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It's the Crude, Dude:

War, Big Oil and the Fight

for the Planet

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By Linda McQuaig

Doubleday Canada,

346 pages, $35.95

Every now and then it's refreshing to read something that confirms a belief you've secretly harboured but never voiced for fear of sounding crazy. Maybe it's spineless, but hearing someone else say crazy things first feels great.

That's the way I felt reading Linda McQuaig's It's the Crude, Dude. She articulates an intriguing but obvious viewpoint on the present U.S. involvement in Iraq and the Middle East. According to McQuaig, the war is not about liberating the Iraqi people, eliminating terrorist strongholds or toppling ruthless dictators. Pure and simple, this war is about securing U.S. access to crude oil.

Her argument makes sense, but -- as McQuaig asks -- why are so few others saying this out loud? It's baffling. Except for my French instructor (who is from France and not shy of strong opinions), no one else I know has immediately and emphatically stated that the only reason the United States is in this conflict is because of oil.

McQuaig's preamble sets the stage by asking: "Why have the popular media pushed the idea of oil as a motivation force in war to the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theories?" Even at the preamble, I was hooked on this question, but was skeptical that McQuaig would provide a good answer. In the end, however, the book delivers.

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The best chapter is near the end, where McQuaig uses direct quotes from high-ranking U.S. government officials, Wall Street oil analysts and even General Anthony C. Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, which clearly point to oil security as the key driver for a U.S. presence in Iraq and the Middle East. But the Bush administration deftly kept the focus on the search for weapons of mass destruction, deflecting attention away from its lust for oil.

Another piece of evidence provided in the book is a frightening map that was used by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney's task force on energy. The map depicted Iraq prior to the 2003 attack, showing not towns, cities, bridges or roads, but major oil fields, refineries, tanker terminals and pipelines. Anyone still thinking that the freedom of the Iraqi people was the main concern?

Attacks on Bush are easy and fun these days. But even the most compelling critiques, including Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, are sometimes flawed by sketchy statistics and cheap shots. Witness the many times in the film where comical shots of Bush with a silly expression or smiling stupidly are given voice-overs of him speaking in a totally different context. You can make anyone look like an idiot this way. But McQuaig avoids this brand of cheap-shot journalism and, for the most part, keeps her critiques intelligent.

The middle of the book rambles a bit, with long, detailed chapters on the history of OPEC, the rise and fall of U.S. domestic oil production and a lengthy diatribe on the evils of SUVs. Her chapter on Hugo Chavez and the role of Venezuela would be interesting only to the most passionate history buffs. It's not that these chapters are wrong-headed or poorly assembled (I am in particular agreement with her attack on SUVs and our alarming energy consumption), but they don't seem to contribute much to the main and most significant thesis of the book, which is to single out oil security as the United States' No. 1 interest in Iraq.

Other parts of the book slip into questionable assertions regarding the world's total oil reserves. According to McQuaig, we have enough oil only to get us through the "next couple of decades." I doubted this figure and immediately looked for a citation in the notes. Not surprisingly, there wasn't one. McQuaig wants to impress on the reader that oil is disappearing and that we'll run out of it before many of us retire. Not only are these comments alarmist, they are just plain wrong. There is still a lot of oil out there -- it's just that we haven't yet figured out a low-cost way of extracting it.

Another factual flaw -- and one germane to the silly notion that we're almost out of oil -- is in the discussion of the Alberta oil sands. McQuaig refers to these reserves as having high production costs of $25-30 per barrel. These costs are quite out of date. According to Syncrude Canada (the world's largest producer of oil from oil sands), operating costs have fallen from $36 per barrel in 1984 to $18 per barrel in 2004. The difference between today's production costs and those quoted by McQuaig is not trivial. It's precisely because of improved technology and falling production costs that crude oil will be around for quite some time to come as a source of energy.

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Despite these errors, McQuaig hits the nail on the head when she tackles the question of why the United States is so concerned about oil. Why would the United States go to war over something it can easily purchase from more than a dozen countries? After all, Iraq and all of the other Middle Eastern countries have been more than willing to sell the stuff.

McQuaig sums it up nicely: It's not access to crude oil the United States wants, it's control over it -- a very different thing. The Middle East oil embargo of the 1970s was fairly minor in the grand picture, but it was enough to scare the Americans into fretting over a repeat scenario ever since. Without one key element, the U.S. economy doesn't work -- and that element is the crude, dude.

Todd Hirsch is an economist and writer living in Calgary. He walks to work and dodges the giant, gas-guzzling SUVs.

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