Energy sources and resources like oil and coal are vital for the survival of modern civilizations.

Are there any good historical examples of wars, or low intensity armed conflicts, over the control of such energy resources?

  • If your willing to consider food too then there will be lots of examples of small tribal raids to steal cattle or a neighbor's harvest, though they won't be very well documented.
    – Jeroen K
    Dec 8, 2013 at 12:25
  • Nope, I'm looking for wars on energy resources.
    – Adam Matan
    Dec 8, 2013 at 13:01
  • 4
    Any of the Assyrian expansion due to need for timber? The epic of Gilgamesh talks about conquest of a forest. Dec 8, 2013 at 18:41
  • I can't think of a particular conflict, but I guess than in ancient times watermills (and places where watermills can be build) might have been locally considered as strategic.
    – nic
    Dec 9, 2013 at 7:17

4 Answers 4


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the world's only significant sources of Energy were manual and animal labour fueled by food supplies. In much of the Third World today that statement remains true. Therefore any distinction between Wars over food resources and other sources such as Oil and Coal is an artificial one, and equivalent to Wars between modern industrial countries, and their clients, post-1740 or so.

Given that, one is probably left with:

  1. First Gulf War (explicitly about Kuwait);
  2. Second Gulf War (unfinished business from FGW);
  3. the Iran-Iraq war;
  4. U.S. entry to World War 2 (conflict over access to Indonesian oil after embargo of U.S. oil);
  5. The War of Austrian Succession (conflict over Silesian Coal),
  6. The Seven Years War (simply a continuance of the latter).

This atlas of Belgium (Austrian Netherlands) prepared by Ferraris between 1770 and 1777 for Marie Antoinette shows numerous small coal mines. There are several between Ligny and St. Amand on map #97 - Gembloux, and another south of the village of Waterloo, in the woods west of the main road. As the infamous Sand Pit near La Haye Sainte does not exist on these maps, it s possible that it too was a small coal mine excavated between 1777 and 1815. The size is right.

The small-scale mining of coal at this time was for use in the small steam engines of the day, and for home heating (probably derived from the similar use of peat). Silesia, like Belgium , had numerous seams of coal near the surface. Watt's steam engine hadn't been invented yet but Newcommen's was already about 30 years old. All of this Frederick would have known about Silesia by 1740.

  • For #4, I don't think you necessarily need limit it to the Pacific theater. While Mein Kempf claimed invading Russia would be about getting access to more land, its worth noting that the particular land Hitler insisted be conquered first was the Ukraine, which held most Russian oil reserves.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 8, 2013 at 20:39
  • 1
    @T.E.D. Sure, but that was so they could get gas for the tanks in the invasion. The war itself was not about oil. Germany wouldn't so desperately have needed that oil unless they already were in a war. Dec 8, 2013 at 22:30
  • 2
    Do you have a reference to the claim that the War of Austrian Succession was over Silesian Coal?
    – Adam Matan
    Dec 9, 2013 at 6:27

Yes, there are several conflicts like that.

There are also civil conflicts like for example in Nigeria that is about oil.

Note that these are not about energy per se, but about money, and is therefore not really anything different from any war over resources or trade.

I might have missed some, and you will also hear many other examples of wars over oil, but most of those are not direct wars over who should control an energy resource, instead it's only a part of the conflict, or more commonly oil is being only an indirect reason.

  • +1 for Chaco War. Wikipedia: The origin of the war is commonly attributed to a conflict between the oil companies Royal Dutch Shell backing Paraguay and Standard Oil supporting Bolivia. Scholar Rafael Archondo disputes claims that the war would have been caused by interests of these companies and emphasizes the aims of Argentina to import oil from the Chaco.
    – nic
    Dec 9, 2013 at 7:14
  • The other problem with calling the Chaco war one over energy was that the claims of Oil in the Chaco turned out to be false.
    – Oldcat
    Sep 4, 2014 at 21:52

Another famous war for resources (including but not limited to energy), was expressed in 5 words:

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

  • For those not familiar with the term, it refers to Japanese Imperial ambitions in Hirohito period, starting with attacks on neighbouring Asian countries and ending with attack on USA in WWII
    – DVK
    Dec 24, 2013 at 1:15

If one accepts long-term strategy and geopolitical interests (as opposed to immediate "grab this oil field"), most of the wars in Middle East since 1920 are ultimately over oil interests.

For example, most Israel-Arab conflicts are driven by British screwing things up half-way as far as Baldur and subsequent Mandate handling, all of which was because they became vitally interested in Arab oil and thus unwilling to give the entirety of Palestine to Jews as they originally wanted.

Most of the Sunni/Shia conflict can also ultimately be traced to oil access (Iran wants Saudi oil).

Most of the Western and Soviet meddling in Arab world and Arab/Israeli conflicts also stem from oil.

Most of Chinese meddling in the area, as well.

Heck, even American conflicts with Iraq were somewhat related to oil, though not in the idiotic way progressives portrayed them (Bush didn't invade Iraq over giving oil to Haliburton; but he did invade in part because strategically, Saddam was a threat to the stability of the region and thus long term oil supply). One of the reasons why the French and NATO were so gung-ho to help in Libya and so reluctant in Syria was that Syria has no oil to bother about.

Also do be included are Kurdish conflicts in Iraq post-Saddam (access to oil in Kurdish areas); Libyan civil war. Had other reasons but oil was up there.

  • I'm posting this as a separate answer since it may be slightly off-scope depending on what OP meant
    – DVK
    Dec 24, 2013 at 1:16

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