We Asked an Expert What Would Happen if Oil Became Obsolete

By Jack Gilbert

Illustration by Sam Taylor

This month, in a “game-changing” development, the US Navy said it had developed technology that allows its ships to make fuel from nothing but seawater. In other words, we officially don’t need oil any more.

Of course, this may be bullshit. Theplan is nowhere near as green as it sounds and is also pretty impractical, but it did get me thinking. Oil is often stuck under pristine locations or countries that necessitate some kind of invasion before we can get to it. So what would it mean for world conflict and international relations if, thanks to future technological developments, oil were no longer such a big deal? Would we still be friendly with dodgy oil-rich regimes? Would “No blood for oil” stop being a protest slogan and simply become a political reality?

I spoke with Dr. Walter Ladwig III, an international relations professor at Kings College London, to find out.

Navy experts trying to power a tiny aircraft with a liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Photo courtesy of US Naval Research Laboratory

VICE: I want to begin with the idea that this new seawater-based technology could power sea vessels without their having to refuel, meaning they could theoretically run for years. What effect do you think this would have on the world’s naval conflicts?
Walter Ladwig III: The first thing to say is that there are already ships in the world, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, that have a power source that would allow them to operate, in theory, indefinitely; but they don’t. And the reason is because fuel is obviously a very important part of the equation here. But there are a lot of other things that affect how much endurance a naval vessel has.

There are other things a ship needs [for its endurance], like the crew. You also need lubricants and spare parts, and things break constantly on ships, so if you solve the fuel problem, people expect ships to run forever, but that's not the case.

If ships were to become less susceptible to damage as technology improves—and then could run indefinitely—how could that affect naval warfare?
Well, if you merge it with drone technology—there are stories out there that people are investigating the idea of largely autonomous cargo ships, so if you solved the crew problem that could be part of it.

The second thing to say is that, right now, it's just the big five—the nuclear powers, plus India—that even have naval nuclear propulsion. So if the technology is simple and could be replicated by a lot of other countries, the real change is going to come with smaller nations, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who will be able to have naval vessels that stay at sea a lot longer. That's where you'll see a big change.

At the end of the day, the use of naval force and skirmishes is all driven by politics. I don’t know to what degree there are skirmishes that are not happening that would occur if the technology were there, but maybe we’d be seeing more action and territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Chinese vessels and Malaysian, Filipino, and Vietnamese [vessels].

I also think there could be room for more [confrontation] if you look at the US and China; if two vessels come close to each other, or if Chinese and Indian vessels began to shadow each other or bump up into each others’ territory—and the Financial Times runs a story about the "dangerous games in the Indian Ocean"—there would certainly be more opportunities for those to happen. There would also be more opportunity for states to signal or maybe send messages to each other by moving their vessels here and there, which could contribute to a broad escalation, but I think you would still need the politics in which to do it.

If this technology could also be used to power cars, homes, and businesses—if oil became obsolete, basically—what do you think the geopolitical ramifications would be?
Well, it would certainly be the case that oil-producing nations would be far less important to the United States. Since the Carter administration, the US has undertaken a strategy to try to safeguard, in its view, the stability of the Middle East, and to protect tanker lanes and ensure that no hostile country could dominate too high a percentage of oil production. But [ if that were to happen, the Middle East] would be a region that would be far less important.

Do you think America would maintain its close relationship with, say, Saudi Arabia?
The actual importance of Saudi Arabia would decline significantly, because the utility of its oil would go away. I also feel its endemic social problems would rise. That’s the other thing: From a geopolitical standpoint, I think we would see an Arab Spring on steroids, when a lot of these conservative Gulf monarchies—which basically use their oil wealth to buy off political dissidents—are no longer able to do that.  

Illustration by Sam Taylor

What effect do you think this new energy technology would have on the developing world in nations that rely heavily on oil?
That’s a tough call. For countries like, for instance, Nigeria, which gets so much of its wealth from oil, you think there would be significant [damage to its economy]. That being said, if unlimited energy was suddenly available to everyone, we're talking about electrification, so there is some kind of trade off there. In the short term it probably would be pretty bad, in the sense that the money they are getting from oil would go away right away. The benefits from this would probably take longer to roll out.

Also, another argument: in some of these places in Africa, China, and South Asia, you're already in a place where roads in major cities are gridlocked, and we haven’t got to the stage where the average man owns a car. In Delhi, it’s already practically impossible to get from one side of the city to the other. You could imagine that if everyone had access to cheap fuel some of these major cities would grind to gridlock.

Russia’s economy is obviously very dependent on oil. What effects do you think it would have on them?
It's a bit silly that Russia’s economy is lumped into this [group of wealthy countries], because Russia’s growth and development over the last decade or more has almost only been on the back of commodities: oil and gas. If those are suddenly largely worthless, with a massively shrinking population, it’s hard to see what kind of diversification Russia could do. It will still be, for a time, important, because of its nuclear weapons and its large conventional military. But those things would suddenly be unsustainable if the government can’t pay the bills.

We would expect to see a big drop. At the same time, we might reach into the problems of the early 90s, with loose nukes around the various ‘stans. Suddenly Russia can’t keep the lights on, then we might be majorly concerned by this nuclear arsenal. What would happen to it? So Russia could become a major problem zone.

Do you think maybe terrorist groups could become more powerful as the government becomes weaker?
It depends—certainly in places like Chechnya, where there are already undercurrents of dissent.

Do you think, without oil, Russia would lose its grip on Eastern Europe? How would it change what’s happening in Ukraine, for instance?
It would become much less able to influence affairs. But when you talk to Eastern Europeans, Russia’s military power is a lot closer to them and they are a lot closer to Russia than the West.

Do you reckon the UK might move closer to Europe and further from away from its "special relationship" with America?
I don’t know if it would lead to a significant change in relations, either to the US or to Europe, in the sense that the Anglo-American alliance is as much about a shared vision for the world and its supporting institutions. Oil is probably a significant part of the alliance, but I don’t think it's anywhere near the sum total.

Thanks, Doctor.

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