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Kicking the habit, all over the world

February 11, 2006|Michael T. Klare | MICHAEL T. KLARE, a professor at Hampshire College, is the author of "Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency."

PRESIDENT BUSH was right to say that the United States is "addicted to oil" in his State of the Union address. For too long we have been consuming ever-greater quantities of the stuff without paying heed to the political, economic and environmental hazards involved. Bush also made some useful, if timid, suggestions on how to curb our insatiable thirst for oil. But he failed to address a critical aspect of the problem: Other countries, including China and India, are just as addicted to oil, and unless we strive to suppress their appetites along with our own, the problems we face will continue to multiply.

For decades, the United States has been the world's leading consumer of petroleum, devouring about one-fourth of the global supply daily. Although higher gasoline prices have weakened demand slightly, we are still expected to consume 27% more oil in 2025 than we do today, according to the latest Department of Energy projections. But an even greater increase in demand is expected from Asia. China's oil consumption is expected to rise by 97% between 2004 and 2025, and India's by 78%. The resulting demand crunch could easily overwhelm the global supply of petroleum.

In the U.S., oil demand is largely spurred by Americans' collective love affair with the automobile. We also own far more vehicles, on a per-capita basis, than any other large nation. But all indications are that Chinese and Indian consumers are beginning to emulate us: In 2001, 16 million Chinese owned private cars; by 2020, the number is expected to hit 130 million; India's ownership rate is expected to grow just as fast.

The rising demand for oil in rapidly developing countries has enormous implications for the United States. To begin with, it is driving up energy prices for American consumers. With global petroleum supplies tighter than they have been in decades, and China and India competing with the U.S. for available supplies, the price is bound to rise. A year ago, the Energy Department was predicting that oil prices would hover in the $30 to $35 a barrel range over the next 20 years; now it is projecting $50 to $55 a barrel for that same period. Some energy analysts expect prices to climb even higher, especially if China's economy continues to grow at 10% a year and the global supply of oil fails to keep pace.

But this is the least of our problems. In their quest for foreign sources of petroleum, China and India are buying up fields around the world and, in some cases, forging close ties with such states as Iran, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Venezuela, which are considered unfriendly or even hostile to the U.S.

"A more troubling aspect of the recent surge in overseas energy deals by China and India is their willingness to invest in countries that are pursuing policies that are harmful to global stability," Assistant Secretary of State E. Anthony Wayne told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July. For example, "both Chinese and Indian firms have reportedly been involved in oil and gas-sector deals in Iran that raise concerns under U.S. law and policy." This is especially true when such investment is accompanied by arms and military technology, as has been the case with Chinese links to Iran and Sudan.

It is easy to condemn Beijing and New Delhi for such behavior, but it's hardly surprising that they're prepared to shop anywhere for oil. Under these circumstances, the world is likely to become increasingly well-armed and unstable, posing acute dangers for the U.S. whether or not we reduce our own consumption of petroleum.

And this is not the only danger we face. The U.S. is the leading emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus heightening the risk of catastrophic climate change. If we implement Bush's proposed initiatives and consume less petroleum (which accounts for the largest share of our carbon emissions), we stand a chance of slowing climate change. But, according to the Energy Department, developing nations in Asia now account for about 19% of the world's oil-related carbon emissions (compared with 24% for the U.S.); by 2025, their share is projected to rise to 28%.

It follows from all this that it is not enough to curb the U.S. addiction to oil. We also need to work with China, India and other oil-addicted countries to curb their fast-growing demand. This means persuading the leaders of those countries to adopt the same sort of initiatives as those proposed by Bush. Even better, the president should invite them to join the U.S. in these efforts as equal partners. U.S. companies should also be encouraged to form partnerships with foreign firms to develop new energy alternatives and transportation systems that would spur economic growth in participating countries.

Yes, Americans are addicted to petroleum, but so are others around the world. Unless we work together to curb its harmful effects, we will all suffer from the resulting damage.

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