of Aden - UNOSAT

When the Great Somali Pirate story broke into the headlines last week, the media’s first reaction was to make a joke of it. Pirates are Jack Sparrow, popcorn, a night on the couch for a cable-movie marathon and one of the best film scores ever. Piracy is a fake Fendi. Yes, buckles are swashed (if not copied), alcoholism is a job requirement, and mythic monsters are part of the scenery. But pirates are heroes. The villains are the bloodless bureaucrats driven only by corporate greed. Ask any little kid: Who wants to be the tea-sipping dressed-for-success executive from the East India Company for Halloween? Who wants to swill a bit o’ rum and sing about rotten eggs as Captain Jack?

While the pirates of Disneyland swaggered around an imaginary 17th century Caribbean, the 21st century pirates of Somalia, a rag-tag bunch of 1,500 men with nothing to lose and millions of dollars to gain, patrol the Gulf of Aden, holding the world hostage. Still, it is difficult, at least for me, not to take a moment to savor the image of a supertanker stowing $100 million worth of a climate-threatening fossil fuel literally stuck in the water – a perversely green turn of events.

"The Fragility of Domestic Energy," by Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, The Atlantic, November, 1983

"The Fragility of Domestic Energy," by Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, The Atlantic, November, 1983

News of a robust modern pirate trade took many by surprise, though not the folks at UNOSAT, who have been diligently charting and mapping attacks for some time. Nor was it a surprise to relief workers, who started using escort vessels courtesy of NATO and the Netherlands in 2007 to protect shipments of vital food aid for 2 million people.

Nor was it news to Amory and L. Hunter Lovins who, 25 years ago this month, penned a long article for The Atlantic magazine spelling out in great detail the dangers of sprawling energy delivery networks:

On shipping: (emphasis added)

…The lumbering supertankers that bring Middle Eastern
oil halfway around the world to Western ports are also
insecure. Naval planners shudder at the tankers’ vulnerability
to submarines, but even pirates in small boats manage
regularly to board and rob tankers
off the coasts of
Singapore and Nigeria. Moreover, it is not at all unusual.

Somalia may have been left off the list, but the point is made. As for Nigeria, protesters / militants seem to prefer pipeline sabotage.

(Also see the Bowoto vs. Chevron case currently working its way through U.S. Courts. At issue: Whether the oil giant, enlisting the Nigerian military, used lethal force against unarmed peaceful protesters who occupied an oil platform.)

On drilling for oil off the coast of the U.S.:

Offshore oil is favored by the secretary of the interior,
James Watt, as a secure substitute for Persian Gulf oil. The
Coast Guard says that in good weather it could put a vessel
alongside a threatened platform in the main Gulf of Mexico
fields in eight hours. Only an incompetent saboteur could
fail to destroy the platform in eight minutes.

On the Trans-Alaska Pipeline:

Our research revealed a comprehensive denial of reality:
policy-makers tend to be so preoccupied with Persian Gulf
oil that they fail to consider the frailty of their favorite
alternatives. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, for example, carries
a seventh of all the crude oil fed to American refineries.
Its failure would cost more than $700 per second*, and
in three winter weeks could turn the line into “the world’s
biggest Chapstick,” as 9 million barrels of hot oil congealed
(The pipeline’s proprietors believe that the
pumps are powerful enough to get the oil moving again,
but no one knows for sure.)

* 1982 dollars

Just last week, a recently-retired EPA investigator blew the whistle on what looks like sweetheart deal between BP and the U.S. Department of Justice over a fine levied against just such a “Chapstick” spill in 2006. According to the investigator, BP had a full year’s warning that corrosion in a section of pipeline could lead to a catastrophic failure at any time. BP was charged with a misdemeanor and fined $20 million, but since oil prices spiked at news of the pipeline shutdown, it is hard to know how much the company’s profits suffered, if at all.

Beyond Alaska, a simple Google search yields a gusher of problem pipeline stories. Indeed, one website – “Iraq Pipeline Watch”  lists 469 incidents just in that one country going back to 2003 (as of March 2008, only sporadic updates).

On alternatives:

According to a study released by the Solar Energy
Research Institute in 1981, the U.S. could double its energy
efficiency and convert at least a third of its energy supply
to renewable sources within the next two decades. The
institute’s data suggest that such a shift could save several
trillion dollars, make the energy sector deflationary, and
provide as many as a million jobs.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Imagine what the world would have been like in 2001 – two decades later – had this path been followed.

When the Lovins’ wrote their article, foreign oil imports accounted for about 10% of the total energy supply in the U.S., and it was a buyer’s market. Today, the U.S. imports 60% of its oil, 16% of its natural gas, faces stiff competition for resources – primarily from China and India – and a much more volatile and vulnerable world.


Watching the Congressional hearings this week, where executives from the Big Three Detroit automakers begged for a multi-billion dollar bailout because “1 out of 10 American jobs depended on it,”* I kept thinking what an absurdly dumb position to find ourselves in: Why can’t factory workers be employed to build something else, something better?

After decades of lemonade-out-of-lemons “teachable moments,” haven’t we learned anything? Maybe. The new Obama administration has made jump-starting a “green economy” a top priority. It’s a win-win-win for jobs, energy independence and climate change.

What if pirates boarded an oil supertanker and no one minded? In fact, for “sequestering carbon,” they’d be paid, no extortion required. That’s the kind of easy booty that would bring a rum-soaked grin to Captain Jack’s face. Aye, matey. Yo ho to that.

* The “1 in 10” figure is a bit misleading, as the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell explains.

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