Fill Up Without Terror
The Terror-Free Oil Initiative has just opened the first "terror-free" gas station, in Omaha. Its mission—preventing the financing of anti-American violence by refusing to buy oil from the Middle East—makes sense for the U.S. Pro or con?
Pro: A Step in the Right Direction
A U.S. consumer boycott of oil from the Middle East is difficult, no question. An estimated 60% of the world’s proved reserves lie there, with at least 20% in Saudi Arabia alone. And the U.S. is not only the world’s No. 1 oil consumer but also the top oil importer. When you fill up your car’s fuel tank, the chances that the gasoline originates, at least in part, from the Middle East are pretty good.
A group called the Terror-Free Oil Initiative says it wants to reduce those chances to nil by refusing to buy oil that comes from any Middle Eastern country. For its first gas station in Omaha, the group buys fuel from Salt Lake City-based Sinclair Oil.
By also promoting other companies that don’t import oil from the Persian Gulf region, the organization wants to support the idea of "terror-free" gasoline. Essentially, that means gas from oil produced by countries that aren’t linked to terrorism. (Also boycotted: oil from countries such as Venezuela, whose government is opposed to the U.S.)
Behind this new mission is the belief that buying gas made from Middle Eastern oil sabotages the national interest. True, oil money isn’t publicly connected to the financing of terrorist acts, but such a connection is widely suspected, if not safely assumed.
Think of it this way: U.S. dollars go to buy oil from Middle Eastern suppliers, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume some of that money—by way of lightly tracked charities—falls into the hands of supporters of, say, al Qaeda or the Iraq insurgency. After all, the latest Arab public opinion survey by the University of Maryland and Zogby International finds almost 80% have unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S.
The Terror-Free Oil Initiative does guarantee it works only with companies that refrain from importing Middle Eastern oil and says its oil comes from North America. And even if some of that oil comes from North American markets where international supplies are traded—hence, mixing Middle Eastern oil with that from other regions—do you need a guarantee of purity to back a business model that in the long run aims to stop our dependence on foreign oil?
Instead, since not one penny of your money would be intended for the terrorist finance pipeline, you can be satisfied that it’s the right thing to do.
Con: Pointless Agitation
Aside from giving Americans a sense—however false—that they’re striking a blow against terrorism, efforts to avoid gasoline made from Middle Eastern oil will backfire in every way.
If a ban grows widespread enough for oil producers to feel the pain, they could turn it around so it falls back on the U.S. "The Middle East countries could say they’re going to stop investing in any extra oil capacity because the U.S. doesn’t want to buy it, which would lead to a worldwide oil shortage," says A.F. Alhajji, an energy economist who teaches at Ohio Northern University. "Or they could flood the market with cheap oil instead. Then the production of ethanol and other alternatives would die."
A successful boycott could also increase unemployment in Arab countries, leaving more young men with the time and inclination to begin accepting the kind of anti-Western propaganda that produces terrorists.
And what about American-friendly regions like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates? It makes no sense to alienate them with a ban on all Middle Eastern countries’ oil.
Even countries with governments hostile toward the U.S. don’t deserve negative generalizations. "There’s a huge disconnect between people of the Mideast and their governments," says Eric Davis, a political science professor and former director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Rutgers University. "The people may not like our politics, but many of them admire our way of life."
Of course, all the aforementioned reasoning assumes gas stations can succeed in buying only North American fuel. That may prove impossible anyway, as oil is a fungible resource—oils from different countries are regularly blended. If "terror-free" gas stations proliferate, they will eventually have to buy fuel from commodities markets, which offer no guarantee of their products’ provenance.
Finally, this or any boycott of foreign oil amounts to a short-sighted solution. "The Terror Free Oil Initiative’s energy would be better placed in developing hydrogen cars," says Davis. "The only by-product they produce is water, which is great."
That sounds more sensible than rankling citizens of the world by making a show of turning away their business.