More on Afghanistan's mineral riches

The Pentagon held a press briefing today on that New York Times story I blogged about last night, and cleared up a few things that were garbled in the original reporting.

One important point is that there is new work being done beyond what the USGS did back in 2007. That earlier project was "survey work" intended to "help build a database of where to look," according to Paul Brinkley, the  director of the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Since last summer, the TFBSO team has been conducting more detailed "field work" to assess which of 24 potential sites are economically viable.

As for the mysterious $1 trillion figure, its still somewhat mysterious, but we know now that it's based on December 2009 market data, and it's actually $908 billion. I'm still not totally clear on how notional the mineral figures are, but Brinkley said "a lot of people think that's a conservative number," though he added "we don't really dwell a lot on that number other than to note, boy, that's a really big number."

(Some folks, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, are dwelling on it. In a comment nobody caught at the time, he told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace last month that the figure could be as high as $3 trillion. And now, Afghans are said to be over the moon about the findings.)

So, am I still skeptical? You bet I am. We are taking years, if not decades before Afghanistan will be able to take advantage of these resources. This is a country that can't even pay its police ... let alone build roads. The mining ministry is among the most corrupt government agencies in one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

"Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit," Stan Coats, a top geologist formerly with the British Geographical Survey, told The Independent. "Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked."

Afghan officials seem to understand this. “Mining needs studies, infrastructure and security in order to attract the investments,” the mining ministry spokesman told reporters today.

One point I would make, though, is that we shouldn't worry if Chinese companies are the ones that bid on Afghanistan's mineral rights. Western firms aren't likely to take on the huge risks involved, and in any case it's probably a good thing if China has more of a stake in Afghanistan's security. This isn't a redux of the "great game" or some nonsense like that.



The legacy of Ixtoc

I wouldn't say that Glenn Garvin's look back at the 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes one more optimistic about the current prospects for recovery, but it's at provides some useful perspective:

Soto, who followed the fish and shrimp population off Mexico closely, found to his surprise that for most species the numbers had returned to normal within two years.

"The catastrophic effects that everybody's looking for, those are mostly limited to the first months,'' he says. "Then you start looking in subsequent months, the long-range view, and it all diminishes. The pollution effect becomes more and more difficult to find ...It's like a radio signal, when you're close, it's strong. But when you start moving away, the signal starts to fade.''

Even the physical evidence of the spill quickly began disappearing. Tunnell has been visiting Mexico regularly for 30 years, mapping the spilled Ixtoc oil on the country's beaches and coral reefs.

"In 1979, the islands around Veracruz looked like black doughnuts, there was so much oil clustered around them,'' he remembers. "It was 12 to 15 inches thick in some places. But as I came back over the years, it got harder and hard to find. After five to seven years, it was hard to see the outline, and by 2002, an unsuspecting person would have thought it was a rock ledge ... it was covered with algae and shells and just looked like a normal part of the environment.''

Even under water, where the sun can't help the oil break down, nature subverts it, says Mexican marine biodiversity analyst Jorge Brenner. "If you visit the coral reefs in the Gulf of Campeche, the tar has been covered with sea grass, algae and sediment,'' he says. "You actually have to dig a little bit to find it, although it's definitely there.''

The bad news is that the Ixtoc spill -- the worst peacetime oil spill in history -- consisted of about 140 million gallons of oil after 10 months. The high-end estimates for the BP spill put it at over 100 million gallons after only three months. The Ixtoc well was also at about 160 feet under water while the BP well was nearly 30 times that. In 1979, the cleanup effort along the Texas coast got an unexpected assist from Hurricain Fredric. It's far from certain that the Gulf will be as lucky this time.