Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 13

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part II. Age of Excess

Chapter 13. Pipelines of Shame

My visit to Gustave's fields got me thinking about France's dependency on foreign oil. France has to import all of the oil it needs - for everything from making tires and fueling cars to running industry. At that time, most of it came from Algeria. I remembered a conversation I had had in 1963 with an Algerian I had met, Habib Habib.

Habib had spent several years fighting in the resistance movement to win Algeria's independence. He was no ordinary individual. The country had dropped the qualifier "French" from "French Algeria" just a year before, but Habib Habib had already set his sights on an even bigger goal: stopping the "hemorrhaging of the Saharan oil reserves". He thought the manner in which Algerian oil was being exported was more akin to "plunder" than "fair trade".

There was something about Habib that commanded respect. To him, the Sahara's mineral resources were the key to Algeria's future and he was extremely concerned about the rate at which they were leaving the country. He had hoped that after independence his country would no longer have to export so much oil, but in the previous year nothing had changed. He talked about several pipelines that had been built to transfer the oil and gas out of the desert, referring to them as "pipelines of shame". One in particular had just begun channeling large quantities of natural gas from the Hassi-R'Mel field in the Sahara Desert to the Mediterranean coast. Once there, it was fed into a huge industrial complex where it was liquefied at very low temperatures for export in methane tankers specially designed to keep the gas cold and liquid. {a} The small fishing port where the plant was located, Arzew, near Oran, had been transformed into a liquefied natural gas port. The entire region now earned its living from methane.

Habib was tormented by the inevitable exhaustion of these resources. He said the world was already consuming the equivalent of one Coca-Cola bottle of crude oil for every dollar earned on the planet {b} - be it by selling lamb chops, dates, math courses, newspapers, medical services, hammers, or shaving cream. This amount was only an average, of course, since raising sheep requires far fewer ergamines than making hammers or medicines, and the developed nations consume much more energy than the developing ones. Habib's anger was palpable. He believed that someday his country would not even have a choice over whether or not to sell its resources. Oil was the wealthy nations' primary development tool, and Habib did not think they would ever reduce their need for it. He did not see how Algeria could end this vicious cycle. The mineral wealth of the Hassi-Messaoud, Edjeleh, and Hassi-R'Mel reserves would be inexorably depleted for the benefit of some other nation, doubdess in the Northern hemisphere.

To Habib the entire operation went against Algeria's interests. Those living on the other side of the Mediterranean had used up nearly all their veins of coal. Now, he believed, they were going do the same with Algeria's ergamine reserves. Although he did not believe these foreign consumers meant any harm, he was nevertheless convinced that they cared little about Algeria's future. Their sole aim was to make an immediate profit from the natural resources of Hassi-Messaoud, Zarzaitine, Hassi-R'Mel and Edjeleh, with no significant benefit to Algeria in terms of its own development.

In 1963, Algeria was exporting its mineral wealth at a frantic pace with no thought to conservation. There was an easy explanation for this. The price of a barrel of crude was so ridiculously low that Algeria and the other oil-producing nations had to sell it in large quantities in order to bring in enough revenue. Hydrocarbons are still the main source of income for many nations. Even if this income is small compared to that of the wealthy nations, at least it enables them to import some new technologies. Once the import- export cycle begins, it is very hard to stop it. The leaders of Algeria would not dream of limiting this source of revenue just after independence; the people would not stand for it. Although Habib would have understood and accepted it if they had, most of his compatriots would have considered any move to limit exports reactionary. Deeply disheartened, he wondered if his country would ever be able to carve out a place for itself in the world, or if it was forever condemned to serve the wealthy nations' interests until its oil and gas ran out. These painful questions gave him no rest.

Algeria, like some other African nations, had apparently decided to adopt the Western development model. Habib was certain that if it continued on this course, it would lose its identity. He thought the constant urge to outdo oneself and others that prevailed in the West was antithetical to the cultures of North Africa. The people of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia had a different mentality. I would guess that Habib thought theirs was better. At any rate, he wanted Algeria to choose its own path. "Man can't constantly surpass himself", he said. "Sooner or later, we always reach our limit. Better to reach it in wisdom than in foolishness, or you're in for a hard fall." I suspect Habib thought the industrialized nations were in for quite a plunge.

I saw Habib again in 1980. Algeria was still exporting huge amounts of hydrocarbons. My friend's concern about the sell-off of his nation's wealth for the benefit of other countries was unabated. As a mark of his respect for me, he shared a story he had heard in 1958 when the Hassi-Messaoud oilfield was first developed. The legend of Ali Aouellim recounts the journey of an ergamine from this reserve. I could not help thinking that Habib identified strongly with Ali; Ali's message was really his own. I would like to share it with you. {Tomorrow}


{a} The Arzew natural gas liquefaction facility began production in 1962. The natural gas of Hassi-R'Mel is composed primarily of methane (CH4) and liquefies at a temperature of approximately 263 F.

{b} The US dollar ($) is the reference currency of the international oil market. In 1960, the world consumed a total of about 7,300 million barrels of crude oil. Gross World Production that same year was estimated at $4,700 billion. This would equate to a consumption of one cup (0.25 liter) of crude oil for each dollar of Gross World Production.

Bill Totten


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