Hogan's Alley

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Syriana", The Big Lie About Oil Reserves

This is not a movie review. I have not yet seen the new George Clooney film "Syriana". But, like millions of Americans, I have seen the commercial for the film running on TV.

Let me say first that I believe passionately that this country's dependence on the shrinking resource of fossil fuels is dangerous, foolhardy and that it forces us to make foreign policy choices that tie us to the Middle East because of our addiction. But I also believe that, like me, Americans can be persuaded of the correctness of this position without being lied to.

As anyone who has seen the commercial for "Syriana" will know, Matt Damon's character is prominently heard to say, that 90% of the remaining oil in the world is it this part of the world, clearly meaning the Middle East. After the fifth or sixth repetition of this commercial (yes, I do watch too much TV) this 90% claim began to rattle around in my head. The more I heard the quote, the more it sounded wrong to me. I decided to do a little internet research.

Enter "remaining oil reserves" in Google and the first site presented belongs to the Institute For the Analysis Of Global Security, which describes itself as, " ... a non-profit public educational organization focusing on energy security. IAGS seeks to promote public awareness to the strong impact energy dependency has on our economy and security and to the myriad of technological and policy solutions that could help us move into an era of energy independence, and increase peace, prosperity and stability in the world."

Doesn't sound like an arm of the oil industry, does it? According to their website , "In order to maintain an independent posture, the IAGS accepts no corporate or government funding or endowments. Contributions are received from foundations and individuals. IAGS is a publicly supported, nonprofit organization under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions are tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law."

Their listed advisors include such names as, R. James Woolsey, Gen. Richard L. Lawson, Robert C. McFarlane and Dr. Kenneth M. Pollack. See the rest of the list here.

I provide all this background as preface to reporting the fact that this organization states that, "66% of global oil reserves are in the hands of Middle Eastern regimes"

The next Google hit is for a site called Davies & Co., which describes itself as a Forrest Resource Management company. They provide a chart of data taken from Encyclopedia Britannica, which adapted them from Oil & Gas Journal and the US Geological Survey data. Scroll down on this page for the chart. Performing a little arithmetic on the data in the chart shows that Middle Eastern countries, including Kazakhstan, hold only 66.4% of reserves. A number consistent with the IAGS figure. Further, if known oil reserves and estimated undiscovered resources are added together, the Middle East has only 56.8% of the total.

Third on the Google list is an article by one Adam Porter on al Jazeera's English language website entitled, "Elusive Truth About Oil Figures". According to Mr. Porter, "Talking about oil, there is little doubt that around 45 - 50% of it rests in five Middle Eastern countries - Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. But how much is there of it?"

How does "Syriana" then claim that a full 90% of oil is in the Middle East. The website for the movie includes a link to Participant Productions, one of the producers of the film, an organization owned by Jeff Skoll a co-founder of EBay. Participant Productions describes itself as, "...a film company with a mission to make the world a better place. We believe in the power of media to create social change, but the movie is just the beginning. Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will raise awareness about important social issues, educate audiences and inspire them to take action – here at Participate.net. We are dedicated to creating a whole new kind of action flick, where positive social change is the true measure of success."

Participant links to an article by a professor named Kenneth S. Deffeyes which doesn't if fact address the 90% claim. Deffeyes' piece predicts the coming depletion of the oil supply, regardless of where on earth it is found.

So the claim that 90% of remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East is totally unsubstantiated and plainly wrong. But it is just as certain that repetition if any lie, done often enough, will become the received truth. I am willing to wager that if a poll were taken that asked Americans what percentage of oil reserves are in the Middle East, the answer would overwhelmingly be 90%.

So what? Clearly the majority of the oil in the ground is in that region and clearly oil consuming countries are therefore to some extent at the mercy of the producing countries. What's a little exaggeration among friends?

The problem is that if the writers and producers of Syriana are wrong about this fact, they can not be trusted about any other statements presented as fact in the movie. They leave themselves, and more importantly the cause they urge upon their fellows, open to attack by those in whose interest it is to continue our dependence on oil.

I also think that the received orthodoxy on this issue, as with any other, should be challenged. Groupthink is the most dangerous aspect of modern American political discourse. I intend to poke a finger in its eye wherever I find it. Truth is more important that belief.