The Coming Wave of Oil Refugees

NAIROBI – The idea that oil wealth can be a curse is an old one – and it should need no explaining. Every few decades, energy prices rise to the heavens, kicking off a scramble for new sources of oil. Then supply eventually outpaces demand, and prices suddenly crash to Earth. The harder and more abrupt the fall, the greater the social and geopolitical impact.

The last great oil bust occurred in the 1980s – and it changed the world. As a young man working in the Texas oil patch in the spring of 1980, I watched prices for the US benchmark crude rise as high as $45 a barrel – $138 in today’s dollars. By 1988, oil was selling for less than $9 a barrel, having lost half its value in 1986 alone.

Drivers benefited as gasoline prices plummeted. Elsewhere, however, the effects were catastrophic – nowhere more so than in the Soviet Union, whose economy was heavily dependent on petroleum exports. The country’s growth rate fell to a third of its level in the 1970s. As the Soviet Union weakened, social unrest grew, culminating in the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself was no more.

Similarly, today’s plunging oil prices will benefit a few. Motorists, once again, will be happy; but the pain will be earth-shaking for many others. Never mind the inevitable turmoil in global financial markets or the collapse of shale-oil production in the United States and what it implies for energy independence. The real risk lies in countries that are heavily dependent on oil. As in the old Soviet Union, the prospects for social disintegration are huge.