DR: You say pretty openly that Iraq and a good chunk of our defense spending — about half total federal expenditures now — is about oil. Not very long ago that was written off as a hysterical lefty conspiracy theory.

TT: Certainly with respect to Iraq, as the excuses get peeled away one by one, even people who wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt have got to say, either the guy’s an incompetent moron, which may be true, or he’s been lying, which is probably true.

DR: Those are not mutually exclusive.

TT: It turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction, and [Saddam] certainly didn’t present any clear and present danger to us. Yeah, he’s a bad guy, but this notion that we’re going to give them democracy and the country will be Kansas overnight — that certainly hasn’t been true. The notion that we’re fighting Al Queda terrorists — well, gee, they’re not there. We’re so preoccupied with Iraq we’re not securing any kind of democracy or stable government in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are making a comeback there. The more these excuses peel away, the more you find the only difference between Iraq and North Korea — which actually has and says they use nuclear weapons, in the hands of a madman who’s doing a lot of nasty things to his people — is oil.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched.

DR: North Korea has a very large army.

TT: But it wouldn’t withstand American technology. The bottom line is, there’s lots of other bad people in this world doing bad things to their citizens — look at Darfur. It’s just fascinating that the only places where we decide to bully the world and unilaterally send our troops are the places with oil.

DR: Oil is a fungible commodity sold on the world market — there’s no way Iraq or any other single actor could deny us access to oil — so why spend all the money to put troops there when we could just buy the oil?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

TT: It is a zero sum game. China’s going around buying up oil for itself — they’re not sitting by. India is securing more of the world’s supply for itself. The United States, with 60 percent of our oil imported, we can’t just go buy it from someone else. Where are we going to buy it from? Venezuela? Nigeria, where they’ve shut down a third of oil production because of civil unrest? Russia, who’s using it for politics and selling it to the Chinese?

Yes, it’s a fungible commodity, but it’s been our foreign policy since World War II to use the Army to secure our sources of oil. This is not just a Republican issue. It’s gone through lots of different hands.

We’re spending $96 million a year in military subsidies and military training for our personnel in Colombia to secure one pipeline. There’s lots of other places where there’s just no dispute: the military or the money is being sent to secure access to oil.

You can argue about Iraq. In order to give current policymakers the benefit of the doubt, when I estimate we’re spending well over $800 billion a year in subsidies for oil, and I include the defense costs, I do not include Iraq.

DR: That would tack on two trillion dollars.

TT: The jury’s still out. I don’t know anyone who would deny that at least some of that was related to oil. The president himself said, as he was planning the invasion, the first concern was securing the oil. The second concern was securing food for potential refugees. About two months ago, I’m trying to remember the exact quote …

DR: Arguing against withdrawal on the basis that terrorists would control over oil.

TT: He said we’d be giving the terrorists the oil. So I’m not making this up. I’m not seeing conspiracies behind every bush, pardon the pun. It’s fairly open public policy and it costs.

DR: There’s lots of talk these days about a new green coalition. But it seems to me that there are a number of points of tension between the national security or energy independence line and the global warming line. The two pursuits are not entirely parallel. We could become energy independent without slowing down global warming — we could shift to coal, or even to renewables, but it doesn’t help get India or China on board.

TT: Or Texas. Texas is now in the same league as India or China.

DR: How do you see those tensions playing out?

TT: I think you’re smart to see that — there are some fissures. But there are also opportunities.

The religious groups are not only responding to a patriotic call to action, but the notion that we’re destroying what they see as God’s creation. Global warming has spurred the religious community to start taking action, and to think about joining environmentalists.

The unions don’t see a lot of union jobs in most states digging coal out of the ground and turning it into electricity, but they do see a lot of jobs building windmills and installing solar panels — high-paying, sustainable jobs. You’re turning agricultural waste in your community into energy, rather than a coal mine 500 or 1,000 miles away putting electrons on the electrical grid.

There are ways to leverage that positive momentum, even from groups who may not put the environmental concern first.