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.
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.
The US should encourage African governments to spend their petro-dollars wisely, broaden their economic base, and ensure that ordinary people share in the benefits, Mr. Wihbey says. "If we don't do that, we're going to hurt our long-term security interests. It's not just a question of morality, it's also good business."
Hayman says one simple step would go a long way toward ensuring that leaders don't waste or misappropriate oil revenues: Companies should declare what they pay in royalties and taxes to each government, something they're already required to do in the West.
"If the companies were clear and transparent in revealing what payments were made to government, it would enable the ordinary citizens of those countries to hold their government accountable," he says.
So far, African oil-producing states have a dismal record on measures of democracy and human rights. A revolving door of corrupt civilian leaders or military dictators ruled Nigeria for most of the past three decades, and oil companies were accused of complicity in massive human rights violations and environmental destruction in the Niger Delta. A brutal civil war plagued Angola from its independence in 1975, and its government officials stand accused of diverting oil revenues from state coffers. In Gabon, President Omar Bongo has clung to power since 1967.
According to the CIA, Equatorial Guinea, where big oil deposits have more than doubled the country's gross national product in three years, is "ruled by ruthless leaders who have badly mismanaged the economy." President Teodoro Obiang Nguemo came to power in a military coup in 1979, and won a Soviet-style 99 percent of the vote in 1996 during an election sharply criticized by foreign observers. Washington is prepared to reopen its Embassy there, which was closed by the Clinton administration.
The spread of West Africa's oil boom began when more countries opened their markets with the end of the Cold War, and it picked up pace with technological advances that now allow drilling in seas as deep as 8,000 feet. The region also has the geographic advantage of being closer to the US than the Middle East.
Industry lobbyists have only increased their calls for the US to diversify its oil sources in the wake of Sept. 11. They argue that because West African oil is divided up among several countries without historic links to each other, they're unlikely to unify in forming an embargo, or to suffer political problems all at once.
Next year, landlocked Chad is set to start pumping as much as 250,000 barrels a day through a 660-mile pipeline from the southwest part of the country across Cameroon to the sea.
Sudan, which only three years ago imported all of its oil needs, controversially extracts 186,000 barrels of oil a day with the help of Canadian, Chinese, and Malaysian companies from the southern part of the country, where a civil war rages.
American companies are currently prohibited from doing business in Sudan because of sanctions, though relations have warmed since Sept. 11 because of Sudan's help in the war on terrorism. Last week, special envoy John Danforth, the former Missouri senator, noted in his report to President Bush: "International oil companies and foreign investors capable of making the investment needed to realize Sudan's oil potential are more likely to venture into Sudan if there is peace and political stability than in current circumstances."