The latest Center for Naval Analyses report, “Powering America’s Defenses: Energy and the Risks to National Security,” makes a case that national security interests are consistent with concerns about climate change.
The study says that the United States is overly dependent on foreign sources of oil and that the nation needs to rely more on domestic sources of oil as well as oil substitutes. It says that the electrical grid needs to diversify its inputs to include not just clean coal but also more hydro, nuclear, solar, wind and other sources. CNA also suggests that the military become less “energy vulnerable” by being less dependent on oil and other traditional fuels.
Some of the assumptions of the study, however, are questionable.
The rhetorical device about the United States having only 4.5 percent of the world’s population but consuming 25 percent of the world’s current oil should be laid to rest. It’s meant to convey the message that the nation is using more than its “fair share” of energy and perhaps invoke the specter of an “addiction” to oil.
This ignores a couple of major facts. First, U.S. energy consumption is a reflection, a measure, and a consequence of being the largest economy on the planet.
Different economies will specialize in producing certain items and consuming others. Finding therefore that a particular energy source — in this case oil — may be consumed more by some countries than others should come as no surprise.
For example, the world produces and consumes less than 15 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources but France in particular generates almost 80 percent of its electrical power from nuclear plants. Uranium is a finite resource, and the argument could be made that France has a critical dependence problem because it has no domestic uranium sources and so it must buy uranium from other countries such as Russia and Canada. Yet nobody worries that France has an energy dependence issue because most of its electricity is produced with a fuel that has to be bought from abroad.
The argument against dependence on Middle East oil also has to be viewed in proper context. The United States has been involved actively in the Middle East and Southwest Asia since at least the Carter administration. Whatever oil comes from the Persian Gulf is not just for the United States but also for U.S. allies in Europe.
Before the Cold War ended, Iran was the major oil producer in OPEC and its output kept U.S. allies ready to defend Europe against the former Soviet Union. The United States had to retool quickly after being shown the door by the ayatollahs, and renewed its friendship with the Saudis.
Even though the nation gets more oil from abroad today than it did 30 years ago, foreign oil sources are more diversified. Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern country among the top six foreign suppliers of oil. The United States acquires far more oil from Canada and Mexico.
The events of 9/11 did not fundamentally change the strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf. Yes, the overwhelming majority of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi, but their motivation was the deployment of U.S. troops on Saudi soil to prevent an Iraqi invasion. Because the kingdom is sacred Muslim soil, and so in principle off limits to “infidels,” and because it is home to the virulent strain of Wahabbi Islam, the continued U.S. military presence created tensions inside the kingdom. Al-Qaida attempted to exploit those tensions so as to topple the house of Saud.
Eventually the U.S. military moved out. But since the Persian Gulf was an important area, the nation kept its footing in the Gulf by pivoting forces to the north into Kuwait and Iraq. U.S. allies’ dependence on foreign oil, which is greater than America’s, has kept the United States on this path.
The most cost effective way to reduce imports of foreign oil is to move the United States to a hybrid vehicle park. Gasoline- and diesel-electric hybrid vehicles are the most cost effective way to make a big and quick dent in that big appetite for oil and its refined byproducts, such as gasoline and diesel fuel.
The sooner Americans start driving gasoline- and diesel-electric hybrid vehicles, the quicker the nation can reduce its dependence on oil. That means fewer dollars sent abroad for fuel, and if automobile manufacturers survive their latest “near death” experiences, this also means more dollars kept at home for the next generation of personal and commercial vehicles.
If the military wants to spur this along, it should demand more diesel-electric hybrid trucks and other combat vehicles. And the Pentagon is beginning to do just that. It recently adjusted its requirements to include more diesel-electric hybrid vehicles. That should spur more civilian development of the same.
If U.S. allies follow this initiative, they’ll be less dependent on Persian Gulf oil, too, so fewer U.S. troops abroad will be needed to defend oil supplies. It’ll also mean that when U.S. troops deploy for unavoidable reasons, they’ll have combat vehicles not as dependent on refueling, which will reduce exposure from long and frequent fuel convoys to the front. Not just money, but also lives will be saved.
The CNA report authors worry too much about the impact of a carbon tax or any other new regulations meant to reduce carbon emissions. The U.S. military should not be subject to rules that make sense for society but tie a hand behind its back when it needs to do its job. To apply cap-and-trade or a carbon tax to the fuels used by anything the military flies or puts in outer space simply makes the nation less safe. There should be an exemption for jet and rocket fuel used by the military. The nation can make up for the measly 1 percent the military burns in fossil fuels compared to the rest of our economy by making savings elsewhere.
Another disputable finding in the CNA study is that reducing dependence on foreign oil requires increasing dependence on domestic electricity and that in turn means using more renewables and less fossil fuels. That only makes sense if the original objective is to increase dependence on renewables or to push electric cars on people.
Diversification of sources of energy for the national electric grid is a good thing. More electricity needs to come from nuclear, hydro-electric, solar, wind and even clean coal.
But a more diversified palette of sources does not mean endorsing electric vehicles over hybrids. Pure electric cars and trucks, as well as “plug-in” hybrids, are not what this country needs or can afford today — nor are biofuel powered vehicles. Not only does battery technology require more research and development, but all those spent car batteries would make costly demands for safe disposal. Even if that weren’t a problem, the national electric grid, ever since deregulation took electric companies off the hook for maintaining it, is already in a sorry state and does not need the additional stress of millions of electric cars recharging at night.
Last but not least, CNA could have done a better job explaining the term “climate change,” which after a close reading of this report can only mean one thing: a rise in average global atmospheric temperature. The issue should be framed as climate change of all sorts, both global and regional, as well as warming and cooling, and even other changes in weather patterns.
The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change has noted that under its computer-derived forecasts of a warming globe overall, global change will not translate into predictable and parallel regional changes. Those facts can’t be ignored.
It’s hard to find reliable data on the latest climate science that everyone agrees on. The problem with this debate is that there are many data sets, so almost any position can be defended by selective citing of the evidence.
In the past two years, average global atmospheric temperature has stopped climbing. Some global warming experts argue this is just some short term “blip” that is masking the continued warming of the planet because of man putting too much carbon dioxide in the air. They keep citing evidence of change to prove that global warming is at work, which ignores the fact that in a precisely defined way it is not.
By simply focusing on global warming without thinking of other possibilities, the U.S. military could miss other contingencies. The engineering tolerances of weapons systems, for example, are made within known limits. So as the climate and weather do weird stuff, military equipment and training might have to adapt. One potential scenario could be that new combat vehicles might not kick over because the fuel line froze as a result of biofuel’s high water content.
CNA outlined important priorities in its report. But it should have framed the challenge not just as global warming but as climate change of the fullest potential, which includes all sorts of climate variability, including regional and global.
John M. Manoyan is a chemical engineer, nuclear physicist and is now an investment advisor in San Francisco. Michael G. Frodl is a tax attorney and co-founder of the Forum for Environmental Law, Science, Engineering and Finance. Their personal views do not represent those of FELSEF.