Of oil and national security

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We have seen oil shocks before. And they have been immediate and far-reaching. But at today's level of U.S. consumption, a sustained disruption would be devastating – crippling our very freedom of movement. Our enemies know this fact and they exploit it at will.” –General Paul Kern, U.S. Army (Ret.), chairman of the CNA’s military advisory board.

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The peril of our nation’s over-reliance on imported oil isn’t news to anyone in trucking. Indeed, oil is the 900-pound elephant in this industry’s – if not the entire U.S. economy’s – living room, capable of causing untold havoc directly and indirectly to the bottom lines of truckers large and small (not to mention the wallets of consumers, thus ultimately altering freight volumes in the bargain as well.)

Military experts, of course, are well aware of the overall security threat posed by our nation’s heavy need for oil. However, a new report by not-for-profit research and analysis firm CNA offers a new insightful twist on this topic: basically, if we just cut our use of oil by 30%, we’d significantly reduce our national security risk exposure.

Compiled by CNA’s military advisory board (MAB), comprised of retired generals and admirals, this energy security study – entitled Ensuring America’s Freedom of Movement: A National Security Imperative to Reduce U.S. Oil Dependence – posits that less oil use equals less oil we are required to import and greater flexibility for military presence in dangerous parts of the world. This flexibility could translate into putting fewer American troops in harm's way and keeping more dollars at home, CNA noted.

This isn’t the first time this group has addressed the connection between oil consumption and national security, either, as it originally published a report on this very subject over two years ago.

[You can watch a synopsis of the findings of that report – entitled Powering America's Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security – below.]

“Our hope in highlighting the national security value of this course of action is that it will lend a sense of urgency to this issue,” noted General Paul Kern, U.S. Army (Ret.), chairman of the CNA’s military advisory board, the report’s prologue.

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In particular, he pointed out that U.S. transportation systems rely almost exclusively on gasoline, diesel, and jet aviation fuel. “These three products are refined from a single basic ingredient: oil,” Kern (seen at right) said, which fuels how we get to work, how we ship materials, how we farm or produce our food, and how we transport raw products to manufacturers or finished products to or from domestic and global markets.

“And so we reiterate the point: weaning America from oil in substantive ways will make us safer as a nation,” he stressed. “We should not be swayed by the rising or falling prices of gasoline at the pump, which can too easily be manipulated by suppliers trying to deter our path toward energy security. Our resolve must be true, for the pace and consistency of our country’s movement along the path to energy security is a vital national security challenge.”

No matter one’s individual perspective, Kern said – liberal or conservative – the nation as a whole must focus together on concrete steps to reduce U.S. reliance on oil.

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“The cost of inaction is too high,” added Admiral Dennis McGinn (at left), U.S. Navy (Ret.), vice chairman of CNA’s MAB.

“A 30% reduction in oil consumption would loosen our tether to hostile states, reduce our trade deficit, and keep the money here at home to create jobs,” he explained.

“[But] you've got people stuck in their positions on the left and the right [and] the nation is at risk because of intransigence," McGinn stressed. "Instead of viewing this problem through the prism of ideology, they must view it through a national security prism. Compromise is the only way we'll be able to develop a national strategy.”

[This isn’t the first time CNA’s MAB has addressed thorny topics from the security perspective. For example, you can view this group’s take on climate change below; a still hotly-debated subject scientifically that nevertheless poses, in the view of these retired military leaders, national security issues which need to be addressed.]

“Our over-reliance on oil is made worse by our lack of control over global supplies, which is why, in this report, we focus on oil generally and not on foreign oil specifically,” Kern pointed out. “Oil is a global commodity, and any amounts of oil produced in North America become part of the global supply. [So] when global prices spike upward, the domestic price also spikes—we don’t get ‘big-box store’ discounts just because of our nationality.”

He added that America too often watches idly how price swings have been, and continue to be, manipulated by parties beyond U.S. control or influence.

The report offers four steps the U.S. can take to chop oil demand by 30% over the next decade:

• Increase efficiency: The first, fastest and most effective strategy to reduce oil consumption is to increase efficiency. The report identifies fuel economy standards for cars and trucks as a proven and effective way to reduce the use of oil, and calls for strengthening those standards, as well as providing additional market incentives and research investments to help increase the fuel economy of America's vehicles.

• Diversify supply: The current over-reliance on a single fuel is a weakness, whereas relying on diverse fuels and vehicle types can be a strength. Government must take action to promote the use of a more diverse mix of transportation fuels and to drive wider public acceptance of these alternatives.

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• Increased domestic production of oil might be useful short-term as long as overall oil consumption is reduced at the same time. Simply replacing foreign with domestic oil without reducing consumption does not reduce the national security and economic risks associated with a global oil market that is vulnerable to manipulation and disruption.

• Increase alternative fuels: The report acknowledges that not all alternatives to oil are created equal, and calls for a careful assessment of national security impacts. For the first time in any single document, the report assesses a suite of alternative fuels for impacts on a broad range of critical aspects of national security: economic, military, political/geopolitical and environmental. While environmental concerns may not seem related to national security, there is a connection. For example, an extended drought in Darfur, Sudan, led to economic instability, which in turn led to political instability and civil war.

• Develop a national, cogent, dedicated and sustained energy "road map" that rises above partisan politics. The CNA’s MAB military leaders warn "security must trump ideology," adding that "the scale of impact associated with our energy use is massive; [but] the right energy choices can bring down our trade imbalance, lead to new jobs at home, launch new American-made technologies, strengthen our foreign policy hand and increase our military and foreign policy options. These benefits are time-sensitive – waiting for a convenient time to address this challenge will weaken us while others continue to gain strength."

“To be clear, however, we see the value of increased domestic oil production as one of several viable options for reducing our over-dependence on foreign oil,” Kern emphasized. “A near-term increase in domestic production has the potential to decrease reliance on outside sources, to increase the margin between global demand and global supply, and to increase our diplomatic leverage options. However, we also recognize that domestic oil alone will not satisfy our nation’s transportation energy demand.”

He said that, in the end, America must develop alternatives for oil to fuel its transportation sector, if nothing else.

“We can increase domestic production, and simultaneously reduce our overall demand for oil,” Kern stressed. “The two need not present a conflict. Together, these steps would significantly strengthen our economic and diplomatic hands.”

That's pretty good advice, if you ask me. The question, however, is whether anyone in the White House or on Capitol Hill is listening.

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