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Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

A book by Timothy Mitchell

by Executive Staff

The oil industry’s manipulation of governments and the economies of countries to secure and increase profits has been happening almost since there was an industry to speak of. In Timothy Mitchell’s book “Carbon Democracy,” he highlights how through much of the early 20th century big oil companies worked to contain supply — in particular by preventing the emergence of an oil industry in the Middle East — to keep oil prices up, and consequently bolster profit margins.

Last year, the profits of the Big Five international oil companies (IOCs) — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell — were up 75 percent on 2010, at a record $137 billion, yet production was down by 4 percent. And rather than invest heavily in production or job creation, these companies sunk $38 billion, or 28 percent of annual net income, in repurchasing their own stock, therefore boosting investor returns.

However, a major difference from the first half of last century is that IOCs are not able to negotiate quite the same profitable agreements with oil producing countries, or delay development, as before. This is reflected in the 2011 oil export revenues earned by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which for the first time exceeded $1 trillion. At the same time the OPEC results were announced last month, the Fraser Institute’s 2012 Global Petroleum Survey indicated that Middle Eastern countries have higher barriers to investment in hydrocarbon exploration and production than anywhere else in the world. There is a clear correlation here, as OPEC members have had to learn the hard way about who takes what for the extraction of underground riches; the IOCs have responded to this through the modes they still have influence over to retain profits.

In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell’s focus is the relationship between hydrocarbons and political institutions, tracking the changes from the industrial revolution all the way up to the so-called “Arab Spring” and how revenues from hydrocarbons are connected to democracy and economic development. Without oil, Mitchell argues, the current economic model of unlimited growth would not be possible, while the management of economic growth provided modes of regulation to govern carbon democracy.

Controlling supply is clearly a way of influencing prices and means of governing. This is one reason why there is a distinct lack of refineries in some oil producing countries, as delaying refining can artificially restrict the amount of oil that flows to the markets. But another reason is to drive a wedge between production and transportation, which helps prevent strikes and disruptions to the flow of oil by not overly centralizing the value chain and thus not have large concentrations of workers. This is a crucial point in Mitchell’s revealing book, as it was a deliberate government policy in the West in the lead up to World War One to switch from coal to oil to nip-in-the-bud further strikes by miners that had brought economies to a standstill. After all, miners’ strikes had led to the adoption of better working hours and conditions, welfare, healthcare and more democratic rights.

The chapters on the Middle East are particularly revealing, along with his debunking of conventional historical accounts — namely the discovery of oil and delayed exploitation — and what is misleadingly called the “oil crisis” of 1973, which was a pivotal event in transforming international finance, national economies, flows of energy and in placing the weakened carbon democracy of the West into a new relationship with the oil states of the Middle East.

Rather than being a black and white textbook case of supply and demand at work, of OPEC members cutting oil supply to pressure the United States over its unequivocal support for Israel during the October 1973 war, Mitchell shows that it was difficult to know how much oil prices went up due to a cut in supply or even how much supply was actually cut. For while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reduced exports, other countries increased production. Furthermore, unlike today, there was no ‘market price’ for crude oil, so no one could know what ‘the market’ actually was, while OPEC’s decision to raise tax on oil production by 70 percent at the time was somewhat coincidental, having been decided before the war broke out.

Mitchell’s book ends by considering the impact of supply constraints due to the rising demand for oil, and how climate change impacts market conditions in a post-oil world where alternative forms of energy will affect how people and economies are governed. How and when we might emerge into the post-oil world is, however, a question that remains to be answered.

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