Here is an English translation of a column published on Sunday in Colombiaâ€™s El Espectador newspaper. While energy supplies are not a topic weâ€™ve worked on closely, this is an important security issue.
The U.S. government is not very worried about the construction of a new natural gas pipeline between Venezuela and Colombia. Likewise, Washington did not complain publicly about the gas-sector nationalization carried out by Evo Morales in Bolivia.
The reason is simple: the United States does not depend on natural-gas imports. According to the Natural Gas Supply Association, the United States only imports 15 percent of the gas it uses, and almost all of that comes from Canada. In fact, the United States is a net exporter of gas to Mexico.
So the Bush administration doesnâ€™t have major reasons to complain about the building of a gas pipeline between Maracaibo and La Guajira. The greatest concern would probably have to do with the administrationâ€™s general aversion to any initiative that smells of Hugo ChÃ¡vez. The dominant role of PDVSA (the Venezuelan state energy company) might make them uncomfortable.
The Bush administration might also be disappointed by this evidence that Ãlvaro Uribe does not wish to participate in the U.S. effort to isolate ChÃ¡vez. Instead, the Colombian president has prioritized his commercial interests over serving as â€œour man in the Andes,â€ as George Bush asked of him during his last visit to Washington.
Gas deals donâ€™t bother Washington much. But if the gas pipeline were an oil pipeline, the U.S. reaction would be quite different, and much stronger.
The United States imports 4 million barrels of Latin American oil each day, mainly from Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico. This represents almost 30 percent of all U.S. oil imports, and more than 20 percent of all oil that the United States uses.
Washington is worried about the stability of petroleum flows from Latin America. At the end of June, the Financial Times of London ran a story about a recent internal report of the U.S. Southern Command expressing concern for the growth of â€œresource nationalismâ€ in the region. The tendency toward nationalization, the military report claims, could â€œincrease inefficienciesâ€ and complicate petroleum supplies. In March, meanwhile, a House of Representatives committee hearing aired concerns about disturbances to the hemispheric oil market due to recent political tendencies.
Ecuadorâ€™s recent confiscation of Occidental Petroleumâ€™s installations so angered the Bush administration that its representatives abandoned free-trade negotiations. The declared interest of Ecopetrol (the Colombian state oil company) in investing in these Ecuadorian oil fields earned Ãlvaro Uribe a rare scolding from Condoleezza Rice during his June visit to Washington.
Every time Hugo ChÃ¡vez speculates about the possibility of boycotting oil sales to the United States, the U.S. government notices and becomes concerned. But cutting off sales to Venezuelaâ€™s largest customer is not a realistic option for ChÃ¡vez.
Venezuela, without a port on the Pacific, cannot easily reach alternative markets in Asia, especially Chinaâ€™s increasing demand. Where oil is concerned, Hugo ChÃ¡vez and George Bush need each other, at least for now.
This situation of co-dependency could rupture, however, if Colombia and Venezuela make progress toward another joint project that has been under discussion: the building of an oil pipeline from Venezuela and across Colombia, ending at a port on Colombiaâ€™s Pacific.
This pipeline would give Venezuela much greater access to Asian demand, and Venezuela would depend much less on the U.S. market. With Venezuelaâ€™s worldwide oil sales diversified by a trans-Colombian oil pipeline, Hugo ChÃ¡vez would be much more able to consider the possibility of selling less oil to the United States â€“ or of boycotting the â€œgringosâ€ completely.
If the plans to build this oil pipeline grow closer to reality, then, we can expect some strong pressure from Washington to stop the project.