August 1, 2006  

Energy gap

Elections stir up decades-old oil dependence debate

For several years, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., has warned that world oil production would soon peak, demand will continue to rise and the world will start to run out of oil. This spring, as the price of oil climbed past $70 a barrel, Bartlett, who is chairman of a key military subcommittee in the House of Representatives, said it was time to start building an all-nuclear-powered navy.

Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned in a speech in March that dependence on foreign oil puts U.S. security and prosperity in jeopardy. “Most of the world’s oil is concentrated in places that are either hostile to American interests or vulnerable to political upheaval and terrorism,” Lugar, R-Ind., said.

In May, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., unveiled a $206 billion, decade-long effort to develop new energy sources. About two-thirds of the energy the U.S. uses is imported, Israel said. He wants to reduce that to no more than one-third. “I view energy as the most critical national security threat facing us and our children,” said Israel, who is a House Armed Services Committee colleague of Bartlett.

In a June 26 speech in Boston, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called for two national energy independence goals: reducing U.S. oil consumption in the next decade by 2.5 million barrels a day — the amount we now import from the Persian Gulf — and shifting to 30 percent biofuels by 2020. Energy independence, Kerry said, is “an indispensable element of our national security.”

With fall congressional elections rapidly approaching and the 2008 presidential race beginning shortly thereafter, energy independence is re-emerging as a political issue each party hopes to exploit.

Energy has been an election issue before: To drill or not to drill in Alaska is a biennial battle. Al Gore made alternative fuels and global warming part of his unsuccessful 2000 run for the presidency. In 1973, in response to the Arab oil embargo, President Nixon called for energy independence.

And as gasoline prices hit record highs and anti-American rhetoric spewed from the Middle East, the president of the United States asked, “Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?” That president, Kerry reminded us in his speech, was Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Carter suffered political defeat after Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran and seized and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The militants had deposed the shah, whom the U.S. supported in exchange for ensured access to oil.

This time, energy is portrayed not so much as an economic concern or an environmental problem —– although those elements are surely present — but rather as a critical national security matter.

President Bush set the tone in January when he declared in his State of the Union address, “We have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

Bush proposed breaking the oil addiction “through technology.” He called for more research into clean coal, solar, wind and “safe” nuclear energy. He touted better batteries and hydrogen engines for automobiles, and promised to fund research into new methods for using ethanol as automobile fuel.

Bush said his goal was “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025,” and to “move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.”

Lugar followed in March in a speech to the Brookings Institution in which he called U.S. energy dependence “the albatross of U.S. national security.”

Bartlett, chairman of the House’s projection forces subcommittee, picked up the theme in April, stating, “We must look for ways to break ourselves free from dependence on foreign oil.”

Israel, who serves on Bartlett’s subcommittee, issued a “Next Generation Energy Security Plan” in May.

Then in June, Kerry spoke. U.S. dependence on foreign oil “props up decaying and dictatorial regimes” and those that tolerate and sustain terrorists, he said. “Any long-term strategy for winning the war on terror must be matched with a determined effort to reduce our dependence on petroleum.”

The president alone or Congress could order automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. So far, however, Bush has opted only to nudge the mileage rate up. In April he proposed increasing mileage rates for light trucks and sport utility vehicles from 21.6 miles per gallon to 24.1 in 2011. For other vehicles, increases would be less than one mile per gallon. Bush says he is waiting for Congress to give him the authority to order the increases. Some in Congress say he already has it. While that debate goes on, mileage requirements remain the same.

Israel is eager to talk up his energy security plan, which includes requiring the federal government to buy 50,000 gas-electric cars, creating an Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency and providing a variety of tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy.

He likens the energy independence effort he envisions to the 1960s drive to put an American on the moon, and the sustained national efforts to win World War II and the Cold War.

Israel said he decided to take up the issue a year ago when he and Armed Services Committee colleagues gathered for a classified Pentagon briefing about the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. “We looked at every military flashpoint and potential military flashpoint over the next 20 years,” Israel recalled. “Every single one is either derived from or impacted by our dependence on foreign oil.”

China and Iran, anyway. China because it is a rising military power with the world’s fastest-growing economy and a voracious appetite for oil. It is becoming an energy rival to the U.S., Israel said. Iran, which is working to build nuclear weapons, is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, and in a conflict with the West, Iran would attempt to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off 25 percent of the world’s oil, driving oil prices sharply up and Western economies sharply down, he said.

In an interview, Israel did not tie the war in Iraq directly to oil, but said global terrorism exploits poverty, disease, oppression and environmental degradation, which are aggravated by global warming, which is caused by the carbon emissions of burning fossil fuels.

Military experiments

It is likely to take years for Israel to turn his proposals into legislation, but one measure he hopes to enact this summer is restoring $11 million to the U.S. Air Force’s 2007 budget to continue experimenting with making aircraft fuel out of coal and natural gas. The money was dropped from the Air Force budget by lawmakers earlier this year, Israel said. The Air Force’s aim is not to eliminate the use of foreign oil, but to see whether alternative fuels can be made, ensuring the Air Force an adequate supply of jet fuel in the uncertain future.

The Air Force plans to fly a B-52 bomber this summer powered with liquid fuel made from natural gas. The other services, too, are working on energy conservation and alternative energy projects. The Army is experimenting with solar panels to provide power to its soldiers and with gasoline-electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles and fuel cells as power plants. The Navy is studying the economics of nuclear power aid rising oil prices. When oil prices passed $60 a barrel, nuclear power became cheaper than oil for the Navy’s largest oil-powered amphibious ships. Nuclear power is already used for aircraft carriers and submarines — about 80 of the Navy’s 286 ships. But the Navy calculates that nuclear power won’t be economical for destroyers, cruisers and smaller vessels until oil costs about $200 a barrel.

However energy-efficient and innovative the U.S. military becomes, it will do little to solve the nation’s energy problem. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. military consumes about 300,000 barrels of oil a day — less than 2 percent of U.S. oil consumption.

As for energy dependence as a national security threat — we’ve been there before. Kerry cautioned his Boston audience: “Whenever we face an energy crisis, talk of energy independence becomes the common currency of the American political dialogue. We have Apollo projects and Manhattan Projects for alternative fuels, summits and conferences and energy expos. And then, as the price of oil falls or supplies increase or a war is put behind us, the sense of urgency evaporates.

“America’s energy strategy has been rhetorical, not real,” he said.

Kerry, of course, wants that not to happen this time. So did Nixon and Carter and Gore and, presumably, even George W. Bush.