James Marriott, co-author of The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London and a member of the London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organization Platform.
Anna Galkina, member of the London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organization Platform.
Timothy Mitchell, political theorist, historian, professor and chair of Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. He is the author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.
We spend the hour looking at politics, money and the pursuit of oil, from the series of pipelines originating in the oil-rich Caspian Sea to the deposits in the Arctic Sea where Russia has charged 30 people with piracy for a Greenpeace protest against drilling, to the vast reserves of the Middle East that have fueled conflict for decades. Three guests join us for a roundtable discussion: Anna Galkina, a member of the London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organization Platform; Platform founder James Marriott, author of "The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London"; and Timothy Mitchell, Columbia University professor and author of the books "Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil" and "Colonizing Egypt."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: Today we spend the hour looking at politics, money and the pursuit of oil, focusing on what’s known as the Oil Road, a series of pipelines stretching from the oil-rich Caspian Sea to Europe. Key nations along the route include Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The oil giant BP operates the main pipeline.
The oil-rich dictatorship of Azerbaijan is about to hold elections amidst a major decline in the country’s record on human rights and freedom of expression. Located between Iran and Russia and lining the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a vital energy supplier to Europe and a transit route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Critics say this has led Western powers to turn a blind eye to abuses since President Ilham Aliyev first came to power in 2003 following the death of his father, the former president. Ilham Aliyev amended the constitution to remove term limits in 2009. On Wednesday, he is set to win his third term in office amidst opposition claims of fraud and intimidation. A spokesperson for his re-election campaign predicted an easy victory.
ALIYEV CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: People do want in Azerbaijan. They would like to have good life, I mean, good salary, prosperity, and we have in Azerbaijan. We have prosperity. We have very high dynamic of development. And it means that the people should support the person who organized this policy.
AARON MATÉ: In the past year and a half, Human Rights Watch has documented Azerbaijan’s arrest of more than 140 high-ranking members of opposition political parties, government critics and journalists. Its government has also taken a tough line on dissent in the oil-drilling area of Baku. And it’s this area that begins the book by one of our guests today, called The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London.
AMY GOODMAN: In it, co-author James Marriott cites a business think tank that describes how in Azerbaijan, quote, "oil projects sidestep many potential administrative pitfalls and delays. ... Environmental and labor laws, for example, can prove elastic." The book goes on to examine oil companies and their collusion with governments along the oil road from the Caspian to Europe and its impact on the people, ecology and politics of the regions it passes through.
Well, James Marriott joins us now in our studio here in New York, a member of the London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organization Platform, as well as Anna Galkina, who also joins us. Both James and Anna will be speaking tomorrow as part of a panel here in New York called "Carbon Democracies? Politics, Money, and the Pursuit of Oil." Also with us is Timothy Mitchell, who will be part of that program, author of the book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. His previous books include Colonizing Egypt and Rule of Experts. Professor Mitchell teaches—he is a political theorist, historian, professor and chair of Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! James Marriott, let’s begin with you. Take us to Azerbaijan, a country most people in the United States hardly know about, let alone where it is, why it is so significant in terms of global oil pipeline politics.
JAMES MARRIOTT: It’s very significant because, on the one hand, it holds a chunk, a significant chunk, of the world’s oil market, about one percent, which doesn’t sound very much, but it does swing the price in many ways. And on the other hand, it’s a state on the western side of the Caspian Sea that plays the dominant position for the West’s or Western oil companies’ and Western governments’ intervention into the Caspian region. It’s the most secure, as it were, bridgehead for the West in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Place it exactly for us there.
JAMES MARRIOTT: It’s almost in a middle way between the top and the bottom of the Caspian Sea on the western coast of the Caspian. Its offshore area stretches over to the Turkmen offshore area, and its western edge runs onto Georgia, and the northern edge is Russia, and southern edge is Iran.
AARON MATÉ: Now, the route is very treacherous. It goes through mountainous regions. It cuts through aquifers. Can you explain why it goes all the way up to Turkey instead of, say, to closer to Iran or even to China?
JAMES MARRIOTT: That’s a very, very interesting question. Of course, there was a huge debate about which way oil would be exported from the Azeri fields after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was in the interests of Western states, particularly the U.S., to try and run that oil out of the Russian sphere of influence and Russian sphere of control. And the State Department was the key driver for the creation of this route. From the point of view of the oil companies, it would have been easier for them to run it through Russian pipelines. There was a big push for them to run it through an Iranian pipeline or create an Iranian pipeline. But it was the State Department that drove the political requirement that it should be exported to the global market through a space which didn’t run through Iran, didn’t run through China and didn’t run through Russia. And they drove the idea that this should be pushed. It wasn’t actually in the interests of the oil companies, particularly, in the first instance.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the Caspian Sea is a very significant area for the United States. Doesn’t it have the largest Marine base there?
JAMES MARRIOTT: That’s right. That’s correct. I mean, I think what’s interesting is that when it was being developed in the early ’90s, when it was being pushed in the early ’90s in political spheres, it was talked about as being a huge new space of oil and gas production, on the scale of Saudi or whatever. Actually, in reality, the amount of oil and gas in the Caspian and the immediate shores is nothing like that. But part of the reason why it was pushed at that scale, I think, was because it was part of a wider geopolitical intent from the U.S. and the Western powers to, in a sense, roll back the developments and territorial acquisitions that had been made by Russia in the 18th century.
AMY GOODMAN: And why is pipelines so important? Talk about the politics and laws around pipelines.
JAMES MARRIOTT: Pipelines are very often used as a significant geopolitical tool, like this one. The route that we take, myself and Mika Minio, writing a book for Platform, which is the general—out of the general activity and research of our work over the last 10, 15 years, goes not only through the pipeline in the Caucasus—in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey—but also through another pipeline, which is—runs from Italy through Austria to Germany, and takes oil from near Trieste to a set of oil terminals and refineries in southern Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. That earlier pipeline, built in the 1960s, was also a geopolitical project. It was part of the structure for the West, for NATO, to create an energy supply system which would in a sense mirror and be a rival to the energy supply systems that were being created in what is now known as former Eastern Europe. Russia and the Soviet Union was pushing very hard for oil production to be driven to those states from Siberia, and what was happening in the West was a parallel pipeline. In both those cases, it was created really as a political tool more than primarily a commercial tool.
AMY GOODMAN: Political to?
JAMES MARRIOTT: The Western powers, in this instance, both in Europe and in the Caucasus.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. When we come back—you know, pipelines have their own laws; they are like countries unto themselves—we’ll talk about pipelines from Azerbaijan to, well, right here in the United States. We’re speaking with James Marriott, who is co-author of a new book; it’s called The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. We’ll also speak with Anna Galkina, who’s in the same organization called Platform in London, and Professor Timothy Mitchell. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Professor Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University, author of the book Carbon Democracy, its subtitle, Political Power in the Age of Oil. James Marriott is with us. He co-wrote the book The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. And Anna Galkina is also with us, with the group, as is James, Platform, based in London. Aaron?
AARON MATÉ: Yes, well, Anna, I wanted to ask you—so, the oil giant BP plays a huge role. They operate this pipeline. Can you talk about their history in Azerbaijan?
ANNA GALKINA: So BP first broke into Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union started falling apart in the first—some of the first contracts were signed in 1992. And the interesting thing is you’ll find that BP were actually there before—they’ve established their own relations with Azerbaijan before the Western governments actually did, and BP already had an office in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, before—before any of the Western governments had embassies. And for a while, in fact, they invited the British diplomats to come and share an office with them. And then what BP did, they—it was they recruited the British state to work on their behalf to help them break into this—into this new territory and sign lucrative contracts.
The president of Azerbaijan at the time, Elchibey, was, as we’ve found out from some documents that we got out of the British Foreign Office under Freedom of Information legislation, the president of Azerbaijan was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. And so, even though Mrs. Thatcher was no longer prime minister in the U.K., the—BP requested that she be brought over and help sign these contracts. So, Margaret Thatcher got flown over, over from Hong Kong, where she was at the time on a trade visit, as well—she got flown over from there to Baku and personally handed over the signature bonuses to the president and made sure that the contracts were signed. So, this is part of a pattern that we see around the world where British as well as American and other Western governments act on behalf of their oil companies to break into new territories, to sign contracts that will sign away various different countries’ oil for their profit.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, BP, British Petroleum, has quite a sordid history. Didn’t the U.S.—and recent declassified CIA documents prove this—overthrow the first democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953, Mosaddegh, on behalf of BP, British Petroleum, as it was known then—or Anglo-American Oil, I think it was called then?
ANNA GALKINA: Absolutely. This is a really—this is a really long history. But also, we need to remember that now BP is more than just a British company; it is almost as much an American company as it is a British one. And, in fact, more of BP’s shares are listed on the American market than on the Britain one.
AMY GOODMAN: And, James Marriott, you were just in New Orleans. We were all just there. And, of course, BP plays a key role in the recent history of New Orleans with the major oil spill three years ago.
JAMES MARRIOTT: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, of course, they are still held in the court of public opinion. They should be judged as to whether or not their responsibility for the spill has really been taken into account. I think our strong feeling would be that a judgment about the risk that was—about the impact of whether or not the production was being done safely was made in the highest level of BP. We could discuss about the specific individuals, such as Byron Grote or John Browne or Tony Hayward. They took a judgment—
AMY GOODMAN: The CEOs of BP.
JAMES MARRIOTT: Yeah, the CEO—CEO of BP up until 2005 and then CEO after that. And those folks took a specific judgment to cut costs as close to the bone as they possibly could to maximize profitability. It was a trend set in BP particularly strongly from 1995 onwards. And that cost cutting made them take a risk or encouraged them to take a risk on just how close to the bone they could run the project, the drilling project in the Macondo field, and they took that calculated risk. And many calculated risks pay off, and this one didn’t, tragically for the people on the production platform and for the communities along the Gulf Coast and the ecology of the Gulf. They took a calculated risk, and our strong feeling is that they should be held to account personally for the fact that they personally took this risk and they personally took an action which resulted in this tragedy. And that is not what is happening now in the court case in New Orleans. The company itself is being held to account, but not the individuals who took this personal action on.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "personal risk"?
JAMES MARRIOTT: Well, I mean this, which is that—say I need to get from a—to downtown to the shops fast, and I’m in a hurry, and I make a judgment as to whether or not I’m going to drive at high speed, beyond the speed limit, to go through a low-speed-limit area, and I drive that—my car that way, and I hit a kid, and the kid is killed. I took a risk, I took a judgment: I’d be able to get there quickly, and I wouldn’t run over a child. Of course, I didn’t want to run over a child, but when I did run over that child, my risk didn’t work out. Now, if that happens, I go to court, and if I’m found guilty, I go to prison. The car company doesn’t go to court and doesn’t go to prison. They took a judgment about how they should operate in this instance. They cut it close to the bone. They took a risk. The risk didn’t pay off. And they should be held to account.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s turn to President Obama speaking recently at the U.N. General Assembly. During the speech, Obama told the world the U.S. is prepared to use its military to defend what he termed "our core interests in the Middle East"—that is, U.S. access to oil.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War. We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.
AARON MATÉ: That’s President Obama saying the U.S. is prepared to use military force to defend U.S. access to oil in the Middle East. Let’s turn to Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy. Professor Mitchell, in your book, you argue that we can’t understand the modern democratic state without comprehending its—the centrality of oil. Can you explain your thesis for us?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Yes. There’s often thought to be a negative relationship between oil and democracy. If you have a lot of oil, if you’re a state that produces a lot of oil, you seem to be undemocratic. What I try to show in the book is there’s a much longer and more interesting history of this relationship between oil and democracy, and that it involves us as much as the countries that depend on the production of oil.
And the way to think about that is to go back to the history of coal. Without coal, we would not have the particular forms of mass democracy that emerged in the early 20th century, because with coal it became possible for groups of organized workers for the first time in history to shut down an economy. The dependence on a single source of energy created vulnerability that organized forces in coal production, in the transportation of coal, could take advantage of.
Oil was different. It didn’t give workers the same kind of opportunity to threaten a productive system, and therefore it proved much more difficult to democratize on the basis of oil—difficult for the countries that produced the oil, but also difficult for the countries, therefore, that began to switch from coal to oil, realizing that you could actually de-democratize a democratic country if you became more dependent on oil.
AARON MATÉ: So the U.S. decision to reorient the world toward oil production after World War II, that’s a response to trying to counter coal unions in Europe?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: There were many reasons for the turn from coal to oil, including just the much greater use of oil for transportation. But among the things going into the calculation—this was at the level of U.S. funding the rebuilding of Europe after World War II—is that we have to defeat the left in Europe. The left is particularly strong in the coal industry, and the way to weaken the kinds of calls for broader-based democracies that are beginning to take place in Europe is actually to undermine them by beginning to replace the basic energy infrastructure of Europe, moving from coal to oil—in other words, to bring oil from the Middle East, so that, as it were, the deindustrialization, the moving of production abroad that we think of as something that happened in the ’70s and ’80s, actually began, in a certain way, in the ’40s and ’50s with the removing of energy production from Europe to the Middle East, with the kinds of the de-democratizing potential for that in Europe as well as for those involved in oil production there.
AMY GOODMAN: In Carbon Democracy, you have a very interesting chapter called "McJihad." Explain it, and especially this week on the 12th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan.
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Yes, I wrote "McJihad" initially in response to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, because that was the time, of course, when the U.S. declared this crusade against forms of militant and jihadist Islam. And it was a time when people began talking about a clash of civilizations, about the West standing for enlightenment and reason, and opposing itself to the forms of unreason and illiberal politics represented by something that was called "jihad," Islamic radicalism of various forms. There’s a very different history of the relationship between the U.S. and the variety of forms of political Islam, and one of the main parts of that relationship has been a strong alliance between the United States and conservative Islamic forces, such as those that are in power in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf. And I think one has to understand the reason the U.S. came to depend on anti-democratic forces to maintain the kinds of interests and positions it had in the region to make more sense of the rise of radical Islamic forces in the more recent period.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the meeting of the Taliban in the United States?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Yes. Before the attacks of 9/11, when the Taliban had first come to power in Afghanistan in the previous decade, the U.S. was very interested in the possibility of working with them. At that time, they were interested in the possibility of negotiating routes for pipelines we were talking about earlier, the pipelines from the Caspian and the Central Asian region, and interested in that. And they saw the Taliban as someone they could work with. In fact, they made the explicit reference in the State Department meetings when the Taliban visited Washington, met with Ronald Reagan. And—
AMY GOODMAN: They came to Texas?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: They came to Texas and—
AMY GOODMAN: Met with the Bushes?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: —met with the Bushes there and talked about the Taliban as being just like the Saudis. I mean, these are the kind of people we can work with, because we need people who are conservative, who believe in a strict application of Islamic law. This will create the kind of state we would be interested in.
AARON MATÉ: So, do you think that the Afghan War was linked somehow to trying to secure access to these pipelines?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Not directly. The—other things happened in between. And, of course, there was a lot longer history before that of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the funding of the Mujahideen, the variety of Islamic groups prior to the rise of the Taliban, in order to try and bring down a government that it felt was too friendly to the Soviet Union and to try and embroil the Soviet Union in conflict in the region, which it successfully did. In those days, it’s U.S. policy—
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t Zbigniew Brzezinski famously say—
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Say, exactly, we want to embroil the Soviets in their own Vietnam.
AMY GOODMAN: And when asked, "What about supporting the Mujahideen?" he said, "What’s a few riled-up Muslims?"
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Exactly, and that was the policy in those days. And then, even today, of course, we see in a variety of places around the world the U.S. is very happy working with conservative Islamic forces, where they can come to power, at the expense of more progressive groups that might threaten the kinds of interests the U.S. has in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mitchell, can you talk about Egypt? I mean, today, front-page headlines once again, the scores of Egyptians being killed in this face-off between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and the military regime that’s in power today. You’ve written books about it; you’re an expert on Egypt. What’s happening there now?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Well, it’s a very sad situation at the moment. You know, there was a revolution almost three years ago that finally brought down the American-supported dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak that had been in power for decades. And in the aftermath of that revolution, a government came to power, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was enormously unpopular after a year in office, and there was very widespread protests against the government. At that point, the military stepped in, carried out a coup, removed it from power. Very many of those involved in organizing the protests were very unhappy, subsequently, at the extraordinary violence with which the armed forces have not only rounded up in prison, but also killed many, many hundreds of protesters, of the supporters of the ousted government. The armed forces seem to think that they can return not just to the old system of ruling the government through force and through repression, but to do so on a scale that simply wasn’t seen in the days of the Mubarak regime.
AARON MATÉ: Well, as we talk about Egypt and pipelines, let’s turn to part of a video produced by activists who fought against BP’s attempts to build a gas terminal in the Egyptian community of Idku. In this clip, a resident describes what happened when they went to a government office to protest the official’s negotiations with BP.
IDKU RESIDENT: [translated] When we learned there was a company that would build a factory in our area, we went to talk to the responsible government bodies. We had only one question: What is this factory supposed to be? Does it threaten to cause any harm or not? When we first took to the main highway, still far from the road and the factory site, we were surprised by an astonishing security presence firing live ammunition against us and attacks from plainclothes informants and police. Our people were arrested. The more we asked around, we realized the corporation had political cover and security cover from the police forces.
AARON MATÉ: Anna, the story of BP in Egypt, and what happened with this remarkable defeat organized by local residents in this community?
ANNA GALKINA: So BP wanted to build a gas plant to process the gas that they’re going to extract offshore, just off the coast there in Egypt, and the community in Idku had already experienced environmental devastation due to—connected to fossil fuels, because the company BG had already had a presence. And so, the community in Idku understood that they weren’t going to get all these wonderful promises that BP came in with, and they realized that they didn’t—that they didn’t want another gas plant on their doorstep.
And so, what they did was they organized. They went and occupied the space where BP was going to construct. They showed up at government offices, like we just heard. They broke into offices. They protested. They wrote to various officials and so on. And by doing this, they stalled construction for six months, for a year, year and a half. Eventually, BP said—realized that they weren’t going to be able to construct there. They weren’t going to be able to make money by constructing their plant there.
And so, what we’ve seen since then is, of course, BP are going to try and just move on along the coast a few miles and try and build their plant in another village. And what’s been really inspiring for us was to see that the villagers in Idku have now jumped in their trucks and went along the coast to the next village to share their experience and to share how they can—how they can organize against this happening.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does that play into overall Egypt politics and the U.S. in relation? You know, there was this joke going around, Professor Mitchell, which is a very sad joke, about Iraq and a little boy saying to his father, "What’s our oil doing under their sand?" But can you talk about the U.S. in relation to Egypt, as well as Iraq and other countries?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: Well, in general, the revolutionary period over the last two or three years in Egypt has seen a remarkable development in terms of the kinds of community organizing that Anna was just talking about at the level of workplaces and the level of villages and towns, people beginning to protest and demand improvements to quality of life, to working conditions, to terms of employment, waves of strikes that—actually, a strike movement that goes back to before the revolution and that was one of the most powerful aspects of the wave of democratic action in the country over the last several years. The new military government in power is shutting down strikes, is—even though a quite progressive member of the labor movement was put in charge of labor policy by the government, he immediately declared a moratorium on strikes.
The U.S. doesn’t actually know particularly what to do about the situation, in general. It thought it had a nice compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the kind of conservative regime that indeed did not pass any progressive labor laws, or refused to do so, even though it had been a major demand of the revolution. And the U.S. was happy with that and was rather uncertain about the moves the military has taken, which don’t seem to be producing any new kind of political order, but in fact sort of leading to a deterioration that, if it continues the way it is, will mean Egypt is in the situation that Syria is in, with the armed forces of the state turning to uncontrolled violence against its political opponents.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Columbia University Professor Timothy Mitchell—his book is called Carbon Democracy; James Marriott is co-author of The Oil Road; and Anna Galkina is with the group, as is James, Platform in London. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s the 12th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan. There’s major protests and killings in Egypt right now. The elections are taking place in Azerbaijan, in Central Eastern Europe. And we’re talking about oil, gas pipeline politics, what links all of this, not to mention tar sands protests from Canada to the United States, the linkages.
Over the weekend, there were vigils held around the world to release 28 environmentalists and two journalists facing piracy charges in Russia. They’re now known as the Arctic 30, detained in a Greenpeace action directed at Russia’s first Arctic offshore oil rig last month. The Netherlands has filed legal action against Russia in a bid to win their release.
Our guests, again, Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University; James Marriott, he has a new book, The Oil Road; and Anna Galkina from London and the group called Platform.
You’re from Moscow originally. What’s happening with this oil protest?
ANNA GALKINA: So, the activists were detained, like you said, a few days ago, and they’re now being held on this piracy charge. This is the first time that Russia has done anything like that. I mean, obviously, political arrests and detentions and long-term prison sentences are applied against Russian activists, Russian citizens, on a kind of daily basis, but this is the first time in recent history that Russia has done anything like this to citizens of other countries. So, in a way, this story is going to majorly play into the international relations between the Russian government and the West, seeing as it involves—
AMY GOODMAN: But talk about the Arctic drilling and why Russia is doing it and the movement against it.
ANNA GALKINA: Sure. So, the rig that the action is directed against is the first to be drilling for oil, extraction drilling rather than exploration, in the Russian Arctic seas. It’s got a very dodgy history. In fact, the top half of the rig was taken from a decommissioned North Sea oil platform, which was then sold on to Russia and put on bottom supports from—constructed separately and a decade previously in Arctic Russia. And so—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to—I want to play a video that Greenpeace released of a—of the Arctic Sunrise captain—the ship is called the Arctic Sunrise—Peter Willcox, filmed in handcuffs just after Russia’s raid on the ship. In between Russian translations, he described what happened after the Russian agents descended from a helicopter by rope and boarded the ship.
CAPT. PETER WILLCOX: They just pushed everybody into the mess—that’s the room where we eat—and left me on the bridge. And after a while, they let people go to their cabins.
AMY GOODMAN: So the Russian journalists filmed him while this Greenpeace activist, captain of the Arctic Sunrise, was in handcuffs. Anna?
ANNA GALKINA: That’s right, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of what’s happening to them, them being charged with piracy?
ANNA GALKINA: The significance of this is that the Russian government is trying to make this about an attack by the West on Russian sovereignty. You’ve seen a trend of this with the Russian government in the past couple of years. Since the huge pro-democracy movement last year, the Russian government has been trying to paint any kind of dissent, as much as it can, as something done by foreign agents. That is literally the words that they use. And so, in a way, the action—the action by these Greenpeace activists is something that is pretty easy for them to paint as: "This is the West coming to—coming to impinge upon our sovereignty, impinge upon our oil."
But what we need to understand is that this is not simply Russia being autocratic. This is also the Russian government being run by two oil companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, whose boards and whose senior management are intricately connected to the very top of the Russian government and to power structures such as the FSB—used to be KGB.
AARON MATÉ: James Marriott, I wanted to ask you—you’re with the group Platform. You’ve been studying and protesting oil companies for a long time. Do you believe, first of all, in working with oil companies on projects and making deals, as some environmental groups do? And what’s your take on—what do you think people need to know about these large companies that control such important resources?
JAMES MARRIOTT: Well, the answer to the first question is no, we don’t. That’s quite simple. We work very closely with the communities who are impacted by oil and gas developments. Occasionally we work with labor unions who are in—in the oil industry itself. Our job is to try and highlight the social, environmental and democratic risks and human rights risks of oil and gas production globally. The key thing we have to understand, I think, also about these structures is the way in which they interact with not only with the provision of energy, but crucially with the—with the wider set of concerns. Timothy’s book is brilliant at looking at the relationship between oil production and democratic development, or de-democratization, as he carefully put it, in the 20th century.
There’s also the obvious issue of the way in which these structures drive forward climate change. Essentially, an oil company is set up to do one thing, which is to generate a return on capital. The companies, such as BP or Shell, wouldn’t really be in oil production if it wasn’t generating cash, return on cash. If otherwise, they’d make their money out of spaghetti. The point is that they do these projects to generate a key return on capital, and oil can provide that. But in the process of doing so, they drive carbon from the lithosphere, from underneath the ground, into the atmosphere. It’s—in a sense, they help create a conveyor belt moving carbon from beneath the geology into the atmosphere, which of course drives forward climate change.
So the thing that people need to understand is that we need to shift radically beyond these structures. We need to find another way of energy provision, which doesn’t drive forward climate change, and also, at the same time, ideally, would be a structure of energy provision which develops democracy, develops and assists human rights, doesn’t impact on local environments in the way that these structures do.
AMY GOODMAN: Timothy Mitchell, what do you mean by "carbon democracy"?
TIMOTHY MITCHELL: That to understand democracy, you’ve got to understand how, throughout the last hundred, 150 years, both in industrialized countries and in other parts of the world, that what democracy is, whether democracy has been possible, has been intricately related to forms of energy production—coal in the coal age, oil and the other energy systems today—and that in developing, in engineering forms of supply of energy, countries are making themselves more or less vulnerable to forms of democratic demand, democratic claim, extraordinarily vulnerable in the first half of the 20th century, which is why one saw the rise of forms of mass democracy based on forms of basic social welfare to people, and less democratic in the second half of the 20th century as both oil and other energy producers and their governments have found ways to insulate the energy supply system from the forms of political action that it used to be much more vulnerable to, so that now the battles are waged by Greenpeace activists in the Arctic coast of Alaska or over the Keystone pipeline and the project to extend it across the United States. And these are the sites not just about energy and climate change, but also about the forms of democratic politics we’re going to have. Are we going to have a form of democratic politics in which we can take on board the concerns about climate collapse, for example, or not?
AMY GOODMAN: Those who are for pushing forward with the so-called unbridled capitalism often support these huge pipeline projects, but they’re hardly free enterprise. They so involve state subsidies at every level. James Marriott, if you could explain that, from tar sands to the major pipeline from the Caspian?
JAMES MARRIOTT: That’s absolutely true. I mean, when—there was a key interview, an interesting interview, between the CEO of BP and the Financial Times, in which he famously said, "We can’t build this pipeline without free public money." "Free public money" was a little bit of a slip, I think, on John Browne’s behalf, but he gave—gave the lie there, really, to the point, which is that they crucially needed public money and that they needed it at a low interest rate, and therefore this pipeline in the Caucasus was essentially underpinned and supported by the World Bank or the IFC, which is its arm, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and on that, as well—and the export credit agencies around the world. And on that foundation, then the commercial banks could come in behind it. Without that public money, it wouldn’t have been possible to construct it on anything like the terms that the companies wanted to do, as I say, to generate return on their own capital.
And we see that pattern repeated again and again. At the moment, there is a push to create, and there is a political and financial construction of another pipeline running through this area, a gas pipeline, which would take Azeri gas through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, through Greece and Albania, into Italy, and then would feed into the European gas grid. It’s what we call the Euro-Caspian mega-pipeline. It’s a set of three different pipelines. But interestingly enough, at the AGM of the European Bank of Reconstruction in Istanbul, once again, the key driver behind this, a guy called Al Cook, who is from BP in Azerbaijan, said, "We need public money for this. We cannot do this without public money." Of course, he’s making a pitch, but he’s very true, which is that this has to be underpinned by money from the public coffers, not only because it’s just dollars, but crucially it’s state-backed dollars, that the states, in these instants, export credit agencies of Italy, Germany and so on, will come in and support an infrastructure project in the event of there being a problem such as we’ve seen throughout the history of the 20th century, where populations push for their own democratic control, and you get a process of what has been called nationalization.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have one minute to go. What most surprised you in researching The Oil Road?
JAMES MARRIOTT: The thing that most surprised me was the way in which the same substance, this crude oil, which is the same substance that passes through a pipeline in the Caucasus and through a pipeline in European—Western Europe, it has a completely different impact on the populations that it passes through, because in the Caucasus, it’s a securitized corridor, it’s a militarized corridor; in Italy and Austria and Germany, it’s not in the same way anything like that. And therefore its impact—this same material—its impact on the people who live alongside it is utterly different. And we in the West are so blind to the impact that it has in that first part of its transit.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you all for being with us. James Marriott is co-author of a new book; it’s called The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. Carbon Democracy is Timothy Mitchell’s book. And Anna Galkina is with the group Platform, along with James Marriott. That does it for our show. We’ll link to the book; we are showing a chapter of the book.
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