For the past two weeks, I’ve been travelling in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa on a family holiday. In the last seven days of that time, I’ve had no access to the internet or a mobile phone signal so have not been able to deal with comments made to this blog – my apologies to anyone whose comment has been delayed during this time.
One evening during this holiday, in the Satara camp in the heart of the Kruger National Park in South Africa, I had a very interesting conversation with Joe Milewski, one of my two brothers-in-law, and I record here my gratitude to him for sparking the idea for this post. Joe was saying that he is sick of paying money to the big oil companies for petrol or diesel but without being told the country of origin of those fuels. If you ask the filling station staff, they won’t know; if you ask the companies themselves, they will say it is impossible to give that information because so much of the oil is blended from different sources.
Which are the main oil-producing countries? The top ten, in terms of the numbers of barrels of crude oil produced each day, are:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
The next ten, from 11-20, includes countries such as Venezuela, Angola, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Oman and Libya. You can see the full list here.
If one thinks about the large sums of money which, as car owners, we hand over each year to the oil companies, it’s a puzzle why so few of us go on to ask which countries are receiving their cut of that money. Should we really be helping to prop up dictators, kleptocrats and oppressors of their peoples by buying their petrol? Surely it’s time that we knew the provenance of the fuel we are buying so that we have an opportunity of making an informed choice?
After all, we do know the provenance of most other consumer purchases that we make. If I buy meat or cheese or fruit or clothing, I know from which country they originate. If I buy coffee, I know it comes from Columbia or Costa Rica or Brazil etc. Even if I buy a blend of coffees or teas, I will be told which countries contributed the ingredients. I can find out where my tap water comes from just by asking the water company. Why can I not similarly know the origins of the fuel I put in my car, even if it’s a blend? It can’t be beyond the wit of oil executives to devise a system that would allow this to happen; so it must be because they don’t want us to know, fearing that consumer focus would then turn towards the various dodgy regimes with whom the oil companies are doing business.
It’s a sad fact that the discovery of oil in a particular country or region, which should be a blessing in terms of the work and wealth it brings, is far too often a curse that blights the people, entrenches corrupt governments and pollutes the environment. From what we know of the countries on the list above, it is apparent that many of them are notorious for corruption, human rights abuse or are dictatorships. Only those countries which have a mature democratic process and a judicial system free from government control seem to be able to distribute to their wider populations the benefits that flow from being an oil producer. Of the top twenty producers, the only ones which could be described in these terms are: USA, Canada, India and Norway.
Ethical consumers who wanted to buy petrol only from the countries on that short list would soon find it nearly impossible to fill their tank; and that of course is the point, which the oil companies don’t want us to realise: oil is a dirty business which perpetuates corruption and injustice in the world and makes us all complicit in it.