Osama bin Laden, Oil and Climate Change

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It can happen to any journalist—major news happens, but not on your beat. What do you do? You look for any entry point you can. But we don’t have to stretch too far to examine the implications that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death might have on global energy markets—and especially oil. Born and raised in the petroleum cradle of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was able to finance a global terrorist network thanks to the wealth crude oil had brought his homeland—and to America’s addiction to the stuff.  Bin Laden turned defiantly against America after he learned that U.S. troops would be deployed to defend Saudi Arabia in the wake of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait—a tactical decision made in no small part because of the Kingdom’s enormous importance to global oil production. For years afterward, oil and the U.S. war on terror would remain intertwined—and even after bin Laden’s death, they still will be.

In the short-term, though, the death of bin Laden has had a stabilizing effect on global oil prices, which fell by nearly 2% in the immediate wake of President Obama’s announcement late Sunday night. The dizzying rise in oil prices over the last couple of months is due in part to concerns about stability in the Middle East as the region convulses with revolutions—although so far, major oil-producers like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have escaped those disruptions. The current drop reflects hopes that, with bin Laden gone, the war on terror and social unrest in the region might relax as well. (Stock futures rose sharply in pre-market trading for the same reasons.) But as James William, an energy economist at the oil and gas consultancy WTRG Economics, told CNN, any dip in oil prices thanks to bin Laden is likely to be short-lived:

It’s very difficult to see how this event will fundamentally change supply or demand for crude oil. This seems like a gut reaction to what the West views as a happy event. A lot of times we see markets move on happy news that in reality has nothing to do with the market, and I think this is one of them… More violence in the Middle East probably means less oil.

So the long-term impacts of bin Laden’s death on the commodity that helped make his fortune—and which still, for better and mostly for worse, defines the West’s relationship with the Middle East—will depend on what happens to al-Qaeda and its allies now that he’s gone. And that is anyone’s guess.

Before we leave bin Laden to his watery grave, I did want recall the few times when he spoke out on another issue dear to our hearts around here: climate change. Though bin Laden had been silent for some time—and now we may know why—in the years following 9/11 he would periodically issue video or audiotapes of his messages to the West and the world. And sometimes they went beyond simple threats of attacks, instead offering critiques of American behavior. So it was with climate change. In January 2010, in the wake of the failure of the Copenhagen summit, bin Laden added climate change—and specifically, American inaction on the issue—to his long list of grievances. From Al-Jazeera English:

In an audio tape obtained by Al Jazeera, bin Laden criticised George Bush, the former US president, for rejecting the Kyoto pact and condemned global corporations.

“This is a message to the whole world about those responsible for climate change and its repercussions – whether intentionally or unintentionally – and about the action we must take,” bin Laden said.

“Speaking about climate change is not a matter of intellectual luxury – the phenomenon is an actual fact.”

In the new recording, bin Laden says “all the industrial states” are to blame for climate change, “yet the majority of those states have signed the Kyoto Protocol and agreed to curb the emission of harmful gases.”

He continued: “However, George Bush junior, preceded by [the US] congress, dismissed the agreement to placate giant corporations. And they are themselves standing behind speculation, monopoly and soaring living costs.”

Later on that year—after the devastating summer floods in Pakistan, which some blamed on global warming—bin Laden issues another audiotape denouncing the U.S. for its climate policies:

“The number of victims caused by climate change is very big” — “bigger than the victims of wars,” says a voice that the watchdog group SITE identified as that of the international terrorist mastermind. The tape’s authenticity could not be verified.

Hearing criticism about climate policy from a Saudi citizen whose family’s enormous wealth was built on the back of oil consumption was, to say the least, a little bit rich. Most likely, bin Laden’s invocation of climate change in 2010 was an attempt to broaden his message—with language that could have been cribbed from any global environmental NGO—and fit into a larger international narrative about American perfidy. It was a probably also an example of the al-Qaeda leader—as State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at the time—”working hard to stay relevant.” Not something he has to worry about any longer.