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Quest for Oil Drives Aid to Colombia

U.S. interest in Colombian oil, not just drugs, is driving our $1.6 billion aid package to the Colombian government.
 
 
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If, as expected, Congress approves the $1.3 billion emergency military aid package for Colombia, that country will become the third largest recipient of U.S. assistance (after Israel and Egypt). In justifying this largess, Clinton Administration officials contend that substantial American aid is needed to enable the Colombian government to overpower the guerrillas and other armed groups that protect illicit drug trafficking. American aid is also needed, it is said, to strengthen democratic institutions in Colombia at a time of great internal turmoil. But there is another reason for U.S. aid that is not openly discussed by U.S. officials: a worry that the turmoil in Colombia will undercut Colombia oil production and hamper White House efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

With little attention from the American press, Colombia has emerged in recent years as one of the major oil producers in the Western Hemisphere. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Colombian oil production rose from only 100,000 barrels per day in the early 1980s to approximately 844,000 barrels in early 1999 -- an increase of nearly 750 percent. Colombian oil exports to the United States have also risen sharply, and today Colombia is this country's seventh largest supplier of petroleum. Many experts believe, moreover, that Colombia harbors large reserves of untapped oil and natural gas.

By themselves, Colombia oil deliveries to the United States are not critical to the U.S. economy. Other suppliers -- notably those located in the Persian Gulf area -- produce far larger quantities of petroleum. But a score of wars in the Middle East have made the United States leery of depending heavily on Persian Gulf supplies. Since taking office in 1993, the Clinton Administration has made the diversification of U.S. oil supplies a major strategic objective. This, in turn, has led the White House to place increased emphasis on oil imports from Africa, the Caspian Sea area and especially Latin America -- with the priority in this region on Colombia and Venezuela.

This priority is clearly evident in the President's annual report on national security strategy. While much of our imported oil comes from the Persian Gulf, he reported in 1997, "we are ... undergoing a fundamental shift in our reliance on imported oil away from the Middle East. Venezuela is now the number one foreign supplier to the United States ... and Venezuela and Colombia are each undertaking new oil production ventures." These ventures will become increasingly important, he added, as domestic oil production declines and the United States becomes increasingly dependent on imported supplies.

Assuming that Colombian oil production continues its upward climb, and new oil fields come on line, Colombia could become a major supplier of petroleum to the United States in the decades ahead. And the United States will need all of the imported oil it can get: While domestic oil production is expected to decline from 9.5 million barrels per day in 1997 to 8.7 million barrels in 2020, U.S. oil consumption is expected to rise during this period from 18 to 25 million barrels per day. This means, of course, that imports will have to grow substantially -- nearly doubling over the next 20 years.

The Administration's effort to reduce dependence on Persian Gulf oil, combined with soaring U.S. demand, has given Colombia (along with Venezuela) greatly increased importance in American strategic calculations. Just as Washington has always placed a high priority on protecting the oil flow from the Middle East, it now seeks to ensure the security of oil supplies from South America. This means, of course, that the United States is paying much closer attention to internal developments in the region's major producing countries. And while conditions in Venezuela's oilfields seem, for now, to be relatively stable, this is hardly the case for Colombia.

In discussing the internal security environment in Colombia, U.S. officials tend to emphasize the threat posed by the drug cartels and the guerrilla groups that are said to protect the traffickers' coca-growing operations. "Colombia must reestablish its authority over narcotics-producing 'sanctuaries,'" Acting Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero declared in February. "Bogota cannot successfully resolve its many socioeconomic problems, instill respect for human rights or achieve peace while these 'sanctuaries' flourish and while illegal armed groups in them earn hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade."

Almost all of the rhetoric employed by the Administration to rally support for the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package follows this line of reasoning. The fact is, however, that the greatest threat posed by the guerrillas to stability in Colombia is not their involvement in the drug trade, but rather their attacks on economic targets, especially the oil industry. For the past 10 years, the main rebel groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, by its initials in Spanish) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) -- have waged a relentless war of attrition against Colombian oil operations, especially those linked to foreign producers like British Petroleum (BP) and U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum.

With recent increases in production, oil is now Colombia's leading (legal) source of export income, generating about $3-4 billion per year in foreign sales. The government hopes to increase this amount significantly in the years ahead, so as to stimulate economic growth and finance development projects in the countryside -- projects that are considered essential if the government is to overcome the rural poverty that fuels both guerrilla activity and illicit drug trafficking. By attacking the oil industry, the guerrillas aim to stifle economic growth and thereby undermine the government's long-term political effectiveness.

It is also the case that Colombia's oil industry is particularly vulnerable to attack: the country's two main producing areas - the Cusiana/Cupiagua field in north-central Colombia (managed largely by BP), and the Cano Limon field in the northeast (managed by Occidental) -- are located in remote areas, far from major government centers. To get the oil to refineries and overseas markets, moreover, the producers must pump it through lengthy pipelines. All of these facilities are located in guerrilla-infested areas or are in easy reach of their jungle hideouts.

As part of their war against the Colombian government, FARC and the ELN regularly stage attacks on oil installations and pipelines in their areas of operation. Between 1982 and early 1999, for example, the ELN attacked the pipeline from Cano Limon to the coast a total of 586 times, causing the spill of over 1.6 million barrels of oil. These attacks have cost the government and the oil companies millions of dollars in lost revenue and inflicted significant damage on the country's oil infrastructure. More important, from a strategic point of view, they have discouraged foreign oil companies from exploring for and developing new fields in the country.

To protect the oil industry from attack, the Colombian government has expanded the military and deployed a significant share of its forces in the major producing regions and along key pipeline routes. The oil companies have cooperated in these efforts, paying a $1-per-barrel "war tax" on current production and, in the case of BP, subsidizing the formation of new military units. Despite this, attacks on Colombian oil installations appear to be increasing, with a record of 79 pipeline bombings recorded in 1999.

Obviously, this must present a very troubling picture to security analysts in Washington. Not only is the guerrilla conflict cutting into Colombia's current petroleum output, but it is also frightening away investors and thus reducing the country's long-term contribution to global oil production. On top of this, the Colombian government is being pushed to its limits by the dual pressures of having to fight the drug traffickers and protect the oil fields. It is this larger calculus, and not the drug problem alone, that explains the Clinton Administration's decision to substantially boost U.S. military aid to Colombia.

In defending the aid package, Administration officials insist that the main thrust of the U.S.-backed military effort will be focused in the southeast, where most of the coca plantations and cocaine laboratories are said to be located. In this sense, the package does place a priority on counter-narcotics operations. But the principal items in the package -- 30 UH-60 Blackhawk troop-carrying helicopters, 33 refurbished UH-1N "Huey" helicopters and a number of P-3 spy planes -- will significantly enhance government mobility and intelligence throughout the country, not just in the coca-producing regions. If the United States assumes the costs for military operations in the south, moreover, the government will be able to shift more of its own resources in the northeast, where the oil fields are located.

Because of the mood in Congress, where concern over illicit drug trafficking is very strong, the Administration has repeatedly affirmed that the aid package is aimed primarily at the traffickers, not the guerrillas -- except insofar as they act as guardians of the coca fields. But there is no question that the guerrillas will be the principal target of the purely military aspect of the package (which, by far, is the largest component). Arturo Valenzuela, the President's Special Assistant for Inter-American Affairs, puts it this way:

"There is no intention on the part of the United States to get involved in counterinsurgency efforts or counterinsurgency operation [in Colombia] .... But let me say that there is substantial evidence that certain guerrilla groups have derived a significant amount of income from the narcotrafficking operations. With a significant success in combating the narcotrafficking operation, you are going to see a reduction in the income that ... guerrilla organizations have."

The Colombian military, moreover, has made it clear that it will use U.S.-supplied equipment to fight the guerrillas wherever they are found -- whether or not directly involved in illegal drug operations. "It's the same operation, and everyone in it is responsible," the commander of Colombia's armed forces, Gen. Jose Manuel Bonett, told The New York Times in 1997. "You can't say this guerrilla front is good and this one is bad."

Clearly, this attitude is shared by senior U.S. officials, who view an attack on the guerrillas in any particular location as an attack on their overall military capacity. American-supported intelligence operations will also help the Colombian government to monitor guerrilla movements throughout the country, including the oil zones of the northeast. On balance, then, it appears that the U.S. aid package is as much an anti-guerrilla effort as it is an anti-drug operation.

Lending credibility to this assessment is the fact that Occidental Petroleum -- which operates largely in the northeast, far from the coca-producing areas in the south -- is one of the major proponents of the Administration's proposal. In an unusually candid report, Newsweek revealed on April 3 that Occidental (along with major U.S. arms firms) has been working assiduously to secure passage of the $1.3 billion aid package.

It is evident from all of this that the Clinton Administration has broader strategic objectives in Colombia than it is disclosing to the American public. This is cause for concern in and of itself. But there is a significantly greater worry here: if, as this analysis suggests, Washington seeks to diminish the threat to Colombian oil production as well as to curb the flow of illicit narcotics, we are likely to become involved in a much deeper -- and more extended -- military effort in Colombia than anyone in Washington has yet admitted to.

The current U.S. package -- $1.3 billion in emergency aid plus $300 million already in the budget -- is said to be sufficient to make a major dent in Colombian drug operations over the next two years. But anyone who is familiar with Colombia's tortured history and the demonstrated prowess of the major guerrilla organizations will easily conclude that $1.6 billion and two years will have, at best, a very minimal impact. It will take much more money, and much greater American involvement, to eliminate the guerrilla threat entirely. Given the immense risks entailed in such an effort, and the prospect of an extended U.S. presence, it is essential that the American public have full information on the Administration's long-term strategic objectives in Colombia, and that Congress considers the deeper implications of the proposed military aid package. It may be the case that we will need more oil from Colombia -- but do we really want to risk another Vietnam in order to get at it?

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author of "Resource Wars: Global Geopolitics in the 21st Century" (Metropolitan Books, forthcoming, 2001).