History is replete with wars fought over resources – whether they are agricultural lands, forests, minerals like gold and silver or energy sources. Fossil fuels – most especially oil – have fuelled plenty of conflict over the past century. As the world has entered an era of increasing oil scarcity, with oil prices in three digits since 2010, the energy stakes are rising once more.
Arguably the world’s pre-eminent authority on resource geopolitics is Michael T Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, in the US, and author of Resource Wars, Blood and Oil and Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. Klare says we are “entering a new epoch – the Geo-Energy Era – in which disputes over vital resources will dominate world affairs”. He also identifies three flash points for 2012: the Strait of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea basin and the South China Sea.
Some 17-million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil transit the Strait of Hormuz, representing one-fifth of global production and one-third of the world’s seaborne oil. Late last year, Iran’s VP warned that Iran would close the strait if the US imposed sanctions on his country’s oil exports. Sanctions have, of course, been legislated and are due to take effect from July. This is a game of brinkmanship with potentially devastating economic consequences, as oil prices would skyrocket if the strait was closed for any length of time.
Some analysts argue that the West’s standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme is really a cover for geostrategic manoeuvres aimed at securing Western access to Iranian oil and gas – the Islamic republic boasts the second-largest reserves of both – and curbing Chinese access to these.
The second hot spot highlighted by Klare is the Caspian Sea basin, an area which includes Russia, Iran, Turkey and a number of former Soviet republics. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most of the ‘stans’ have forged ties with the US and the Europe Union and, more recently, with China.
The Caspian region is well endowed with oil and gas, and has a long history of military conflict, which could erupt once more. Pipelines, which are necessary to export the oil and gas, feature strongly in the geopolitical wrangling as Russia tries to maintain its dominance in this area, the republics vie for autonomy and the US and China seek to secure access to the rich energy resources.
In recent years, notable deposits of oil and gas have been discovered in the South China Sea, which is bordered by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Two groups of mostly uninhabi- ted islands in the sea have become highly contentious, with all three countries claiming some of them and their surrounding waters.
The US views the South China Sea as a criti- cal area and has close military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam. In January, President Barack Obama announced a shift in US military strategy and resources from Europe and the Middle East to “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia”. This includes a new military base for marines in northern Australia, as well as increased naval presence in the area.
Besides Hormuz, several other notable oil ‘choke points’ are identified by the US Energy Information Admi- nistration. The second-largest is the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia, which is a conduit for 15 mbpd of oil and half the world’s seaborne cargo. Others include the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Danish Straits, the Strait of Bab el-Mandab, between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and the Turkish Straits, which link the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. Closure of any one of these choke points would add considerably to shipping costs and times for oil cargoes and push up world oil prices.
There are other regions where hydrocarbons are fuelling geopolitical tensions. One is the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, where large gasfields have been discovered in recent years. The US Geological Survey estimates that Israel’s recently discovered Leviathan gasfield may contain 12-trillion cubic feet (tcf) of technically recoverable resources, which would make Israel self-sufficient in gas and a net gas exporter. However, tensions between Israel, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Cyprus over maritime borders and economic zones are rising.
And, as the Arctic gradually melts owing to global warming, the surrounding nations of Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Danish-administered Greenland are scrambling to gain access to the newly accessible oil and gas deposits.
Thus far, South Africa has – perhaps, thankfully – not found significant oil- or gasfields. But our country is a world leader in several strategic mineral resources, and so could yet find itself the object of world powers’ aggressive attention.