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Military Advisory Board: Oil Dependency Achilles Heel of U.S. National Security

“Overreliance on oil in the transportation sector is the Achilles heel of our national security.”

A report released last week by the Center for Naval Analysis’ Military Advisory Board (or MAB), made up of some of the United States’ highest-ranking retired military leaders, called for “immediate, swift and aggressive action” over the next decade to reduce U.S. oil consumption 30% in the next ten years.  This is the latest in a series of reports by the MAB, beginning with the 2007 release of “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.” The report, titled “Ensuring America’s Freedom of Movement: A National Security Imperative to Reduce U.S. Oil Dependence,” states emphatically that “America’s dependence on oil constitutes a significant threat– economically, geopolitically, environmentally, and militarily” and that “even a small interruption of the daily oil supply impacts our nation’s economic engine, but a sustained disruption would alter every aspect of our lives — from food costs and distribution to what or if we eat, to manufacturing goods and services to freedom of movement.In short, the scale of impact on U.S. national security associated with current energy use is massive. The report covers a very specific topic: oil dependence of the United State’s transportation sector.  That being said, the suggestions and risk framework of the report can easily be extended into the realm of climate and security.

“The connection is direct: America becomes more secure if Americans use less oil.”

In addition to identifying oil as a national security risk, the report identified specific alternatives to reduce the risk associated with energy use for transportation. The report found that the negative effects of an oil supply disruption on the economy could be reduced dramatically if the U.S. used 30 percent less oil and diversified its fuel sources.  Increasing energy efficiency and diversifying fuel sources could keep the U.S. economy relatively insulated from a disruption in the global oil market.  The MAB also examined a broad range of alternative fuels and found that nearly all were better for national security than oil-based fuels.

“America  does not have the luxury of time.”

This message is not entirely new. The security risks of dependence on oil are clear. What is important about this report is both the messengers, with a combined 400 years of collective military experience, and an emphasis on the urgency of the issue.   The report established a specific time-scale of reducing oil consumption by 30% within 10 years.  The MAB chose a ten year time-scale because “it is a window within which one can reasonably predict the pace of technology changes” and due to the urgent need for the U.S. to reassess its energy posture.  The report also points out that there is a lot of insecurity associated with the global oil market, and that within the next ten years the market will undoubtedly change based on the growing demand for oil by China, India and other developing nations.  In short, the volatility of the oil market is not a place to find security.  In the words of Admiral Dennis McGinn, US Navy (Ret), “the cost of inaction is too high.” The next ten years will be a critical time.

“It won’t be easy.”

While the Military Advisory Board makes it very clear that reducing oil dependency in the next ten years is a matter of national security, the MAB is also clear that this will not necessarily be an easy transition, noting that there is not an alternative capable of occupying the singular space oil holds in the U.S.

Achieving a diverse, effective, and plentiful supply of energy sources other than oil won’t be easy. Americans have optimized oil production and distribution and have mastered refining techniques to maximize energy density an safety characteristics…If pursued haphazardly some of the options for replacing oil could have adverse national security implications. Some of the potential negative impacts that merit attention are: increased reliance on raw materials not produced domestically, excessive water use, altered strategic partnerships, and environmental risks.  National security involves a complex interrelated range of factors, including economic, geopolitical, military, and environmental factors and not all alternatives to oil are created equal when it comes to national security impacts. As we move to reduce our dependence on oil, we must assess the costs and benefits of alternatives in relation to these factors…Short term gains must be weighed carefully against long-term risks. Simplistic approaches or broad assumptions about the value of a particular fuel will not work.

The report concludes that while it won’t be easy, reducing U.S. overreliance on a single fuel is a security imperative, and transitioning to more diverse sources of energy, if implemented correctly, would strengthen national security.

Climate-compatible energy security

The report specifically avoids the issue of climate science because of the political divisions over the issue in the United States, but it does touch on the implications for greenhouse gas emissions, stating; “Even if greenhouse gas reductions are not the goal for our recommended path, they would surely result from it. If a 30 percent reduction in U.S. oil consumption in the transportation sector came from conservation and CO2-neutral alternatives, it would lessen total global greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 5 percent.”

As the report points out, these are not unrelated issues.  Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, U.S. Navy (Ret.) expanded on the issue; “There is a strong relationship between our use of fossil fuels and the acceleration of climate change.” Referencing CNA’s 2007 report on climate change and national security, he made a direct connection.  “This is a security issue. Moving away from fossil fuels is an important step in reducing the security threats related to climate change.”

The report’s call for a strategic road map on national security and energy is in many ways the same road that should be taken for mitigating the national security risks of climate change. An overreliance on single paths, be they sources of greenhouse gases, engineering techniques, methods of agricultural production, or geographically specific natural resources, can increase vulnerabilities to the uncertainties of climate change.  Rapid shifts in the climate also do not allow for the luxury of a gradual response time. Like shifting energy sources, mitigating and adapting to climate change will not necessarily be easy, but the benefits of acting immediately are preferable to the costs of inaction.

Ultimately, the best energy choices are the ones that will be the most resilient and sustainable in a climate-changing world.

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