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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

The Libya payback

For an administration whose three-point energy policy could accurately be summarized as "Drill, drill, and drill," the hordes of U.S. oil executives now fawning all over Libyan governmental officials in Tripoli amount to a dream come true.

The transformation of Libya from a hated dictatorship to major oil supplier obviously was on the minds of President Bush and his White House handlers a little over a year ago when they sealed a deal to lift economic sanctions in exchange for a promise by Muammar Kaddafi to not develop weapons of mass destruction.

The deal followed closely the Libyan government's $2.7 billion settlement and belated acknowledgement that it was responsible for the 1983 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in which 270 people died over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Now, executives for American oil companies, many of them run by Mr. Bush's friends and campaign donors, line up daily as supplicants for possible drilling rights in the Libyan desert. The pay-off could be immense. The North African nation holds oil reserves of an estimated 36 billion barrels, enough black gold to supply the United States for eight years.

Libyan oil looms large because most Middle East reserves are off-limits to U.S. investors, production in the U.S. and Europe is declining, and once-promising Russian supplies are doubtful.

While the United States military occupies Iraq, which has the world's second-largest proven reserves of oil, U.S. officials from Mr. Bush on down have consistently denied that the war was intended to secure a share of that oil. Don't be surprised if that policy changes over time as the U.S. continues to battle China's superheated economy for scarce energy supplies.

Because Libya has been an international pariah for more than 20 years, tapping the Libyan oil cache won't be easy, but the Times reported that most oil executives visiting Tripoli these days are eager to help supply the $30 billion in investment the government estimates will be necessary to re-establish its industry. As James LeJeune, a vice president of ChevronTexaco, put it, "We feel comfortable enough to put our money down. In any other country, that would fall under acceptable risk."

The oil industry has been shut out of Libya since 1986 and it desperately wants back in. Kaddafi, the man Ronald Reagan once referred to as a "mad dog," needs money and a return to a semblance of respectability on the world stage.

Whether fulfilling either of those desires will help a foundering U.S. energy policy remains to be seen.

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