Oil crisis a case not of if, but when

By Harry McGee, Political Editor

One of them had closed down for refurbishment, though. Like a stopped clock, the sign saying how much a litre of unleaded costs is out of its time — 103.9c it says. The place doesn’t look like it shut down all that long ago, a couple of months tops. But the world has marched on since then — 116.9c is the reality advertised by the still-open filling station next door.

That provides a neat little tableau for the Ahmadinejad effect. Or in other words, how the ripples of the Iraq war have reached every corner of the globe, including the Blackwater Valley.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the hardline president of Iran who is currently embroiled in a scary stand-off with the US over his country’s nuclear programme. Yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had failed to comply with a UN Security Council deadline — it was given 30 days to end its nuclear enrichment programme.

Ahmadinejad has made Saddam Hussein seem like an obsequious courtier. This week he was at it again with more of his regular denunciations against Israel (which he has said should be wiped off the map); threats to cut Iran’s oil production; and further threats to export its nuclear technology to dodgy places like Sudan. He claims that his country has an inviolable right to develop its own civilian nuclear capabilities. Just about everyone else believes it is developing nuclear warheads.

THE current regime in Tehran knows it has all the chips and the opposing hand holds a busted flush. Its president can stare down the world’s greatest powers, knowing well they are deeply divided and even more deeply indecisive on what can be done to rein it in. Iran knows another invasion is unthinkable. Even if the US launched limited military strikes, the consequences would be unthinkable, and the US knows that. Such uncertainties explain why 103.9 has become 116.9.

Critics of the war in Iraq often reached for the easy argument that it was all about oil. It wasn’t then. But like so many of the whirlwinds that have been reaped, it is now. In the wider scheme of things, the conflict increasingly reflects the uncertainty of the world’s oil supply.

It is a curious quirk that so much of the world’s carbon energy reserves now rest in the hands of flawed or flaky regimes. The reality behind the so-called new world order is that it is only a crisis away from chaos. If the unspeakable mess of Iraq spreads across the region, we are facing oil shortages that will make those of the 1970s seem negligible.

Belatedly — very belatedly — Ireland is only now beginning to wake up to this reality. Our dependence on fossil fuels is overwhelming. I remember doing an interview with Trevor Sargent a couple of years ago and asking him the stock question about Greens’ policies — weren’t they too marginal, too niche for the great unwashed? Sargent replied that many of the policies of the Greens from a decade before had been derided as lunatic fringe. But 10 years later, many of them had been gradually accepted as orthodoxy.

Yes, sometimes the Greens sound like Cassandras with mopey placards warning that the end is nigh. But in a world greedily consuming itself out of existence, they are right.

Others know that. The PDs spend half their time mocking their policies as looney. And then last weekend — without even a hint of going scarlet with embarrassment — the party borrowed most of the Greens’ policies on alternative and renewable energy.

More intriguingly, in the last couple of weeks, for the first time since the protests at Carnsore Point over a quarter of a century ago, the unmentionable has suddenly become mentionable again in the context of an impending energy crisis. Forfás triggered the debate with the suggestion that we should explore the nuclear option. Bertie Ahern this weekend has said that he is personally opposed to it.

Because of Sellafield, all politicians with an instinct for self-preservation bow to the public mood. But you suspect that many will turn in future, faced with stark energy gaps. Paradoxically, on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, there were signs this month of the beginnings of a campaign (yes, maybe an informal one) to make nuclear more palatable to the public. And of course, all the while, damn all is being done to explore alternatives, besides the usual useless gestures.

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