World Weighs Cheap Oil: Iran, Venezuela, Europe, Beyond

Statues of people kneeling before an oil derrick
Statues of people kneeling before an oil derrick
Alidad Vassigh

PARIS — Initially a welcomed spark for a global economy in need of a boost, the drastic fall in the price of crude oil — losing half its value since mid-2014 — has now begun to destabilize markets and worry investors and political leaders around the world. Still, this rapidly evolving situation is prompting some notably contrasting reactions in different parts of the world.

El País' top story Wednesday was headlined, "The Price of Oil Hits Bottom and Revolutionizes the World Economy," as the Madrid daily reported that money was already "fleeing to safe havens" at the prospect of turmoil in emerging economies.

Oil producers are certain of its depressive effects on their budgets even if the traditional top producers — Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf monarchies and even Russia — are disinclined to cut output for now.

Analysts around the world widely agree that the most notable new factor in the current trend in energy production is the flood of mostly American-extracted shale gas into the market.

The Guardian notes that U.S. oil production has increased 48% over the past five years, which was originally offset by drops elsewhere. But as demand has also abated, prices have dropped, and may continue downward. Stephen Schork, a U.S.-based market analyst, told the London daily that investor “psychology” is driving oil trading. “We could get a rebound to $70 but we could see $30 before we see $70.”

The political ramifications weigh in the most immediate way on Russia, which may have to reconsider its aggressive policy vis a vis Ukraine, as it suffers the effects of both Western sanctions and the sustained drop in oil prices. After Russia's record oil production in 2014, Radio France Internationale reports that it now had to maintain sales by diversifying its clients and as elsewhere in the world, most notably to China.

La chute des cours du pétrole pèse lourd sur les finances de l’Algérie

— RFI (@RFI) December 29, 2014

The drop in oil prices is weighing heavily on Algeria's finances

Yet the Persian daily Kar va Kargar, which represents labor sectors in Iran, cited Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh as saying that Iran and Russia had been discussing cutting production without reaching an agreement; "we need to keep negotiating with the Russians."

The leading oil producer in Latin America, Venezuela, was meanwhile negotiating another big loan with China, as it takes a battering from the price drop and its own planned economy. While Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was in Beijing on , the daily El Nacional reported that China had already lent Venezuela more than $50 billion since 2007, though about half of that had been written off. Every Venezuelan it noted, owed China over $761. In oil-rich Mexico, experts were observing that the state may well have to envisage smaller budgets for several years, not just this year, as Mexico's own export blend may end up costing around just $30 a barrel. Milenio newspaper cited the Senate President Miguel Barbosa as suggesting that the cabinet should start drafting "austerity" plans — a word rarely heard in Mexico.

The South China Morning Post reported on the economic stakes of the visit of Latin American leaders in China, although the Hong Kong daily also noted that the first windfall of lower oil prices could be felt in the air: lower costs for the world's airlines.

Colombia's Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas was less concerned. He told El Colombiano that oil sales only provided 16% of the state budget and the country remained set for a growth rate of 4.2% in 2015.

Like Venezuela, one of the countries most affected will be Iran, also over-dependent on oil and still working with elements of a planned economy. The reformist daily Sharq termed Jan. 6 "Oil's black day," as prices changed "by the minute" and fell below $50 a barrel. It noted that legislators were considering a bill to "detach" the next state budget from oil revenues — something the country has effectively failed to do since the 1979 revolution. Presumably, this would involve spending cuts, though Iran has said it will not curb its regional involvments or contested nuclear program for having less cash to spend. Jaam-e Jam, the newspaper of the state broadcasting body, noted on Jan. 7 that if "the plot by the United States and certain OPEC members against Iranian and Russian" oil continued, Iran may well earn $14-18 billion less in the 2015.

The editor of London-based pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al-Awsat observed that falling prices were a "slap in the face" of Iran and its "disgraceful meddling" in Middle East affairs, yet "who would have believed" that it should ask its arch-foe Saudi Arabia, as it has in recent weeks, to help save its "seriously tanking" economy by cutting output? The Kingdom he noted, had no intention of being that savior: "It will do nothing except watch."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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