Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hostage Facility

All the thinking I've been doing about Iran in the last week has brought to mind something that I always thought was kind of obvious, which is that Iran talks big and swaggers rather a lot for a country that has a built-in on-off switch. By which I mean Kharg Island.

Kharg Island lies about 25 nautical miles off the coast of Iran, and is the facility from which it ships the vast majority of its oil to the outside world--- 950 million tons per year from the southern facility alone, according to one article.

Seize Kharg Island, and you can basically turn off the tap on the Iranian economy. The government can't pay the basij, so the basij go home. They can't pay for their expensive nuclear facilities. They can't pay for their military.

That's what happened to the Shah in 1979. The revolution dragged on for a year or so, but when the oil workers walked out, the King of Kings became plain old Mr. Pahlavi.

Kharg Island is a hostage facility. It's a shotgun permanently pointed at the head of the person who built it.

Not that I'm advocating any of this, mind you. I merely make the observation that if the Iranian government really piss off any country that could mount a large enough carrier task force--- uh, I guess that would be the USA--- that force needn't bomb Tehran, or nuclear facilities, or anything beyond the minimum amount of suppression necessary to secure the island. (And the island is a large naval base, so it wouldn't be a complete pushover.)

The disadvantage, from the point of view of the world economy, is that the world would have to do without a billion tons of oil per year for however long the crisis lasted. (I wonder if that's why all those bomb-bomb-bomb-iran guys never mention this option--- they're also committed to a petroleum-fuelled economy.) Still, Kharg Island was pretty much shut down during the Iran-Iraq war, thanks to Iraqi air raids, so the world has done without Iranian oil before.

I wonder how many other nations have on-off switches? Certainly Egypt is one--- they became a hostage the second they completed the Aswan High Dam. One sufficiently large bomb behind the dam, and a tsunami carries 99% of the population out to sea. It would be the greatest atrocity in history, but few Egyptians would survive to complain.

Mr. Putin has successfully demonstrated that he can hold Ukraine and much of Europe hostage, simply by turning off the taps that control oil and natural gas.

The US doesn't have any single switches that I can think of--- unless of course someone succeeds in switching off World of Warcraft, the dangers of which
this video points out.

Any other hostage facilities you can think of?

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25 Comments:

Blogger Dan Zlotnikov said...

If my numbers are correct, Kharg Island accounts for just under a quarter of the current global crude production. Which is a damned good reason why no one is interested in jeopardising that facility's ability to keep us nice and warm.

As for off switches? I'd argue that Kharg Island isn't one such for Iran. Sure, it'd devastate the economy, but that is a very different scenario from the Egyptian one.

Another possibility: Poison the Kineret, and Israel's water supply would be largely devastated. Granted, turning a body of water of such size non-potable is not a trivial task, but I'm sure modern chemistry is up to the challenge.

None other come to mind at the moment, but this very much depends on what conditions the "off switch" has to meet.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Walmart.

The thing about the Pentagon and the WTC is that most Americans can recognize the images. Few Americans have been there. If bad guys wanted to devastate our country they would not go after the big targets. They would randomly hit the places we go every day. (Target VS target)

Hit a few shopping centers, one or two Walmarts and a few random office buildings, throw in a gas station or two and many Americans will be afraid to leave the house. The most effective pattern of attack is to randomly pick a number of small, low value targets that have little protection. Hit them all at the same time.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

I will disagree to a degree with the statement, "The thing about the Pentagon and the WTC is that most Americans can recognize the images. Few Americans have been there."

As someone who has worked in the Towers, who walked through them, around them, etc. almost daily for periods of her life, who has many many friends who come from other countries and out-of-town, an astonishingly large number of people from everywhere in the world have been to the Towers. The Observation Deck was the primary destination for their visit to NYC, just as even now, a visit to Ground Zero is on all these visitors' primary destinations. Even though it's a hole in the ground and there's nothing to see, unlike the visit to the Observation Deck.

Love, C.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

I get your point however, I think it likely more Americans have been to Walmart than the WTC.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

Ah, but New Yorkers don't go to WalMart -- which plays a role in the forthcoming The Year Before the Flood -- in which year a WalMart opened at the same time we moved to New Orleans, not far from our house.

Love, C.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

American Credit Cards...for China.

Turn those off and no one can buy cheap chinese crap at Walmart ...which Ralf already took care of anyway...Would end any chance of growth for China to absorb their millions of soon to be destitute workers. Of course their expensive crap would still be on the market but there isn't much of it...and of course it IS crap.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

Fast food...for USA.

Whoops, no affordable food for millions. (ok, to be fair affordable food would be available...if you could cook from scratch)

But on the plus side it might actually get people off this perpetual obesity habit and reduce a significant portion of long term health costs.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

not related to the question - and you might already know him: robert fisk at the independent; always at his best when something like iran happens:

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/

2:58 AM  
Blogger Charlie Stross said...

Other global single-point failure nodes include:

* The port of Singapore (world's busiest port, world's busiest container port, handles 20% of global container traffic)

* The port of Hong Kong (#2 to Singapore's #1; at one point more than 50% of China's overseas trade flowed through HK, although I believe it's now more evenly distributed)

* The Suez and Panama canals (less critical now that much container freight travels on larger-than-Panamax shipping, but still significant)

* Dubai International Airport (as Wikipedia observes: "In 2008, the airport was the 20th busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic and 11th busiest by cargo traffic. The airport also was the 6th busiest airport in the world by international passenger traffic." It's the biggest hub in the middle east. Shut it down and the UAE is in the shitter.)

* Here in the UK we have few critical SPOFs, but the WCML probably qualifies as a much hairier one than any airport. Again, from wikipedia: "The West Coast Main Line is of strategic importance in a European context and has been designated as a priority Trans-European Networks (TENS) route. It is the principal rail freight corridor linking the European mainland (via the Channel Tunnel) via London and South East England to the West Midlands, North West England and Scotland and is one of the busiest freight routes in Europe." Sever it for any length of time, and seven shades of shit land on the British economy.

* In the USA, doesn't something like 20% of all export shipping go via the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet channel, down near New Orleans?

10:57 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

More accurately -- from Southern Economic Publications:

"The five ports on the lower Mississippi combine to form the nation's largest port complex, in terms of tonnage. The largest of the five, the Port of South Louisiana, ranked first in the nation (with 225 million short tons) in total (domestic and foreign) trade in 2006. (A short ton is 2,240 pounds.) Its companion ports also ranked high: The Port of New Orleans was eighth (77 million short tons), the Port of Baton Rouge 12th (56.3 million short tons), and the Port of Plaquemines 13th (55.9 million short tons). The St. Bernard Port handled nearly four million short tons in 2006."

That why New Orleans was established, and why it was a priority for the Union to take it asap from the rebels during the War of Southern Aggression.

Love, C.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

The lower Mississippi ports could also be threatened by the New Madrid fault. When it fails, you could have all kinds of carnage. Nuclear reactors failing, surfing river tugs and religious nuts setting up racist death camps.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Foxessa, how do you get your image to show up next to your post? I just added a picture of myself to my profile, it does not show up next to my posts.

Do I need to bribe someone or is it the type of account you use to log in?

Thanks.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

Ralf -- I assume it's because I too have a blogspot blog.

Also I have the option of not showing the images of myself or anyone else when I click on 'comments' ... as evidently both the latest IE upgrade and Blogger-whatever classify icons as part of the potentially secure / not secure additions to a screen display items.

Love, c.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Ralf the Dog said...

Fox, I think you are correct. I set up a blog just before I posted that message. Now it is working.

Thanks for the help!

4:14 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Dan, if your numbers are correct, Kharg Island isn't Iran's on-off switch, it's =ours.= They can stop pumping and turn off the rest of the world.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

Big countries can take a lot of damage and keep operating. Look at WWII.

London took more damage than 9/11 half a dozen times during the Blitz -- and London was nothing compared to the merciless hammering places like Tokyo and Hamburg got, not to mention, say, Leningrad. They kept operating too; tanks kept rolling off the production lines in Leningrad even as a million people -- that's 1,000,000 -- starved -to death-.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

Steve, those countries were on a war-economy footing. They were putting their efforts into materials of war, not trinkets. Today, with the possible exception of North Korea and some other pocket dictatorships around the world, we are all consumer driven economies.

Walter's comment is correct in that we currently are in a globalized economy that requires copious volumes of oil to function and losing that oil supply would cripple our economy (culture) until we switch to a similar austere economy.

How to do such a thing post-globalization is not clear to me.
How to do such a thing post-suburbanization is also not clear to me.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

Continuing the last: But there are countries and "countries".

Iran really is dependent on Kharg Island because it's -all they've got-.

This is a country that can't refine its own gasoline because it can't produce spare parts for the refineries. Ones that work, that is.

Iran is a mostly urban country that imports most of its food, and it exports nothing but oil -- unless you count rugs and pistachios.

Cut off its access to the Gulf and most of Iran would -die-.

"Petroleum is Poison", as the saying goes.

Petro-states tend to devolve into failed states, with the oil money acting as duct tape... while it lasts. Note that since the 1980's, the USSR (and then Russia) has been falling victim to this, gradually turning into a cold Nigeria.

Resilience also depends on the degree of social functioning/dysfunction.

We all know what happened in New Orleans.

However, during the recent wildfires in SoCal, far more people were evacuated and many of them were housed in stadiums.

The stadiums did not turn into "Lord of the Flies for Grownups". They had fresh fruit and bottled water and mimes entertaining the crowds.

Likewise the floods in Iowa produced a lot of damage and displacement, but not social collapse.

New Orleans was mostly a failure of the state and local governments and -- to be blunt -- a failure of the people themselves to self-organize in an emergency.

It's a functionless relic city that lives off tourism. It -once- had a function as the entrepot and port for the lower Mississippi, but the day when you needed a large unskilled labor force to tote bales is long, long gone. The automated ports downstream now handle all that.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

"Steve, those countries were on a war-economy footing. They were putting their efforts into materials of war"

-- actually mostly into transport, food and so forth; that's the essential undepinning.

General mobilization is not exactly rocket science.

A bit part of it is simply the "butch up" factor; you accept there's going to be a lot of damage, pain and death and just deal with it.

In the case of Leningrad, there was also the knowledge that the NKVD would kill anyone who flinched or flagged.

We have much higher productivity than anyone did in the 1940's; that also means that we have more margin that can be squeezed in an emergency.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

It's also important to avoid "static analysis"; ie., assuming that people can't adapt to a sudden lack of something essential.

Static analysis was one big reason why the Allied bomber offensives of WWII failed to work as planned.

Basically they assumed: "X is essential to Y, Z and so forth; if we knock out X, they'll have to give up."

Instead they found subsitutes for X, ways to work around X, ways to stretch out X, and ways to minimize damage to X. Which is a big part of why German war production peaked about the same time the firestorm raids did.

(The other big reason was that the bombing was so inaccurate. That, by the way, is a problem that's really been solved -- high-altitude bombing can now perform with the sort of accuracy that Harris and the others -claimed- they could produce.)

9:10 PM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

"tanks kept rolling off the production lines in Leningrad even as a million people -- that's 1,000,000 -- starved -to death-."

(I'd like to think that the followers of WJW's blog are articulate enough to equate million with 1,000,000)

"-- actually mostly into transport, food and so forth; that's the essential undepinning."

I was responding to your statement about the production of war materials while people starved.

But to take your point, transport and food are critical components to a war economy. I perhaps should not have used the word "material" and instead simply "a war economy footing" and let it at that.

'It's also important to avoid "static analysis"; ie., assuming that people can't adapt to a sudden lack of something essential.'

Absolutely correct. However, if gasoline suddenly became unavailable (or realistically prohibitively expensive...say $50/gallon for regular unleaded) the US economy would cease to function. Would people starve? Probably not. Would our excellent productivity rate continue? No. It would crash.

We have spent the last 70 odd years developing a fuel intensive economy that requires inexpensive fuel to operate. Our productivity centers have gone from dense urban areas serviced by local food sources to suburban sprawls dependent on global food supply chains.
Unless you live and work in the city center of San Fransisco, New York, Boston, or Chicago (did I miss anyplace with good public transit?) you are screwed.
I live in a relatively small city (Huntsville, AL with 250,000 population and I commute 40 miles each day not including our 2x weekly shopping trips for food and sundries)

But let us look at the 'average' suburban family and you drive a typical 20 MPG car and need to drive the average 15000 miles a year. That's 750 gallons for a total of $37,500 in my hypothetical scenario. This number does not take into account the CPI increase from the increased fuel costs.

That cost simply would not be absorbed into our economy. Even a war economy.
We would need to convert back to a non-transport based economy to survive and that would take decades to accomplish.

As an alternative example to food and commuting consider the energy requirements of a large company. Simply cooling the workspace and it's requisite computers and servers is a hideously massive energy sink.

My point is that if we lose a major source of fuel our gasoline prices will spike. If they aren't re-established we would face a lengthy disruption that would certainly have long term affects on our culture and lifestyle.

There isn't a margin.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous Steve Stirling said...

(...are articulate enough to equate million with 1,000,000)

-- so would I; that was for -emphasis-.

>However, if gasoline suddenly became unavailable (or realistically prohibitively expensive...say $50/gallon for regular unleaded) the US economy would cease to function.

-- that would take some sort of divine intervention. People were bitching and moaning last summer about $4 gas, but it's two to three times that in most of the developed world and they do fine.

A quick runup in costs would be disruptive in the short term, but there are automatic processes which compensate.

For example, each $1 of GDP now takes about half the petroleum that it did in 1972, and most of that improvement happened in 1973-83.

Which is why the Saudis pulled the plug on oil prices in the 1980's, by the way; they could see the handwriting on the wall.

>We have spent the last 70 odd years developing a fuel intensive economy that requires inexpensive fuel to operate.

-- well, yeah, but demand creates supply. High prices produce low prices. It's sort of automatic, like pulling on a rope. Everything gets cheaper over time.

You're doing the static analysis thing again; but substitutability is effectively infinite.

>I live in a relatively small city (Huntsville, AL with 250,000 population and I commute 40 miles each day not including our 2x weekly shopping trips for food and sundries)

-- so? A plug-in hybrid of the type just coming on the market and using no new technology could do that on one battery charge, and we could convert 70% of our car/light truck fleet to plug-ins without needing any additional electrical generation capacity.

Our main source of energy isn't petroleum, it's coal... and we're not in the least short of coal.

Next comes natural gas, of which we have abundant domestic supplies -- our reserves have doubled in the past decade.

Mostly because new technologies made shale gas fields commercially exploitable. Demand creates supply, again.

We rely on petroleum for most of our -liquid- fuels for -transportation- purposes. But that's an economic decision, not a law of nature.

We use petroleum because it's been very cheap and very convenient and because of the infrastructural 'sunk costs'.

To mention only one alternative source, cellulosic ethanol is competitive at any oil price above about $35 per barrel.

BP just opened its first full-scale production plant in Florida, and there's another under construction in Louisiana.

We could meet all our current consumption needs for liquid fuels from cellulosic ethanol with about 8% of our arable land -- mostly poor quality land currently uncultivated under various 'conservation' programs.

The bulk cellulose would come from cordgrass, switchgrass and various waste products. Since it's liquid, it wouldn't need massive reworking of the fuel-distribution infrastructure.

So add that to the plug-in hybrid option, which would boost liquid-fuel mileage to somewhere in the 150-250 mpg range and you can see there's no insoluable problem here.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

Steve, we're talking almost two different situations. The original premise of this thread was that the world oil supply was catastrophically interrupted (Kharg island). That would almost be the divine intervention you mention. If we really did lose 25% of the worlds production overnight (to be honest I haven't verified Dan's figures) our price at the pump would soar. There just isn't enough spare capacity even with the recent reduction in demand to compensate. To $50? No, probably not. $4? Certainly. $10? Probably. $20? Possibly. But it doesn't really matter. Overnight our economy would no longer be fiscally sustainable. Last summer when gas hit $4 and diesel $6 long haul trucking no longer made money. It got to the point that delivery trucks scheduled their routes to avoid turning left to save 3%. A really good idea and I had hopes they kept it up but I've seen UPS trucks turn left in the last week...so. Well my somewhat rambling point is that our food, product, and other transport industry costs will go up. That will get passed on to the consumer. So even if you don't drive personally you get a hit. That means our consumer based economy stops. That was my point.

> People were bitching and moaning last summer about $4 gas, but it's two to three times that in most of the developed world and they do fine.

I wasn't one of them. I think gas should cost upwards of $12 a gallon as long as the extra went into subsidizing building the infrastructure of a US wide mass transit system.

In Europe the effect on the average consumer was mitigated by the availability of extensive mass transit. With the exception of a few cities the US does not have that option.
When gas did spike in Europe the trucking and fishing fleet shutdown in strike. But it was because they couldn't do their jobs at a profit anymore. Their economy is also based on a certain gas price ranges and when it doubled their economy ceased to function. Again, that is my point.

<4096 character break ;-)>

11:24 AM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

The other situation is a gradual change from gasoline to 'other' you describe. How we do that is really the debate we're having. Not just you and I, but world wide.

> so? A plug-in hybrid of the type just coming on the market and using no new technology could do that on one battery charge, and we could convert 70% of our car/light truck fleet to plug-ins without needing any additional electrical generation capacity.

Yes, my daily commute could be accomplished on electric only (or 95%) with a plug-in hybrid. We own a prius and when the warranty expires at the end of this year we are going to convert it to a plug in with an aftermarket kit. Currently we get 50 MPG and we hope to achieve more than 100 MPG after the conversion. Kudos for us, but we can afford a relatively expensive vehicle and an expensive aftermarket conversion. It's about $35K for the way we're doing it. I think the Chevy Volt is estimated at $45K? The Tesla mass production family version is looking to be $60K? These aren't entry level cars for the vast majority of Americans or perhaps more to the point Indians and Chinese. (yeah, I know a much different discussion)

I dispute your statement that if we converted the fleet to plug-in hybrid it wouldn't require any additional electrical capacity. The energy has to come from somewhere. So, on to one of them ;-)

Cellulosic ethanol has some promise. Current bio-reactor designs have large energy requirements but some recent results of bioengineering some enzymes are showing promise. I'm not convinced it can be done without nasty side products or in a real energy neutral process, but lets say it can be done. The BP plant in Florida isn't expected to begin production until 2012 and will generate 36 million gallons a year. It isn't a trivial amount but the US consumed 140 Billion gallons of gasoline a year.

If we assume (dangerous I know) that we'll be using E85 blends we would need to build over 3000 of these plants to get to that volume.

That's almost 1 Trillion USD investment (If you go with the low end cost estimate on the press release) and decades in the making. Worth doing, but not a fast process.

Just going back to my statement that we have spent 70 years getting into this situation because fuel prices were low. I hope it doesn't take 70 more years to adapt to high fuel prices. But personally I think Richard K. Morgan's scenario in "Market Forces" is more realistic than anything anyone else is saying. And that scares the hell out of me.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Lance Larka said...

All, apropos to my point is an excellent talk by Michael Pollan. "Deep Agriculture"

I've tried to find a link to the talk audio but have not had luck. If you find one, please let me know.

http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R907041300

2:26 PM  

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