China Fills Our Tank

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Even at the pump, we now rely on Chinese companies to do the dirty work for us.

Chinese companies are drilling for oil in Africa and Central Asia and building pipelines and other infrastructure to extract the mineral wealth. In an op-ed entitled, We Are All Chinese, I discussed China’s growing environmental footprint on the planet in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 8, 2008. I argued that China needs to follow international environmental standards in its investments, but that the overuse of global resources is our responsibility. Most Chinese don’t drive cars, and already now, their fuel economy is higher than what the U.S. energy bill requires for 2020. A large part of the oil, minerals and timber that China extracts around the world is used to make goods for the world market.

My opinion piece triggered a lot of interesting reactions. An academic from Stanford wrote: “As an American citizen, who has to buy fuel for my car once a week, I’m glad that the Chinese are developing new projects! If they were not, I wonder how much higher the cost of gas would be at the pump than it already is?”

The Stanford commuter has a point. As Erica Downs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in an interesting piece on Sino-African Energy Relations: “[China’s national oil companies are] expanding rather than contracting the amount of oil available to other consumers through their overseas operations, especially through the development of oil fields that other companies are unable or unwilling to invest in.”

What may be good for your purse is bad news for the environment. Gas prices are ridiculously low because they don’t cover external costs (from environmental destruction to military build-up and war). Keeping prices from rising further means pushing oil exploration – and the pipelines, LNG terminals and dams that often come with it – into ecologically fragile areas. The mechanism is the same in Africa, Alaska and Canada’s tar sands. And as consumers, we can’t blame China for it.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog appears at