The Deepwater Horizon Spill: The Security Facet

17 Jul

“One thing is clear – the era of easy oil is over.  Demand is soaring like never before… At the same time, many of the world’s oil and gas fields are maturing.  And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.” – David O’Reilly, CEO, Chevron Energy, 2005

BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, catastrophic as it was, affected a prosperous, stable nation. What would be the long term repercussions if a similar spill happened near a fragile, failed or failing state?

There is no guarantee the next disaster will not happen in an area that is not only poor, but riven with political strife or profoundly unsecure. Beyond the environmental effects, which are insidious and last for decades, the immediate security threats pose a second and arguably more dramatic level of concern. One event could precipitate a conflagration that spirals rapidly out of control.  Despite the U.S.’s increased interest in upgrading maritime security, the Law of the Sea remains an ill-defined area of jurisprudence and one in which the limitations of national law are paired with lax adjudication of maritime disputes.  The success of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden illustrate this point but piracy in the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea further evidence the inadequacy of current maritime law to provide redress.  A wide scale oil spill in any of these vulnerable areas may present insurmountable challenges to the current security regimes.

Oil Burns in the Niger Delta

The news last week that Egypt and Saudi oil giant Aramco were planning an oil spill drill off the coast of Alexandria comes as little surprise. A major spill in the eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf or Red Sea could easily spark a conflict as worries over national borders, piracy or offshore jurisdictions come to a head. The Iraqi oil port of Um Qasr lies less than a hundred miles west of Iranian soil: a spill in the port, moving eastward, could have dire consequences.

Nor are the threats confined to the Middle East. The offshore gas reserves that lie between China and Japan are already the source of bitter conflict. Although undersea gas does not pose the same spill danger as oil, the underlying principle is the same: fossil energy in this case goes beyond a mere commodity and becomes the locus of national security concerns. Indeed, an eruption of hostility over these gas wells is one of four hypothetical future security nightmares that Professor Michael Klare envisions being touched off by oil or gas conflicts. These conflicts, which include the simmering rebellion and perpetual environmental disaster of the Niger delta, should come as a warning: environmental destruction is not the only danger we face from our utter reliance on fossil fuels.

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3 Responses to “The Deepwater Horizon Spill: The Security Facet”

  1. Michael David July 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    It is frightening to think that what happened in the Gulf is not the worst possible scenario.

  2. Linda Yarr July 20, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Whereas the Deepwater Horizon oil spill represents an egregious waste of natural resources, people’s livelihoods and the lives of diverse species, the writer is right to point out the security implications of the disaster. However, we should also recognize that on a day-by-day basis, the military use of fossile fuels is an ongoing threat to the health of the planet.

  3. greenfloyd August 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Dear Jon Ehrenfeld,
    Thank you for your intriguing post.
    In the GoM, I have long thought offshore oil rigs represented serious security threats. In that time I have also thought that not enough attention is paid to drug smugling off the rigs and support vessels, along with the easy target they represent for any terrorist with a boat and some dynamite.
    By virtue of recent events in the GoM and the less than stellar response amid confusion over authority, the soft-underbelly has been exposed to the American people, and probably a few bad guys too. Combined with DoD’s still enormous appetite for oil, political, security and commercial interests are on a collision course.

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