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Big Oil’s Iranian Scare Tactic
Republican bill uses Iran as bogeyman to benefit Big Oil donors and neuter environmental law
A couple of weeks ago, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) put forward a bill (S.965) with the title “Iran Sanctions Implementation Act of 2013.” It’s a ridiculously worded and speciously reasoned piece of legislation that calls for the expansion of domestic oil production in an effort to overtake and choke off Iran’s remaining crude oil supply. According to the bill, “by expanding oil production in the United States by 1,250,000 barrels per day” (the amount Sen. Inhofe estimates to be the current level of Iranian crude oil exports), “the United States will displace all oil exports from Iran on the world market.”
Inhofe accomplishes this in the bill by granting the president of the United States authority to “designate any area of Federal land that the President determines appropriate as an ‘Iranian Oil Replacement Zone,’” and that “Each Zone shall include any area of Federal land necessary for the transportation… of the oil produced in that Zone.” Moreover, Inhofe’s legislation would grant exclusive management of these zones to the individual states, thereby circumventing the federal agencies designated to protect and manage these territories. Finally, as a kicker, he exempts the entire act from both judicial review and environmental oversight under the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.
On nearly every level, this is a terrible bill. And Senator Inhofe and his co-sponsors likely understand this fact. But before we delve into the rationale behind floating a bill with almost no chance of succeeding, let me explain why it is so off-target.
First off, it’s important to know that this is not how the global crude oil market operates. By making the assumption that increased U.S. oil production can displace another country’s production ignores market fundamentals. As Gene Guilford, an expert in the field of energy policy, explains, “The Saudis, Libya and Iraq have already increased their output to some extent for this purpose. The excess crude oil production capacity that exists in the Middle East to take the place of Iranian production for export is already available.”
To most of us, the crude oil and gas market is a complex world. From drilling and transporting and buying and selling, it’s a murky realm of oil barons and commodities traders that speak a different language. But election cycles provide enough of a window inside to inform most Americans of this basic fact: The oil business is booming.
“We’re basically bursting at the seams with supply,” says Michael Masters, president of Masters Capital Management, an Atlanta-based hedge fund that specializes in the commodities sector. When oil prices spiked in 2008 and the derivatives market began to unravel, Masters provided important congressional testimony that gave U.S. lawmakers insight in to the inner workings of the commodities business. U.S. production has been so robust in recent years that Masters says, “I imagine in the second half of this year we won’t import any oil.”
This is a sentiment shared by Guilford, who talked about the remarkable turn of events in the U.S. fossil fuel industry. “In 2007 we were talking about peak oil,” says Guilford; “today we speak of the very real potential of the U.S. being the world’s leading crude oil producer by 2015 and U.S. energy independence.”
When I asked Masters specifically about Inhofe’s notion of displacing Iranian oil, he said, “It’s sort of a ridiculous theory because you’re not going to take it out of the market.”
In fairness, sanctions on Iran have lead to a serious decrease in Iranian crude oil exports. It’s estimated that Iran exported nearly 4 million barrels per day when President Obama took office. Today that figure is estimated to be anywhere between Inhofe’s proposed 1.25 million and 2 million per day. Either way, it’s a precipitous decline. But the decline has less to do with the supply of oil and more to do with pressure the U.S. brought to bear on those who purchase Iranian oil. So the question of whether or not the U.S. has the strength to convince the few remaining Iranian oil customers has less to do with availability and more to do with diplomatic ability.
To the extent that this is possible, the United States doesn’t necessarily hold all of the cards.
Because oil is a commodity that is traded globally it is obviously most responsive to price. According to Guilford, “Iran’s customers may well not care about alternative sources that are more expensive than Iran and that is one very likely reason Iran still has customers.” Knowing that Iran’s customers include nations such as China and South Africa, Guilford naturally questions our ability to drive the final nail in Iran’s coffin through sanctions asking, “Does the U.S. have the diplomatic ability to convince Iran’s buyers to pay more in order to isolate Iran?”
Nevertheless, this opens an important dialogue about the nature of sanctions themselves. There is no question that U.S.-lead sanction policy has been extremely effective in isolating Iran and wreaking havoc on its economy. Kate Gould, a lobbyist for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, believes that sanctions sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect by serving to “punish civilians, embolden hardliners and foreclose diplomatic options.” She explains her economic position saying, “We’ve seen huge growth in the black market, which is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, so Iranians become dependent on going through these channels instead of legal channels.” Gould is quick to point out that despite decades of crippling sanctions against Iraq, “Saddam Hussein never missed a meal.”
Despite the backward logic inherent in Inhofe’s rationale, the bill currently has 11 other cosponsors, all Republican. Most hail from states with large swaths of federal land such as Arizona, Utah, North Dakota, North Carolina, Idaho, Kentucky and Missouri. Not surprisingly, Sen. Inhofe’s top campaign contributors between 2007 and 2012 are from the oil and gas industry, with Koch Industries being his single-largest donor.
Not surprisingly, the idea of manipulating federal regulations regarding drilling rights and ceding these rights to individual states is dangerous territory for the environmental community.
“Senator Inhofe would auction off America’s national parks and public lands to big polluters just so we could mimic Iran’s all-oil energy policy,” blasts Athan Manuel, Director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. “We’d be better off embracing job-creating clean energy projects that protect our wild legacy and our future rather than selling off our nation’s crown jewels to the highest bidder.”
Legislative affairs specialists for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls the largest amount of federally protected land, did not respond to my request for an interview as of press time.
But Gould believes Inhofe’s bill is little more than a Trojan horse for U.S. oil and gas companies to gain access to land that is currently difficult to obtain.
“I think it’s a political stunt to try to disguise getting around environmental laws with sanctions,” she says, adding that sanctioning Iran, “generally has broad bipartisan support.”
Guilford sees it this way as well, but takes more of an academic approach to Inhofe’s proposal. He calls the “goal of increased domestic production a sound idea,” but says the “removal of judicial review and NEPA” would have “opposition that is only exceeded by those trying to stop the Keystone pipeline.”
The chances of Inhofe’s bill making it out of committee and eventually becoming law are slim. To put it into perspective, of the 3,716 Senate bills proposed between 2011 and 2013, only 449 (12 percent) made it to the floor. Of those, only 71 were enacted, or less than 2 percent. The fact that this particular bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), means it will almost assuredly die in committee.
So why go through the machinations of compiling the language and amassing support for a bill that is practically dead on arrival?
The best way to view Inhofe’s bill is as a trial balloon—a way to test the effectiveness of certain angles and particular language.
“Perhaps for some the theory would be that U.S. domestic energy security isn’t reason enough to increase current production,” muses Guilford, “so the issue needs to be recast into a foreign policy and security debate about shutting down the remainder of Iranian production.”
Gould puts it more bluntly, saying it’s, “using the Iran bogeyman to advance an extreme agenda on another issue.”
No matter how you slice it, all roads lead back to Big Oil.