Pipeline Brigade President Bush is Arming Troops to Protect Occidental Petroleum in Colombia - What next?

Is George W. Bush using war as an extension of his oil policy? It looked that way in February, when Washington announced a $700 million aid package for the Andean region, largely to fight the twin threats of guerrilla war and drugrunning that threaten the area. As is usual, half the money will go to Colombia, but with a new twist: $98 million for training and equipping a Colombian brigade of around 2,000 soldiers to protect the 772-kilometer Cano Limon pipeline. Used to transport crude oil
to the Caribbean coast from a field pumped by Occidental Petroleum of California in partnership with the Colombian state oil company, the pipeline is a favorite target of rebel saboteurs.

THIS WOULD HARDLY be the first time a nation defended its interest in smoothly flowing oil supplies by force of arms. Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the gulf war that followed are only the latest conflicts over control of fossil fuel. Bush's critics have argued since September 11 that his "war on terror" is really about oil, and their suspicions have been heightened by the Pentagon's clear intent to keep access to bases in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region after the war in Afghanistan winds down. But in Colombia the oil connection is not conjecture: it was spelled out in a budget request that specifically names the pipeline and Occidental, and appeared to set a dangerous precedent.

If the United States would defend Occidental's supplies, why not those of any number of American oil companies in potential war zones? At a time when the Bush administration has built its energy policy around reducing U.S. dependence on Mideast oil, and is working overtime to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, it can't ignore disruption of other sources. In March, Bush aides were planning to push through $15 million to $30 million in emergency spending to "jump-start" the pipeline defense effort, rather than wait for the 2003 budget process to grind itself out.

Senior Bush officials insist the Caño Limón brigade has its origins
not in U.S. oil interests but in parliamentary maneuvering back home. Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Colombia will lose the war against the rebels without more U.S. help. Bush officials, like their predecessors, express frustration at laws that limit U.S. military aid to Colombia to the war on its notorious drug traffickers. Before leaving on his trip to South America in March, Bush vowed to do everything possible to expand U.S. aid beyond drugs to help in Colombia's other war, the decades-old fight against Marxist guerrilla armies. That's where the Caño Limón brigade comes in. "The pipeline got in there because the White House figured it was the only thing they could do within the existing guidelines," says a senior Pentagon source.

In the wake of 9-11, it may work. The congressional distinction between fighting drug runners and insurgents in Colombia has never made much sense, because the guerrillas make their money running drugs. By now the rebel armies control about half the country, and the larger one, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), makes an estimated $300 million a year in the drug trade. It is also waging a campaign of economic sabotage. Last year rebel bombings put Caño Limón out of commission for 266 days, costing Colombia $500 million in lost export revenue. In January and February, guerrillas widened the attacks to electricity pylons, bridges and waterworks around the country. As Washington describes it, the new Cano Limon brigade is a way of defending the economic lifeline of a nation on the verge of becoming what one Pentagon planner calls "a failed state."

To the extent that this is about oil, it's about Colombian oil, Bush officials insist. They concede that Occidental lobbied for protection, but not strongly, and that it made no difference. Colombia is the seventh largest supplier of oil to the United States, exporting 332,000 barrels per day in 2000. At that rate Colombia "matters zilch" to U.S. energy security,
says a Washington military source. However, oil matters hugely to Colombia. It is the chief source of export income, which will be critical to the future health of the economy and Colombia's ability to hold off FARC. The State Department has long listed FARC as "terrorists" rather than guerrillas. In the wake of September 11, money for the pipeline brigade can be sold to Congress as funding for the war on terror. The plan will likely pass the House, but faces tougher scrutiny in the Senate.

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