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Here is an English translation of a column published on Sunday in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. While energy supplies are not a topic we’ve worked on closely, this is an important security issue.

Energy integration, seen from Washington

Adam Isacson

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 doesn’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 administration’s general aversion to any initiative that smells of Hugo Chávez. 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 Álvaro Uribe does not wish to participate in the U.S. effort to isolate Chávez. Instead, the Colombian president has prioritized his commercial interests over serving as “our man in the Andes,” as George Bush asked of him during his last visit to Washington.

Gas deals don’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 “resource nationalism” in the region. The tendency toward nationalization, the military report claims, could “increase inefficiencies” 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.

Ecuador’s recent confiscation of Occidental Petroleum’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 Álvaro Uribe a rare scolding from Condoleezza Rice during his June visit to Washington.

Every time Hugo Chávez 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 Venezuela’s largest customer is not a realistic option for Chávez.

Venezuela, without a port on the Pacific, cannot easily reach alternative markets in Asia, especially China’s increasing demand. Where oil is concerned, Hugo Chávez 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 Colombia’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 Venezuela’s worldwide oil sales diversified by a trans-Colombian oil pipeline, Hugo Chávez would be much more able to consider the possibility of selling less oil to the United States – or of boycotting the “gringos” 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.

4 Responses to “Energy integration, seen from Washington”

  1. Richard Russell Says:

    I frequently wonder how strongly Washington is motivated by considerations of oil supply. For example, our presence in Iraq supposedly has nothing to do with oil production there, but critics on the left often argue that Iraqui oil was an important motivation for the U.S. (pardon me, “allied”) invasion of the region.

    According to a documentary “Plan Colombia,” recently aired on Link TV, newly-exploited oil fields in Colombia have pushed Colombian oil production up to a level just below that of Venezuela–a fact still not widely known. Since many of the Colombian oil fields are in areas where the FARC are active, the documentary argues that Plan Colombia is designed, not only to reduce cocaine production, but also to protect future U.S. oil supplies.

    Certainly I’d appreciate any comments from those who might be better informed than I am.

  2. jcg Says:

    I’m not an oil expert, but I do know that Colombia’s remaining oil prospects have been declining rather fast lately, because there has not been enough exploration to cover constant exports and internal demand. I wouldn’t say that Plan Colombia is only oil focused, definitely not, even if it is an important concern within it.

  3. richtiger Says:

    Well, jcq, it appears you’re right. According to BBC.Mundo, Columbia is the 6th Latin American country in production of petroleum and may soon have to begin importing oil in order to meet its own needs.

    What you tell me is also confirmed by a correspondent of mine on soc.culture.columbia; but since this same gentlemen doubted whether the manned lunar landing really happened, I discounted his information.

    As regards the documentary on Link TV, that channel (satellite) has a tendency to air programs with a leftist bias.

    In general, it’s hard to get information on Colombia that isn’t biased. Adam Isacson’s comments seem to be one of the balanced sources; and–as far as I can tell–El Tiempo is pretty neutral as well.

    But, of course, these thoughts wander from the main point of the thread which is U.S. concern about Latin American oil–apparently very real but not obsessive.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Isacson. Plan Colombia is not about fighting drugs. If it were, then the U.S. and Colombia would be fighting the right-wing paramilitaries also. But b/c the right-wing death squads protect U.S. corporate interests, they can grow as much coca as they want.

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