A tank of gas, a world of trouble

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A tank of gas, a world of trouble es un reportaje investigativo publicado por el Chicago Tribune el 29 de julio de 2006. Fue escrito por el Premio Pulitzer norteamericano Paul Salopek.

El artículo cubre el camino del petróleo que se vende en Estados Unidos desde que es bombeado de la tierra en los países exportadores de petróleo. En su cuarto capítulo, titulado "Last Call", Salopek visita Venezuela.

Chapter 4: Last call

Mike Trager doesn't seem like the sort of guy who shapes the destiny of nations.

A modest, easygoing man with a fondness for ice hockey and plaid hunting jackets, Trager works for A#1 Cab in suburban Elgin. His kidneys were surgically removed two years earlier after a massive heart attack, and he liked to joke that, without those organs, he was custom-designed for cab driving: He could sip beverages all day long and never make a pit stop. He survived on dialysis.

One Friday at 11:30 a.m., Trager stopped by the Marathon station. He was a regular. He pumped $38 worth of gas into his taxi mini-van. Then he shuffled, as usual, into the convenience store for a cold drink. Later, parked on the concrete banks of the Fox River, he settled into his 12-hour shift by watching the gamblers leaving Elgin's riverboat casino.

"The idea," Trager, 41, said a little dreamily, "is to find a big winner who wants to drive around." But that didn't happen. Instead, his radio crackled, and a terse voice ordered him to pick up a fare at the public-aid office. His take: $3.20, no tip. He smiled wanly, shaking his head. He seemed used to disappointment.

Trager couldn't defy the A#1 dispatcher, but he had, in his own way, already influenced the course of global events that day: Buying gasoline in America does this. No other commodity wields such enormous, hidden power.

With his purchase, for instance, Trager helped prop up one of the last leftist regimes in the world. His money also made a bunch of impoverished Indians happy. But to understand how, you must first hail another cab, only this time 2,500 miles south--in Caracas, Venezuela.

Taxis in Venezuela come cheap. Gas in the oil-flush Caribbean nation sells for 14 cents a gallon. For less than $150, a driver narcotized by a collection of John Denver CDs will transport you six long hours into the country's parched hinterlands, to a faded oil town called Anaco. There you must swap your cab for a high-clearance truck. Another hour's journey across an arid savanna will bring you to your final destination, the Kariña Indian village of Mapiricure.

According to Marathon refinery experts and Venezuelan energy analysts, Mapiricure was a minor source of Trager's fill-up. About 5 percent of his midgrade fuel originated in the oil and natural gas wells surrounding the tiny native community. And thanks to the grandiose populist agenda of President Hugo Chávez, the cabbie--and untold thousands of other U.S. oil consumers--was bankrolling an Indian renaissance.

The Kariñas of eastern Venezuela haven't always enjoyed oil wealth. That prize was a long time coming. Americans wildcatted the region's first wells 60 years ago, but in a familiar pattern of indigenous exploitation, few royalties ever trickled down. Today, under Chávez, they have good oil field jobs, freshly painted shacks, a new preschool, free medical care, subsidized food, and such diverse oil-funded ventures as a tribal chicken farm and a trucking cooperative. Many were buying their first cars. Indeed, the tribe of self-described Marxists appeared to have a weakness for old Yankee gas guzzlers like Ford LTDs and Gran Torinos.

Not that they were especially thankful, however, for the likes of Trager. "Our oil is being sold in Chicago?" said a crusty village elder, Ramon Barroso, clearly put off by the idea. "Too bad. Nobody here wants to feed the empire of that criminal George Bush."

Barroso was at that moment leading an impromptu tour of some nearby oil wells. He wore a T-shirt that declared, in Spanish, "Resistance Against Landlords." Another Indian was practicing firing a bow and arrow across the well pad. He fired and retrieved the same arrow many times. Apparently, it was the only one he had.

Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration's senior diplomat, recently bemoaned oil's unsavory effect on foreign affairs.

"I can tell you that nothing has really taken me aback more as secretary of state than the way that the politics of energy is--I will use the word `warping' diplomacy around the world," Rice told Congress in April. "It has given extraordinary power to some states that are using that power in not very good ways for the international system, states that would otherwise have very little power."

Coming from a former Chevron board member, Rice's shock is puzzling. After all, King Oil has been meddling in the plans of nations for a century--at least since Winston Churchill switched the Royal Navy's fuel supply from coal to crude, thus elevating oil's importance in building global empires.

In the decades since, oil has molded war plans. (Hundreds of thousands perished in World War II offensives launched to capture oil supplies.) It has lubricated alliances. (Washington and Riyadh.) It has trumped ideology. (In the Cold War, Cuban troops guarded U.S. oil facilities in communist Angola--the crude was simply that valuable.) And it has spawned toxic ironies. (Americans' oil addiction, it's now widely agreed, helps fund both sides in the war on terror by enriching fundamentalist Islamic regimes.)

Yet today, with uncertainty spreading about the world's crude output, many experts fear that energy wars will become the defining struggles of the early 21st Century. Already, the international scramble for oil has grown more twisted than ever.

A case in point: the bizarre marriage of convenience between the United States and Venezuela.

Were it not for its mammoth oil reserves, Venezuela would probably languish on Rice's blacklist of "outposts of tyranny," along with the likes of Zimbabwe and Cuba. Chávez has outraged the Bush administration for years, using his huge oil income--estimated at $150 million a day--to rekindle a leftist movement in Latin America. Chávez also has lavished billions in aid on his neighbors, currying favor in the region.

Last winter, he gave away millions of dollars worth of heating oil to grateful, low-income Americans, thus embarrassing the White House. And just this month, as part of his "anti-imperialist" agenda, Chávez announced plans to cut off gas sales to 1,800 independently owned Citgo stations in the U.S. Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once shrilly compared Chávez's authoritarian style to that of Hitler. And Chávez has blasted back by expelling U.S. military attaches, raising taxes on U.S. oil companies, and pointedly favoring the Chinese and even the Iranians to tap new reservoirs. He also taunts Bush as a "mass murderer," a "drunkard" and a "donkey."

Through it all, American motorists continue to chug most of Venezuela's petroleum output of 3 million barrels a day. Roughly half of Chávez's government budget is funded by sales to the U.S.

"Imagine a dysfunctional couple," said Venezuelan energy analyst Alberto Quiros. "They scream and throw things but are still chained together by their mutual oil dependency. It's crazy."

A small link of that chain of co-dependency was anchored in late November off the docks of Venezuela's coastal "Complejo Refinador de Jose"Jose refining complex. It was an oil tanker called the Stena Italica, loading "natural gasoline"--an unprocessed distillate found in oil and gas fields--destined for the U.S. oil port of Texas City, Texas.

Some of that liquid energy ended up in Trager's gas tank. And a small part of it came from under the worn boots of a South American Indian who pries the caps off beers with his powerful, work-calloused hands to toast Hugo Chávez.

Ramon Barroso believes the Americans are going to invade Venezuela from outer space. He heard this on the radio.

"The Yanquis will attack from the cosmos, because our borders are well-defended by patriots," Barroso said earnestly. "This will be the beginning of World War III."

A talkative, sun-wrinkled man in his late 40s, Barroso was toiling in a field with some 20 other Kariña Indians, harvesting bitter yucca, the tribe's potato-like staple. It was dirty work. Barroso had torched the plot earlier to drive away rattlesnakes, and ash was everywhere. Aside from the sweaty field hands and a couple of rooftops glinting through a distant windbreak, the yellow plains extending to all horizons seemed devoid of life. It was hard to imagine anyone invading Mapiricure.

The Kariñas' story is the tale of all Native Americans in miniature. One of the first indigenous people encountered by Christopher Columbus, the tribe was feared for its belligerence; it fought the Spanish for more than two centuries before being herded onto desolate scrublands infested with insects. (Mapiricure, population about 400, means "Place of the Mosquitoes.") Since then, their numbers have plummeted through assimilation. They have lost most of their tribal lands to scheming cattle barons. And so poor are their fields that the ragged Indian farmers ended up digging holes and selling their soil as sand.

From 2003 onward, however, the typical narrative of woe changes radically. That's when an unlikely savior by the name of PDVSA showed up.

Oil companies are not usually in the business of altruism, but Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., the state energy firm known by its abbreviation, PDVSA, isn't your usual oil giant.

Dismantled by Chávez after a crippling worker strike in late 2002 and early 2003, PDVSA has been reborn as the central engine of Chávez's socialist revolution. The strongman fired 19,000 employees and replaced them with party loyalists. And now the company is spending $8 billion of its annual profits on social programs: a staggering $310 worth of assistance for every man, woman and child in Venezuela.

"This is a good way to run an oil company into the ground," said a skeptical Michelle Billig, an analyst with PIRA Energy Group in Washington. "On the other hand, if leaders in places like Nigeria, Angola and even Iraq ever tried a bit of this, we probably wouldn't be hearing so much about instability in their countries."

PDVSA's insignia is a substitute flag in the oil zones. The company's red-blue-and-yellow logo appears on baseball caps, T-shirts, walls, cars, billboards, clinic entrances and TV commercials. In backwaters like Mapiricure, the company is the only institution that actually works. It bought villagers a school bus, sponsors scholarships, pays for eyeglasses and funds a program to rescue the Indians' fading language. About the only items lacking PDVSA's distinctive emblem in Mapiricure are the sleepy donkeys.

"We're in our hour of glory," concluded Angel Cedeño, the manager of the local oil-subsidized food store. "We can eat more than iguanas."

It was night on the savanna. Villagers swayed in hand-woven hammocks strung on their hut verandas. Cedeño sat with Barroso, the garrulous village elder, who was still smudged with ash. (The unprofitable yucca harvest was oil-subsidized too.) Both men recalled how, in the past, Venezuela's politicians discovered remote Mapiricure only once a year--on election day.

"They'd show up with trucks full of rum," Barroso said, laughing. "We'd get drunk as fish in water. Then they'd drive us into town to vote, and we'd wake up the next day like animals in the gutters."

Cheap booze kept Mike Trager rolling.

Perhaps half of his pickups were at neighborhood bars like Carol's Place or Diamond Jims or The Martini Room.

"We move a lot of people around who are loaded," Trager said, steering his van to his third bar call of the day. "They lose their licenses, and we get them home. There are hundreds of them in my zone."

Cheap gas also helped. It makes suburban bus service pointless. The strange upshot: Though he zips by $1.5 million homes and fancy malls, most of Trager's fares are working-class drinkers, eccentrics and seniors--a carless underclass navigating suburbia in expensive cabs.

There was "Hillbilly," an Elgin barfly who once fell off a bridge and was fished, drunk, out of the Fox River. There was "Talking Lady," a retiree Trager frequently took shopping. She stepped into his cab in midsentence and still was chattering when Trager closed her apartment door. And then there was "49er."

"I spend $250 a week on taxis," he said, climbing into the cab at a lumberyard in the booming exurb of Gilberts. "That's a lot of beer."

He is a burly construction laborer with hands like chopping blocks and a brushy black beard. He wore muddy jeans tucked into his boot-tops and a sombrero clamped down on his head. He resembled a crazed refugee from the Gold Rush.

"Why worry about oil?" he retorted when Trager broached the topic of gas prices. "Canada's got them in tar sands, right? There's enough energy up there to last us lifetimes. We can say adios to Saudi Arabia."

A few minutes later the big man started speaking to himself in high-pitched cartoon voices. Then he asked Trager to stop at a liquor store, where he bought 6 pints of gin.

Venezuela may harbor the richest oil prize on the planet.

Some geologists believe the Orinoco Belt, an ancient layer of sand buried under the country's swampy eastern plains, holds up to 300 billion barrels of recoverable crude. That's another Saudi Arabia.

To peak oil skeptics, this gargantuan deposit, which the U.S. Geological Survey giddily calls "the largest single hydrocarbon accumulation in the world," alleviates fears of declining crude supplies for decades. To Hugo Chávez it's the ultimate political carrot--and club.

"The oil from the belt won't be for Mr. Danger," Chávez declared in a typically pugnacious speech last year, referring to Bush with a pet insult. "In the first place oil will be for the Venezuelan people, and then the people of Latin America and the Caribbean."

Trouble is, almost all of the crude is "gunk"--jet-black tars that are difficult to extract from the ground and expensive to process. Canada also possesses enormous reserves of this sticky, molasses-like substance. And while heavy oils are indeed being looked at closely--along with crop-based ethanols--as a sort of last call for hydrocarbons, uncertainties still dog their viability as alternative fuels.

In Canada, for instance, oil companies must use huge volumes of valuable fresh water to steam-blast the syrupy goo out of the ground. The landscape is strip-mined. And the fuel needed to heat the steam, Canada's once-abundant natural gas supply, has already peaked. Now tar-sands companies are talking of building nuclear plants nearby to help power the oil mining effort.

"People like to think technology will always rescue them," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the House Science Committee. "But if it still ends up taking two barrels [worth of oil energy] to pump a barrel out of ground, you're in a losing game."

Heavy crudes might help delay a global peak oil crisis, Bartlett added, but not for long. He noted that even with a fast-track program, Canada might squeeze 5 million barrels a day from its tar sands by 2025. But by then, the world's daily oil appetite may have swollen by 40 million barrels.

In Venezuela, there are other imponderables. Like a new cold war in the making.

Ramon Barroso wanted to show how revolutionaries stick together. So he jumped into a dented-up Ford F-100 pickup, loaded its bed with a passel of village kids and drove over the lumpy plains to an orchard outside Mapiricure.

The young trees were cashews. And they were dying, their leaves curling in the hot prairie winds. But that didn't concern Barroso. He was interested in symbols.

"Our Chinese comrades planted this for us," he said proudly, referring to the China National Petroleum Corporation, which maintains the surrounding oil fields. "It's a gift from our brothers in Beijing."

Or rather a set piece for today's untenable oil politics: As it turned out, Mike Trager obtained his gas fix not only from a hostile government that recently bought 100,000 Russian assault rifles to defend itself from an imagined U.S. invasion, but his fuel came from a remote oil patch serviced by his nation's biggest energy-consuming rivals, the Chinese.

"America and China are on a collision course over what remains of the world's hydrocarbons," said Gal Luft, a China expert with the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. "The 21st Century is going to be defined by this aggressive competition for a resource that's depleting."

Cushioned for the moment in their oil-soaked lifestyle, most Americans have little idea how surging energy demand in China is reshaping the future, Luft said.

Optimists see opportunities for cooperation. With China's richest billionaire a solar energy mogul and Beijing's zeal to convert coal to liquid fuels, the country may actually help pull the rest of the world into a post-oil economy.

But in the short term, most experts see an ominous energy cold war shaping up.

China's gross domestic product is growing at 10 percent, and its car fleet is expected to outnumber America's by 2030. Its budding oil appetite already has helped push crude prices to historic highs. Scouring the world for oil, Chinese companies have plucked the low-hanging fruit: smaller African petro-states and pariah nations like Iran. Now they're moving into traditional U.S. energy turf: Canada, the Middle East and Latin America.

The single-mindedness of its quest can be unsettling. In Sudan, one Chinese contractor worked almost around the clock, erecting a 1,000-mile export pipeline in just 11 months. According to the Sudanese government, the workers who died on the job were simply cremated on the spot.

In Venezuela, Chávez is pushing hard to make 1.3 billion Chinese his main customers. This year he hopes to double oil exports to Beijing to 300,000 barrels a day. Chinese rig operators in rough haircuts and blue coveralls stride about oil towns like Anaco, popping into Chinese restaurants that have mushroomed since the late 1990s.

In backwater Mapiricure, Chinese engineers show up in white SUVs to inspect the latest pipeline leaks. So far the spills have been minor. The Kariñas poke sticks into the crude puddled around the wellheads and keep their peace. Nobody wants to disrupt Venezuela's tar-colored gravy train.

"We'll support Chávez until he behaves badly, then we'll kick him out," said Cedeño, the village store owner. "Right now, he's looking out for us."

The sun was setting.

A boy rode a horse down the three-block main street. Bats flicked through the mango trees. And a small crowd gathered on Cedeño's porch for a weekly ritual: the reading of Chávez's 1999 populist constitution. PDVSA, the national oil company, sponsors the readings through its ubiquitous social programs.

Alcides Barroso, a scarred oil worker and Ramon's older brother, did the honors.

"Let's go straight to the articles on Indian land rights," Alcides said with relish, wearing his wife's reading glasses. A 40-watt light bulb burned overhead and moths swarmed like electrons. He read laboriously, reverently, into the night, stumbling over words such as "unalienable." Nobody stirred.

Given the long Indian history with treaties, the scene was hard to watch. The faith seemed misplaced. Like it did at the opposite end of the energy trail in South Elgin, another oil-based utopia.

Michelle Vargo finally left the South Elgin Marathon.

The heart and soul of the gas station, she'd had enough. Prairie State Enterprises, the station's owner, was unhappy with the low profit margins. But they valued her ability to train new staff. So they transferred her 19 miles away to a new Marathon in Aurora--the latest addition to the 127,000 homely energy outlets that keep America's wheeled civilization alive.

"I'm a half-hour closer to home," Vargo said with a sigh. "At least now my fuel bills won't drag me down."

She was at a modest turning point in her manic life. Pressed for money, she had sent one of her daughters to live with her loathed ex. She gave away her pet iguana to a bar. She even traded in her big Suburban for a zippy 2005 Mustang, gaining her a few extra miles per gallon. But she remains constant to Roy Draino. The crusty furnace cleaner and his gas station bride finally married in a public park in Lockport.

Marta Perez, the loyal South Elgin Marathon clerk, didn't quit when Vargo left. She needed the job. As for night clerk Cruz Rodriguez, he was later arrested on charges of beating fellow employee and girlfriend Kelly Hanson. ("He got the worst of it," she said brassily.) He sold his gas-gulping Jeep to pay attorney's bills. His long-anticipated reconciliation with his brother stalled.

All the while at the South Elgin Marathon, the tanker trucks come and go, disgorging their liquid tales into the ground. There was more Qua Iboe but no Basrah Light. There was a steady flow of Louisiana crudes and only a trickle of Sahara Blend from Algeria. As usual, the fuel's stories went unheard. They were expelled from countless tailpipes. And if peak oil theorists are right, and the Marathon survives its 35-year structural life span, then it will be among the last filling stations dispensing gasoline in the world.

"I really think the president should do something about this gas problem," cabbie Mike Trager said. But he couldn't suggest what.

He burned his Venezuelan molecules until midnight, picking up more drunks, a Bible college student, a professional chef, a kid whose knuckles were bandaged as if from a fistfight, a bartender, an elegantly dressed woman who took him all the beautiful way to Vernon Hills--26 miles, $88 with the tip.

"So," he asked them all, "where we goin'?"

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