WASHINGTON — For years, military leaders have identified fossil fuel dependence as the greatest long-term threat to US national security — and not just dependence on foreign sources, but on all fossil fuels, period. The Pentagon has taken the lead in developing alternative fuels, an effort our military-industrial complex stands ready to support.
Given the severity of our security interests and the profit motive for innovative solutions, one would expect a concern for national security to provide the common ground upon which progressives and conservatives can support an off-ramp from oil, coal and gas. Regrettably, that is not the case.
A group of 14 Republican Congressmen recently sent a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus advising him that his goal to make the Navy less reliant on fossil fuels is misguided. Coming from a party whose politicians regularly emphasize the importance of “listening to the generals,” especially on questions of force protection and mission effectiveness, the behavior of these 14 Republicans represents the height of irresponsibility and hypocrisy. They ignore the military’s understanding of the significant dangers of dependence on fossil fuels, both as a nation and for our military.
The United States consumes one-quarter of the world’s oil, with the military as our single largest consumer. We export a billion dollars each day to pay for our dependence. Forty percent of that goes to dangerous or unstable nations, some of which use their oil profits to do us harm. For example, it has been proven that Iran, whose predominant source of income is oil revenue, has financed the production and deployment of roadside bombs used against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever profits increase for US oil companies due to a rise in global oil prices, any nation with a state-owned oil company also increases its bottom line.
In addition to enriching our adversaries through our dependence, the transport of oil, both to the battlefield for use in war fighting efforts, as well as the delivery of fuel through shipping lanes that our military protects, requires an enormous expense in “blood and treasure.” The military reports that the delivery of fuel to a rural town in Afghanistan can cost as much as $400 per gallon. If all the defense costs to bring oil safely to our shores were included in the price at the pump, as opposed to being embedded in our tax payments that support the military, we would be spending upwards of $8 per gallon. And that’s just the cost in treasure.
As for the cost in blood, fuel convoys are slow-moving targets through the torturous roads of Afghanistan, providing easy targets for attacks that result in the loss of American life, with approximately one casualty reported for every 24 convoys. With many inefficient vehicles in the field, our allocation of resources merely to deliver the fuel and protect the supply lines is enormous. In addition, our ships and vehicles are vulnerable when refueling. The less we need to refuel, the more our vehicles can stay in the fight.
The military knows that “drill, baby, drill” is a false solution. We have 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves; OPEC has 70 percent. Drilling all we have domestically would hardly reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Even if we brought all of our own with us onto the battlefield, we still wouldn’t solve the problem of protecting its safe transport and avoiding the high number of casualties associated with convoy duty.
And there are other indirect costs to consider. The Quadrennial Defense Review cites climate change as a threat-multiplier that can destabilize weak nations and threaten our security. While we may not have all the answers on climate science, it’s clear that fossil fuel consumption contributes to environmental degradation, which in turn aggravates instability.
The military has always been a test bed for innovation. Some of our greatest achievements as a society have resulted from innovative solutions to military challenges. Radar, the internet and GPS are just a few technologies designed out of military need, which then crossed into the civilian sector with great economic benefits to the nation. Congress should support the military’s ability to serve as a test bed for innovation in renewable technology.
Our energy, economic, environmental and national security are inextricably linked. Military leaders know that we can either invest in renewable energy now, or pay a higher price in the future by sending the next generation of service members into harm’s way to feed our thirst for fossil fuels, an energy source whose scarcity and cost are both rising.
Congress owes it to our men and women in uniform to take the long view. If these 14 congressmen truly wish to demonstrate their conservative and patriotic bona fides, they can start by helping the military address the severe national security threats caused by our dependence on fossil fuel.
Roger Sorkin is a documentary filmmaker and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. His current film is, “The Burden: Fossil Fuel, the Military, and National Security.”