oil derrick 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The case for reducing the United States' dependence on oil is most often argued by environmentalists concerned about global warming and ozone depletion. But a growing number of people are drawing what they consider to be a crucial link between oil and national security. They argue that America's reliance on oil is the number one security threat facing the country.
One figure who has emerged in this debate is co-chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger and former director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, who spoke in New York this week at an event sponsored by the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank that seeks to define and promote America's interests in the Middle East. Woolsey argues that America's reliance on oil as the primary source of fuel is one of the greatest barriers to national security and threatens both the US and Israel.
"The way strategically over the long run to weaken the enemies of Israel, such as Ahmadinejad, is to weaken the role of oil," Woolsey said. "Oil makes it harder to avoid genocide in Darfur because the Sudanese have a deal with China, and it makes it harder to deal with Iran, because China and Iran have an oil deal."
The problem with reliance on oil is twofold, according to Woolsey who is a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. The petroleum infrastructure is vulnerable to terrorist and environmental attacks, and the transfer of funds from oil have been used, and continue to be used, to fund terrorism or support totalitarian regimes.
"One of the ways to convince these regimes that their system won't work, is to convince them that they can't continue to just sit and pump."
The only way to do that, he argues, is by moving away from cars than run on petroleum. The US used 140 billion gallons of gas last year, and a little over 40 percent of oil consumption is used for cars and other light transportation.
Roughly two-thirds of the world's known oil reserves are in the greater Middle East. Demand is expected to increase by more than 50% in the next two decades from 78 million barrels per day (MBD) in 2002 to 118 MBD in 2025, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
"It will mean higher prices and potential supply disruptions and will put considerable leverage in the hands of governments in the greater Middle East," Woolsey said.
Woolsey pointed to the attack at Abquaiq earlier this year as an example of America's vulnerability. A well planned attack could take some six million barrels per day off the market sharply increasing petroleum prices and damaging the world economy, according to Woolsey.
"We have succeeded in constructing an international trading system for energy and everything else, that operates like a beautiful, fine, Swiss watch, and it works very well as long as there is no interference," Woolsey said.
An accident last summer in the Texas City refinery as well as hurricane damage in the Gulf, point out the potential infrastructure vulnerabilities.
"The transfer of funds from industrial countries to the Middle East is a source of enormous strength for them and particularly for autocracies, whether it be the Iranian government or Whahadi infrastructure," said Daniel Pipes director of the Middle East Forum. "Therefore cutting back on those transfers is of vital importance and high priority."
Though politicians across the political spectrum have long recognized that oil is a problem, not everyone agrees on how to solve it.
The Bush administration has largely focused on the supply side of the oil equation, trying to locate more oil reserves, according to Paul Roberts author of the book "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World" They have not, however, expressed much interest in reducing demand.
"It is not generally helpful for the US, for example, to import less from the greater Middle East and for others then to import more from there," Woolsey wrote in a testimony to the US Senate Committee on Energy in March. "In effect, all of us oil-importing countries are in this together."
In the last five years, however, an interesting alliance has emerged between those who want to lower the use of oil for environmental reasons, and national security hawks who recognize that America can't maintain security if it is beholden to the Middle East, according to Roberts.
In the past there have been proposals to transition to other forms of fuel, such as hydrogen, but this would require major investments in infrastructure. To have an impact on the country's vulnerabilities within the two decades, any alternative will need to accommodate existing energy infrastructure, Woolsey said.
One such alternative that Woolsey is promoting is a plug-in hybrid car, which would draw power from the electricity grid. A plug-in hybrid has the advantages of an electric car without the disadvantages - electric cars cannot be recharged if their batteries run down away from electric power.
What is needed are adequate batteries that could permit all electric driving for weeks at a time without visiting a gasoline station, according to Woolsey. Such batteries already exist on a smaller scale and are used in computers.
Bringing hybrid plug-ins on the market does not require heavy government involvement, according to Woolsey.
Woolsey gave the example of railroads as a historic instance of substantial change in the American economy.
"The US government had a limited but essential role - they made sure no one could block the rights of way, but they didn't get in the business of designing the engines, and we don't need to either," Woolsey said.
Other advocates of reducing America's dependence on oil disagree, maintaining that these kind of changes require government involvement.
"The market provides energy as cheaply as it can, the problem is that there are costs involved with moving to alternative fuels," Roberts said.
Even if the necessary technology exists, the problem with plug-in hybrids is that only ten such cars exist and there are no automakers on the market making them, said Dan Becker, the director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.
According to Becker, the biggest step in reducing oil dependence is making cars go further on a gallon of gas. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAF ) enacted by Congress in 1975 reduced energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks. CAF standards cut American oil dependence by 3 million barrels a day.
"We could save an additional 4 million barrels a day if existing technologies were put on cars," Becker said. The problem, he says, is that CAF standards have not been updated since they were established.
There have been bills in both houses of Congress to update CAF standards, but they have been defeated numerous times.
"This administration will do nothing to offend the auto and oil industries," Becker said. "There are former auto industry executives running the agency that is supposed to regulate the auto industry."
And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has not been very supportive, Becker said. There is disagreement as to how a reduction in the demand for oil could change US relations to Israel.
Woolsey said he thought US ties to Israel would remain the same, as "most Americans look upon Israel as...extremely close allies in the foxhole together."
Roberts is more skeptical. Israel, he says, provides a counterweight to the other countries in the region. "How much would we feel we needed a counterweight if those countries were less important?"
The link between reducing the US's dependence on oil and national security, Roberts said, is "a no brainer."
Woolsey agrees and believes that some solutions are just around the corner if the right people are willing to look.
"We could, with systems that have been invented and are on the market in different ways, begin before too long to move decisively away from oil as our principle transportation vehicle," Woolsey said.
"I would suggest a path of that sort would be likely to get attention from the countries in the Middle East whose misbehavior constitutes a huge share of the world's difficulty as far as the future of conflict and terrorism are concerned."