Can Qaddafi cling to power if oil runs out?

Libyans queue for gasoline at a gas station in Ajdabiya, Libya, March 29, 2011.
AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

NEAR MISRATA, Libya - Missile strikes against Col. Muammar Qaddafi's military are noisy and dramatic. The campaign against his economy is quiet -- but devastating. A naval blockade and economic sanctions are slowly but surely choking his government.

Long lines of cars -- easily more than 100 at times -- snake along the roadsides outside gas stations wherever we've been allowed to travel. Drivers wait hours for a fill-up. Sometimes their cars run out of gas as they inch forward and they have to be pushed to the pumps. Sometimes the gas stations themselves run out of gas and simply close, leaving their angry customers stranded.

Video: Obama on U.S. strategy in Libya
Obama, allies must decide on arming Libya rebels
Complete coverage: Anger in the Arab World

"They are afraid their trucks will be blown up by the air strikes," he says.

This could be true, though there's no evidence civilian trucks have been hit.

Libyans line up for gas in Ajdabiya
Libyans queue for gasoline at a gas station in Ajdabiya, Libya, March 29, 2011.

Just as likely, though, is the possibility that Qaddafi's government is running out of oil. No one really knows how big a strategic reserve he had when the conflict began almost six weeks ago. One respected European energy analyst believes it's enough to last three months.

To make matters worse, all the foreign staff who actually ran Libya's oil installations rushed for the borders once things got violent. So we know new oil isn't being pumped out of the ground, and if refineries aren't completely shut down yet, it's a fair guess they're just limping along.

The lineups at Western Libya's gas stations are an ominous warning. Once oil reserves drop to critically low levels, Qaddafi's government will have to turn off power stations and even the oil-fired pumps that keep water flowing.

The loyalty of his supporters is being tested in a small way as they line up for gas. Wait until they can no longer fill a glass of water at the kitchen tap.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."