August 4, 2003
by Irwin Stelzer
The Saudi royal family has decided once again to pour oil on troubled waters. Faced with a congressional report apparently criticizing it for continuing to fund the mosques and schools around the world in which the violently anti-Western, Wahhabi version of Islam is taught, the Saudis persuaded their co-cartelists at last week’s OPEC meetings to continue pumping enough oil to keep prices within OPEC’s $22-$28 targeted range.
Bush, who had ordered the material critical of the Saudis classified and redacted from the report, was relieved. A cutback in Saudi production would trigger a rise in already-high oil prices, and derail the emerging economic recovery so crucial to his reelection chances.
Oil is on the president’s mind for still another reason. Congressmen on both sides of the aisle roasted Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and White House budget director Josh Bolten for refusing to provide a long-run estimate of the cost to the U.S. of pacifying and reconstructing Iraq, certain to be far more than the $5 billion per month that is currently being spent. Their lack of cooperation stems in part from the difficulty of forecasting the cost of this adventure in nation-building, and in part from the fact that Bush is hoping that funds from the sale of Iraq’s oil will cover the cost, relieving the pressure on a federal budget that is already bleeding red ink.
But it has proved difficult to get Iraq’s production up to its prewar levels of about 2.5-3.0 million barrels per day. Iraq’s oil-field workers can’t ramp up production quickly when the trucks that get them to work and the computers they need are stolen, and electricity facilities are repeatedly sabotaged. The Pentagon, which says that security is its top priority, now plans to reconstitute Iraq’s special “oil police,” and end reliance on the easily sabotaged electric grid by installing on-site generators at refineries and other key installations. That will take time.
Estimates vary, but a good guess is that Iraq is producing about one million barrels of oil per day, with 350,000-450,000 barrels going to meet domestic demand. The balance is being sold by Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organization on the international market to some ten buyers, including BP, ChevronTexaco, and Royal Dutch/Shell.
Paul Bremer, the coalition-designated civil administrator, visited Washington in a search for more support, but left with his begging bowl empty. He now has to rely on the estimate of Philip J. Carroll, America’s advisor to the Iraqi oil ministry, who guesses—hopes—that the Iraqis can export enough oil during the balance of this year to cover salaries, pensions, and other everyday costs associated with reconstituting the Iraqi bureaucracy.
But even if Carroll’s goal is met, Iraqi production will not generate sufficient funds to cover the cost of reconstructing the country’s infrastructure. So Bremer, who told The Wall Street Journal that Iraq is “a rich country that is temporarily poor,” floated the idea of securitizing future oil revenues in order to generate cash now. The Export-Import Bank signed on immediately. But some Pentagon analysts point out that such a process would involve mortgaging Iraq’s future oil revenues before a new Iraqi government had access to them. The idea remains alive, but has been shelved, at least for now.
Shelved, too, are plans for restructuring Iraq’s oil industry. For a while there was talk of privatizing the industry, perhaps after breaking the state-owned company into several competing enterprises. But the problem of establishing security is now absorbing so much of the coalition’s energy that all such ideas are on hold.
Most important of all, gone are the prospects of developing a plan to reduce the hold of OPEC on oil prices. It is now virtually certain that Iraq will be welcomed back into the cartel’s bosom, and will find comfort in that embrace. Like Kuwait after being liberated by the United States, Iraq will help OPEC to maintain prices at levels far above those that would prevail in a competitive market.
The absorption of Iraq into OPEC will not upset the president. He is pleased with a deal that assures price stability, even at considerable cost. Here are the terms of that deal. The Saudi-led cartel agrees to pump enough oil to keep prices from spiking when strikes interrupt supplies from Venezuela, political unrest reduces exports from Nigeria, and wars interrupt production in Iraq. Since Saudi oil costs at most $5 per barrel to produce, the Saudis are not excessively burdened by this deal, which has kept prices at the top of OPEC’s $22-$28 target.
In return, the consuming countries agree not to use their stockpiles to reduce prices unless the Saudis refuse to open their taps. And, best of all from the Saudi rulers’ point of view, the Bush administration agrees to continue shielding the royal family from political criticism. An annoyed Congress is now asking administration officials why they failed to shut down Saudi “charities” that allegedly help finance terrorist organizations. Bush-watchers know the answer.
The White House, of course, repeatedly hints that it is receiving some sort of quid pro quo other than price stability from the Saudis, primarily assistance in the War on Terrorism. But skeptics argue that Saudi ambassador prince Bandar’s skillful spreading of money around Washington that buys his country protection and preference. More dispassionate observers point to the obvious fact that America is highly dependent for some 60 percent of its oil needs on a steady flow of reasonably priced oil imports.
Which makes last week’s debate in Congress over an energy bill an exercise in futility. Nothing in the administration’s bill or in the amendments proposed by the Democratic opposition will contribute materially to reducing America’s dependence on the Saudis, That requires higher taxes on oil users. But when it comes to taxing oil, profiles in courage are rarely seen in Washington.
This article appeared in London’s Sunday Times on August 3, 2003.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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