With Mideast uncertainty, US turns to Africa for oil
Today, lobbyists will urge the US to look more to Africa for oil and to establish a military presence there.
In the search for alternative sources of oil outside the politically volatile Middle East, the US is increasingly turning toward a place not normally seen as a major energy producer: sub-Saharan Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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The region's crude oil production surpassed 4 million barrels a day in 2000 more than Iran, Venezuela, or Mexico. The US currently gets 16 percent of its oil imports from sub-Saharan Africa almost as much as from Saudi Arabia. And, according to projections by the National Intelligence Council, that proportion will reach 25 percent by 2015, surpassing the entire Persian Gulf. The vast majority of it will come from a stretch of coastline between Nigeria and Angola called the Gulf of Guinea.
Today, the African Oil Policy Initiative Group, a lobby group with members from the oil industry and various arms of government, will present a white paper in Washington. The document urges Congress and the Bush administration to encourage greater extraction of oil across Africa, and to declare the Gulf of Guinea "an area of vital interest" to the US.
There is some indication that the Bush administration already feels that way. Walter Kansteiner, the assistant secretary of State for Africa said earlier this year: "African oil is of national strategic interest to us, and it will increase and become more important as we go forward."
While Nigeria has long been an oil giant, Angola has in recent years become the ninth-largest oil supplier to the US. Countries that many Americans would have trouble finding on a map Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Congo Republic each produce hundreds of thousands of barrels every day.
All along the continent's Atlantic coast, from the western Sahara to South Africa, exploration companies are boasting significant new offshore finds. Investments in West Africa by big US companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron-Texaco, as well as by lesser-known ones such as Amerada Hess and Ocean Energy will total $10 billion annually by next year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
In theory, the growing American interest could help develop one of the poorest regions on the planet. But oil creates few jobs for local people, and the wealth rarely spreads itself across the society, says Gavin Hayman of Global Witness, a London-based group that monitors resource extraction and human rights in developing countries. "The states that find oil tend to show regressive levels of development, where oil revenues go up and humanitarian indicators go down," says Mr. Hayman.
The huge investments are also bringing increasing pressure from the industry for a greater US military presence in the region. The white paper recommends establishing a military subcommand for the Gulf of Guinea.
Some analysts and industry watchdogs say it's crucial that oil wealth not be used to prop up undemocratic regimes and line the pockets of the elite.
"If the United States is going to get more involved in the Gulf of Guinea, it must not repeat the mistakes of the Persian Gulf," says Paul Michael Wihbey, a fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, which contributed to the white paper. He says the Gulf oil states ignored the importance of economic development and diversification at the expense of rising social tension and instability.