Oil is a global commodity–it is easy and cheap to ship it around the world. That means that the security of its distribution network is just as important as the security of its supply. This distribution network–including port terminals, huge oil supertankers, and lengthy pipelines–is vast and costly. It is also vulnerable to conflict, piracy and terrorism.
About one fifth of America’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf, passing through the Strait of Hormuz as it is shipped to our shores. Over 15 million barrels of oil per day pass through the Strait, a 21 mile-wide body of water vulnerable to Iranian anti-ship missiles. Iran has repeated its threats to close the Strait and is well positioned to carry out attacks on oil tankers in transit. The very threat of closing the Strait of Hormuz to shipping is enough to give the Iranian regime more leverage in the region than they are due.
Further along oil’s journey from Arabian oil wells to the gasoline pump is either the Strait of Bab el-Mandab or the Strait of Malacca, both of which have a recent history of piracy. These chokepoints between the horn of Africa and the Middle East and the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, respectively, are vulnerable to regional powers and to piracy. In 2009 the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia recorded 42 attacks on oil tankers around the world, a 40% increase from 2008. The majority of pirate attacks occurred off the coast of Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.
Terrorist attacks on energy infrastructure have also been on the rise. Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility-where two-thirds of the country’s output is refined-was the target of a suicide bomb attack in February 2006. In early October 2010, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for attacks on oil tankers en route to Afghanistan, vowing to attack again. Information seized during the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan revealed Al Qaeda’s continued interest in targeting oil tankers and commercial oil infrastructure at sea.
Piracy and terrorism are of greatest concern at these geostrategic chokepoints far from home, but America’s own oil infrastructure provides similar threats. Over 40% of total US petroleum refining capacity lies along the Gulf Coast, an area extremely susceptible to natural disasters. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed seven platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, significantly damaged 24 others, and hurt over 100 pipelines.
The following year, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the Gulf, destroying more than 100 platforms and damaging 558 pipelines. Of the approximately 20 refineries and production facilities along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Katrina temporarily closed nine facilities and shut down two completely. As a result, US oil supplies saw a reduction of up to 1.4 million barrels a day – 8 percent of total US production. In January of this year, below-freezing temperatures in Alaska forced BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil to suspend 95% of production from the North Slope area.
The tempting solution is to say that it is necessarily to drill for more oil in the US – but a “Drill, Baby, Drill” strategy would not protect us. Even if the US imported no oil from the Persian Gulf, a closure of the Strait of Hormuz to shipping would devastate our economy by driving up global oil prices to record highs. Instead, the solution must be to reduce oil consumption by working with the automotive industry to bring forward more fuel-efficient vehicles while simultaneously expanding our use of alternative energy.
So, to prevent our dependency on oil from distorting the decisions we make, both abroad and at home, we must aim to reduce our need for all oil.
The Administration’s proposal, announced on November 16 to bring Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 comes from an agreement between the Automakers (including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota, and others), the United Auto Workers and the Administration. This new standard will reduce America’s oil dependence and will significantly increase our national security.
The United States is the greatest nation in the world. Its national security should not be beholden to the whims of unstable regimes that happen to control faraway sea-lanes. It is time for America to wrest its national security back from the chokehold that oil has on our economy and our national security. These standards will increase America’s national security and reduce the threat that oil poses to our way of life.
Brigade General Stephen A. Cheney USMC (Ret.) is the CEO of the American Security Project a non-partisan think-tank. During his over 30 years within the US military he has held numerous leadership positions, including Inspector General of the Marine Corp and Commanding General of Parris Island.