What Did Oil Companies Know?

By Margie Burns

In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, US oil companies quietly doubled their imports of Iraqi oil. According to government figures, US imports of Iraqi crude almost tripled from November 2002 (9.57 million barrels) to February 2003 (25.78 million barrels).

Indeed, even in March 2003, while US troops were invading Iraq, US petroleum companies imported 22.9 million barrels of Iraqi oil. (For yearly and monthly US imports, see www.census.gov/foreign-trade/www/press.html#prior/.)

After I wrote about Iraqi oil imports earlier, a thoughtful reader pointed out to me that since we were at war in Iraq by the last half of March, that entire month's usual amount of imports, nearly doubled, had to have been shipped from Iraq earlier. Considering the logistics involved, for the February amount to have doubled, Iraqi suppliers and distributors had to be notified of the greater demand ahead of time. She wonders, "How much ahead of time?"

Good question. The two biggest US importers of Iraqi crude in March 2003 were Valero Energy (5.8 million barrels) and Chevron (4.6 million barrels). A spokesman for Chevron declined to comment on shipments from Iraq: "ChevronTexaco maintains comprehensive security and emergency response plans for its shipping operations. For obvious reasons, we cannot disclose the details of those plans."

Valero spokesperson Mary Rose Brown said transit time from Iraq may be 45 days. So the March barrels were shipped in January or February. She adds, "All barrels prior to the war were purchased through third parties under UN auspices. No US troops were involved."

The reader noted, "Just lining up the extra tankers that would be required for doubling their imports must have been a time-consuming job for the oil companies, particularly if they had to hire some of those tankers and consider what jobs were already scheduled for them." She speculated that the companies had to pay a premium in order to have them at an Iraqi port on the date they would be required, and further that perhaps the administration "tipped off the oil companies" to increase their import stockpiles. How, after all, did the oil companies know they had to beef up their imports?

One could also speculate that with the administration banging the drum for war the oil companies would know they had to move fast. Still, this reader's response brings to mind related questions: Did the vice president's office have continuing contacts with the Energy Policy Task Force, even after our energy policy was formulated? Did any of the contacts involve Iraq? Are any of the investigations now being conducted checking into any of the broader relations between US commerce and the war plans? Questions have already been raised about plans for post-war Iraq evidently drawn up two years before the war ever started.

There is another sad point: In April 2003, US imports of Iraqi oil totaled at least 18.8 million barrels. So immediately after the invasion of Iraq, with US troops given the mission of controlling Iraq, Westerners were consuming millions of gallons of Iraqi crude. Evidently somebody felt that to the victors belonged the spoils. Then on May 1 Bush made his flight-suit appearance on an aircraft carrier, to proclaim major combat over.

That same period must have confirmed, for some Iraqis, the Westerners' priorities: With the country of Iraq itself sorely in need of every imaginable supply, its most valuable resource was being consumed voraciously by some of the very people (occupiers) pleading their inability to restore even household electricity in Baghdad. With the pipelines hit by repeated sabotage and other resistance acts, US imports of Iraqi oil dropped to only three million barrels in May, and collapsed to 24,000 barrels in June. It was on July 3, following this drop, that Bush produced his macho challenge, "Bring 'em on!"

By November 2003, the most recent month for which official figures are available, US imports of Iraqi crude were back up to 21 million barrels. Iraq is now fifth on the top 10 list of US oil suppliers, again, as it was before the invasion. In some ways, this item fits into a larger historical pattern. Longterm statistics from the Department of Energy show that US imports of Iraqi oil first ballooned under the first Bush administration. Imports collapsed during the first Gulf War, for obvious reasons. Imports of Iraqi crude stayed low during much of the 1990s, until the rebuilding of Saddam's oil fields, in which Halliburton played a large part. US imports started picking up in 1997 and stayed high from 1998 through 2003 despite some short-term limits on US purchases of Iraq's crude imposed by Saddam Hussein.

Curtailment of US imports of Iraqi oil was resisted, of course, by Big Oil and by the White House. Withholding medicines and food from Iraqi children seems to have been considered holding the line against evil. Withholding billions in petroleum revenue from Saddam never fell into the same category.

By the way, US imports of Iraqi crude under this administration also spiked in September 2001, of all times. Imports stayed high throughout the rest of 2001, with no sign that the White House feared any contamination or tampering, mass destruction or otherwise. Terrorists? In the global oil pipeline? Couldn't be. It figures, of course. Not only was winter approaching, increasing US demand for heating fuel, but September 2001 was also the month that Condoleezza Rice's old company, Chevron, merged with oil giant Texaco.

Margie Burns, a native Texan, is a freelance writer in the D.C. area. Email margie.burns@verizon.net.

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