Oil and War

One person’s ministry in Meeting for Worship this last Sunday included a reference to wars over resource needs: food, oil, and water. He mentioned Jared Diamond’s Collapse. This book includes a large section on the high population density in Rwanda preceding the genocide. The population increased dramatically during a time of good harvests; then came drought and genocide. Diamond is careful to avoid claiming strict causality, but he provides a convincing link between lack of resources and calamitous solutions.

I have frequently heard people mention oil conflicts when discussing resource scarcity, and even give it precedence of place, but these seem to me to resemble more the conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone over diamonds or gang wars over drugs. Whenever there is a valuable resource, some of the locals will covet it.

The most important oil war was the Iran-Iraq war, over territorial disagreements. Iraq’s grievances included Iran’s possession (since the end of the Ottoman empire) of oil-rich Khuzestan and Iran’s control (since the 1970s) of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which both countries used for oil exports. The country with the world’s third-largest oil reserves attacked the country with the second-largest reserves. Estimates of casualties vary — the Wikipedia site gives a casualty range from 450,000 – 950,000 Iranis, from 450,000 — 650,000 Iraqis.

Iraq attacked Kuwait, an oil-rich country, first in 1961. The British intervened then. The US has led two wars with Iraq. The first war was to protect Kuwait after Iraq invaded a second time, and the second one appears to have been to show the first group how to wage war correctly. Neither war comes close to the Iran-Iraq war in scale, though the long-term and international implications of the current war may be more significant.

There are other examples. Oil-rich Nigeria is experiencing civil conflict. In Colombia, the rebels blow up the pipeline so frequently that millions of barrels of oil have entered the soil and rivers. Additionally, oil helps fund both sides in the conflict.

Are wars likely to occur because of oil scarcity? Not in the near future, because oil won’t be scarce in the near future, and because substitutions such as coal to liquids for gasoline are in the research or planning stage.

More likely is conflict fueled by all the money going to oil-rich countries. More likely is conflict because governments are able to wield power they could not if their income came from taxes (Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom has an excellent analysis). Poor countries will suffer as conflicts over oil raises the price, and this may lead to conflict over other resources. I suspect that before or after Colombia’s oil is gone, conflict will arise from environmental degradation caused by today’s conflict, that is, from lack of food or plentiful clean water.

The peak oil people have it backward: it’s not the oil, it’s the carbon released when we use the carbon. For a long while yet, it will not be the lack of oil, but the use of oil. Today’s oil conflicts are about wealth, not scarcity. We are willing to pay great sums of money for oil, and people are fighting to get more of that money, or in Nigeria’s case and others, fighting over whether and how that money will be shared.

3 Responses to “Oil and War”

  1. Chuck Orr says:


    From my perspective the largest war over oil as a resource was with Germany in North Africa during WWII. Germany’s invasion of Russian was similarly motivated. While we should be cautious about arguing that only oil is at issue in Iraq, I am comfortable in suggesting that we would not concerned with anything happening in the country were it not for its oil.

    Chuck Orr

  2. Bob Seeley says:

    More important than outright wars over oil is the distortions of policy and politics that come with political (and sometimes military) struggles over energy supplies. This will only get worse as we approach a peak oil situation, but the politics of oil also get in the way of sensible handling of environmental issues. They do this now, in a situation of relative abundance. Whether their effects will be similar as we reach peak oil is hard to say, but it is difficult to be optimistic. Fossil fuels have a very large and powerful constituency in the world–oil companies, rulers of producing countries, even people who can;’t get to work without a car. And the use of fossil fuels has a very large installed base that will not be easy to change.

    That said, I think a combination of price pressure and environmental concerns gives at least some hope for a better future. The price pressure will exist to some extent even long before we are at peak oil (although I have seen it argued persuasively that we are beyond peak oil already). Environmental concerns are likely to increase as the ice caps and tundra melt and the number of large storms increases. This should help to change behavior. Already there are large green building projects on the drawing board in many cities (alas, not in Philadelphia, where the plumber’s union opposes waterless urinals and has basically held up all major green building projects) because from a company standpoint, green architecture makes economic sense in a world of increasing energy prices. And most companies want to be known as environment-friendly, even if they are really only managing their affairs prudently (green buildings pay for themselves and cost a lot less to run over the long term).

    As to wars for oil, it’s hard to say which was biggest because of the slippery definition of war. If “war” means shooting war only, then the North Africa campaign is a good candidate for biggest, as is the Iran-Iraq war. But if “war” includes geopolitical struggle backed by force, you can argue that the Cold War was at least partly about control of resources, and was therefore a candidate for the largest resource war to date.

  3. Ron says:

    Oil will never go below $85 again. In 2010 oil will be over $250 a barrel and gas will be $10 a gallon. Even though reserves are rising which should make oil prices drop the fact they don’t drop in price is because the political tensions are rising. With that you will either buy a hybrid which will still be expensive to operate or ride your bike or take the public transit. There are ways to reduce your fuel cost.