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Professor Uncovers Link Between Fuel, Force

By Annie Lyon, CAS/MA '03

Prof. Jeff Colgan

"The countries that have a lot of oil are the ones going to start the conflict," said Colgan at his launch April 22. "That got me thinking as to what was going on."

Professor Jeff Colgan launched his book Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War April 22, and revealed connections between oil states and their propensity toward violence. 

“There’s oil in the ground – it’s valuable, and that’s why states fight over it. That’s not news,” said Colgan. “But when I dug into why these conflicts were breaking out, I saw a different pattern: the petrostates instigate a lot more conflict than other states.”

Through seven years of research and statistical analysis, Colgan determined that petrostates – countries in which the revenues from net oil exports exceed ten percent of the gross domestic product in a year – hosting revolutionary governments are about three and a half times more likely to initiate conflict than non-revolutionary states.

Colgan also found that the “resource curse” often applies, in which oil income reduces the domestic political accountability of the country’s leader.

“The leader has a free resource, oil, acting as free money coming in that he can use to purchase political support. It’s easy to think of this as somebody else’s problem, but it becomes a foreign policy issue for all of us,” he said, adding that no petrostate leader in the twentieth century has instigated war and subsequently lost power.

His 2010 International Organization article “Oil and Revolutionary Governments: Fuel for International Conflict,” a precursor to Petro-Aggression, earned Colgan the Robert O. Keohane award for that year, which honors the best article published by an untenured faculty scholar.

Among Colgan’s recommendations for the future were to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (“On Earth Day, this is the easy one to make,” he said) and to mitigate the oil industry’s impact on underdeveloped countries.

“It is not at all yet clear the links that are going from the gas pumps in our hands to what’s happening in the developing world, and we need to have a greater sense of urgency to try to address that,” he said.