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The Pentagon and the Hunt for Black Gold


For years, "oil" and "Iraq" couldn’t make it into the same sentence in mainstream coverage of the invasion and occupation of that country. Recently, that’s begun to change, but "oil" and "the Pentagon" still seldom make the news together.
 
Last year, for instance, according to Department of Defense (DoD) documents, the Pentagon paid more than $70 million to Hunt Refining, an oil company whose corporate affiliate, Hunt Oil, undermined U.S. policy in Iraq. Not that anyone would know it. While the hunt for oil in Iraq is now being increasingly well covered in the mainstream, the Pentagon’s hunt for oil remains a subject missing in action. Despite the staggering levels at which the Pentagon guzzles fuel, it’s a chronic blind spot in media energy coverage.

Let’s consider the Hunt Oil story in a little more detail, since it offers a striking example of the larger problem. On July 3, 2008, according to the New York Times, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that Hunt Oil had pursued "an oil deal with the regional Kurdistan government that ran counter to American policy and undercut Iraq’s central government." Despite its officially stated policy of warning companies like Hunt Oil "that they incur risks in signing contracts until Iraq passes an oil law," the State Department in some cases actually encouraged a deal between the "Texas oil company with close ties to President Bush" and Kurdistan that "undercut" Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad.

Asked if the White House was aware of Hunt Oil’s negotiations with Kurdistan’s largely autonomous regional government, President Bush’s press secretary Dana Perino replied, "I don’t know of anybody who was aware of it."

It turns out that wasn’t exactly the truth of the matter. The Times noted that the company’s chief executive, "Ray L. Hunt, a close political ally of President Bush, briefed [the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, of which he was a member] on his contacts with Kurdish officials before the deal was signed." In fact, in a July 2nd letter, Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "Documents obtained by the Committee indicate that contrary to the denials of Administration officials, advisors to the President and officials in the State and Commerce Departments knew about Hunt Oil’s interest in the Kurdish region months before the contract was executed."

For the Times, however, the hunt for the story ended with Hunt Oil. No attention was paid to its corporate twin, Hunt Refining, with its own major financial ties to the Pentagon, the President, and the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. This despite the fact that the company proudly promotes itself as "a significant supplier of jet fuel to the U.S. Department of Defense" in the Southeastern United States.

And why not be proud? Ever since the President’s Global War on Terror revved up and Iraq was invaded, Hunt Refining has quietly reaped major rewards. While the company was a defense contractor back in the 1990s, according to DoD documents, Hunt did not receive any funds from the Pentagon in 2000 or 2001. From 2002-2004, however, the company began garnering contracts and collected an average of just over $15.5 million a year. And only then did the good times begin to roll. In the last three years, records show that Hunt has taken in increasingly larger sums of taxpayer dollars from the Pentagon — $39.6 million in 2005, $52.2 million in 2006, and, in 2007, a whopping $70 million. (Hunt Refining did not return telephone or email messages seeking comment for this article.)

Hunt’s largest 2007 Pentagon contract was for the delivery of both aviation turbine fuel and JP-8 jet fuel — the latter a product used by the Army and Air Force that is very similar to commercial jet fuel. That deal was awarded just months before Hunt Refining and its affiliate Hunt Southland Refining agreed, according to Department of Justice documents, "to pay a $400,000 civil penalty and spend more than $48.5 million for new and upgraded pollution controls at three refineries" as part of a settlement to resolve "alleged violations of the Clean Air Act."

In addition to its Pentagon connections, Hunt Refining, too, has tight ties to President Bush. Ray Hunt’s son Hunter Hunt, the senior vice president of Hunt Oil Company, is, according to his corporate biography, "also involved in special projects that occur at Hunt Refining Company." The younger Hunt, however, took a leave of absence from the family businesses, from 1999-2001, to work for the Bush presidential campaign "as the primary Policy Advisor responsible for energy issues" and chief architect of Bush’s national energy policy.

While Hunt Oil is finally making headlines and garnering press attention for its Bush administration connections and dealings in occupied Iraq, just as it should, Hunt Refining’s complex ties to the force in charge of occupying that country aren’t considered news at all. Despite the obvious financial relationship and network of curious ties that extend from the White House and the Pentagon to Texas, Alabama, and Iraq, this part of the story is just considered business as usual.

Flush with regularly increasing taxpayer dollars from the DoD, Hunt Refining is now embarking on an ambitious expansion program to increase its output. Currently, Hunt’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama refinery processes 52,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to a recent article in the trade magazine South Central Construction. The company aims, however, to increase its production to 65,000 barrels per day, resulting in "an approximate doubling of gasoline and diesel fuel production." According to a report in the April issue of Hydrocarbon Processing, the first of Hunt’s new processing units will "come online in late 2009. The revamp is scheduled for completion in 2010." All of this is, of course, occurring as the Pentagon needs increasing quantities of fuel to carry on its wars.

In 2008, Hunt Refining has already received a $65.4 million aviation-fuel deal from the Pentagon that has a "performance completion" deadline of April 30, 2009. If recent contracts are any guide, this is an indication that it stands to take in record amounts from the U.S. military before year’s end.

The DoD is, as national security expert Noah Shachtman notes, "the world’s largest energy consumer." With no end in sight for its current wars and occupations, which have driven its fuel consumption sky-high, and ever increasing oil prices (undoubtedly, in turn, affected at least modestly by the Pentagon’s ravenous need for fuel), ever more taxpayer dollars are going to be funneled to the many oil companies on its — and so America’s — payroll.

This is how the government now works and it should be a story — and Hunt Refining should be part of it. But don’t count on that. It’s taken the mainstream media five years to make it to the oil story in Iraq. How many more before it notices that everyday oil operations in Washington are worth a look?

With its increasing contracts from the DoD, its soon to be ramped up capacity, and the toe-hold its corporate partner possesses in Pentagon-occupied Iraq, Hunt Refining is likely to be a player in Washington and a major beneficiary of DoD dollars long after George W. Bush has gone back to Texas. But until the mainstream media begins to tease out the close-knit relationships among Hunt, other energy corporations, and the Pentagon that enable our military to function on a daily basis, key aspects not just of major scandals but of how our world works will remain hidden, even if in plain sight.


Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, the Nation, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition covering Iraq, and editor and contributor to the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso).]

 

 

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