OIL: Unsheathing the Political Weapon

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What can the West do to counter the Arab oil weapon? There has been some talk of freezing the billions of dollars of Arab accounts in Western banks. M.I.T. Professor Morris Adelman, a leading oil expert, goes so far as to advocate a threat of military occupation of some Arab oil fields. Much more constructively, the West could form a consumers' cooperative that would allocate supplies among nations. The U.S. has made some attempts in this direction, but they have not got far. There is, in fact, a strong danger that the exact opposite will happen: consuming countries would bid against each other for available Arab oil, starting a kind of worldwide auction.

Oil consumers could also greatly accelerate research into ways of efficiently developing non-Arab sources of fuel. The Rocky Mountain shale and Athabascan tar sands of Canada may hold more oil than all the sands of the Arab deserts; some estimates run as high as 1.5 trillion bbl. Liquefication and gasification of coal could provide a low-polluting way of using that superabundant fuel. But the capital investment required is staggering: $5 billion to $7 billion to get 1,000,000 bbl. of oil a day out of shale or tar sands. Senator Jackson has been advocating a U.S. emergency research effort similar to the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. James Akins, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, goes further to suggest a supranational authority that would coordinate research among all the oil-consuming countries.

Both ideas are sound. Indeed, by prompting the consuming nations to investigate seriously new sources of energy, and to rethink their profligate energy-using habits, the Arabs could eventually do the West a favor. But that is for the very long run; meanwhile, the U.S. and other oil-consuming countries had best prepare for a real squeeze.

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