HAVING DISPENSED with those annoying environmentalists in Johannesburg, Secretary
of State Colin Powell rushed off to what could have been called the World Summit
on Sustainable Drilling. His itinerary was Angola and Gabon. The surface reason
was to encourage continued peace in Angola and to take a 10-minute photo-op walk
in a rain forest in Gabon.
Unmentioned in Powell's itinerary is that Angola and Gabon are two oil-rich
nations that the United States, the leviathan of energy consumption, is looking
to swallow. Sub-Saharan Africa currently provides 15 percent of US oil imports.
The government estimates that the figure will increase to 25 percent by 2015.
Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for Africa, said, ''African
oil is of national strategic interest to us, and it will increase and become more
important as we go forward.'' Kansteiner has gone so far to say, ''that's really
the primary focus of what our policy is.''
Which is to say that the focus of US policy is not what was discussed in Johannesburg.
At the 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development, Powell added an exclamation
point to the feigned interest of the United States in the proceedings. First,
President Bush declined to join the more than 100 world leaders who found it important
enough to attend. Second, Powell arrived after most of the world leaders had already
Third, he arrived after the United States tried to avoid serious commitments
to sustainable development. The United States led the way in defeating proposals
by the European Union and Brazil that would have set targets and deadlines to
decrease the percentage of energy derived from oil and increase the percentage
of solar and wind energy.
That was not a surprise, since one of Bush's early acts as president was to
pull out of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.
But the United States even opposed setting timetables to help the world's estimated
2.4 billion people who lack basic sanitation. After vigorous debate, the United
States agreed to go along with the rest of the conference to set a goal of cutting
the number of people without sanitation by half by 2015. The conference ended
with other pledges to preserve the oceans, maintain biodiversity, and reduce poverty,
but the United States made sure that other than sanitation, few declarations came
with commitments to a timetable the world could measure. The mantra of US negotiators,
as expressed by John Turner, another assistant secretary of state, was, ''Targets
for the sake of targets has never been our objective.''
Unless the target is oil. Just as the environmental summit was concluding,
the world's oil producers were convening in Brazil, talking about how to meet
expanding demand. Ali Rodriguez, the head of Venezuela's state-owned petroleum
company and a former head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries,
said world oil demand will explode from the current 76 million barrels a day to
120 million barrels by 2020. Abdallah Jum'ah, president of Saudi Aramco, bragged,
''We have 3 million barrels of capacity that is ready whenever the world wants
In justifying the need to drill all over the world, the oil companies are hiding
behind the human shield of the world's poor. David O'Reilly, the CEO of Chevron/Texaco,
asked, ''How do we enable these 3 billion people, mostly in the developing world,
to have a standard of living that approaches the one that many of us now enjoy
in the developed world?'' O'Reilly, of course, would have us forget that too many
oil companies have a legacy, most notably of late in Nigeria, of exploiting oil-rich
fields while contributing virtually nothing to the development of the local poor
and fouling their water.
This makes Powell's appearance in Johannesburg laughable for lines such as
''The American soul has always harbored a deep desire to help people build better
lives for themselves and their children'' and ''We have always understood that
our own well-being depends on the well-being of our fellow inhabitants of this
Planet Earth.'' This is after Powell's negotiators lowered the conference to the
most vague of pledges for our fellow inhabitants, telling them they are not worthy
of goals or timetables. They are certainly not as important as counting oil barrels.
With the United States working hard for big oil, it is a miracle that the Johannesburg
summit produced any document at all. It makes it fitting that Powell scheduled
only 10 minutes to walk in a rain forest in Gabon. That is about the length of
the Bush administration's attention span to the well-being of Planet Earth.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company