Almost forty years ago, President Nixon exhorted the country: “By the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.” Today, more than 30 years later, the United States may actually be on a course to meet this elusive goal. America is experiencing a surge in energy production. The shale gas boom we see in places like Pennsylvania and Oklahoma means that the U.S. now has more than a century of gas reserves. Similar technology has opened up oil fields in places like the Bakken field in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas. Last month, for the first time since 1995, the United States produced more crude oil than it imported.
In the four decades since President Nixon’s statement, every Presidential administration has identified “Energy Independence” as a critical goal. As we approach the elusive goal however, we are learning that it may not actually deliver on the benefits promised. Oil remains above $90 per barrel, and gasoline prices continue to hover near $4 per gallon. We remain tethered to a global price of oil that is determined more by global demand and the threat of conflict in the Middle East than by production in North Dakota. The Navy’s 5th fleet remains based in the Persian Gulf and, among other duties, is protecting oil supply lines.
New challenges also reveal how the forty-year-old goal of “Energy Independence” needs updating. The problems associated with energy insecurity in the 1970s are not those of today. Climate change, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels, is real and already affecting America’s national security. The Pentagon and America’s intelligence community call climate change a “threat multiplier” and an “accelerant of instability” around the world. This means over the next several decades, a changing climate will impact access to water and food production systems worldwide, increasing the possibility of conflict. The American military will be called to respond.
Together, we three authors share a combined 95 years of experience in America’s military. In our careers we saw how energy impacts everything America’s armed forces do. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our adversaries knew that the fuel convoy was a soft target – and many American lives were lost because of our energy dependence. At home, we saw how major disasters like last year’s super-storm Sandy can knock out power and fuel and disable vast stretches of the country.
We also know that America’s dependence on oil entwines our foreign policy with regimes hostile to American values, especially in the Middle East. Even if our production of oil here at home equals our consumption, world markets will ensure that our politics and economic welfare stay intertwined.
All this combines to mean that America must redefine “Energy Security” in the 21st Century. Energy Security no longer means that all energy produced at home is good, no matter how polluting it is. Instead of focusing on where energy comes from, our country needs an energy policy that considers the real costs and benefits of our energy production and use. Increased investment in R&D for renewable energy sources and improvements are essential. We need to realize that economic stability and environmental sustainability are as much a part of energy security as the threats of supply shortages.
We should start by acknowledging climate change risks are real and growing every day. We cannot afford to ignore them. Even if you choose not to believe that human activity contributes to climate change, or even that the climate is changing, from our military experience we know that waiting for certainty on the battlefield can be disastrous. Managing risk requires a prudent response, the first step of which is an energy debate that addresses the challenges of the 21st Century, not one devised for the 1970s. The greatest dangers lie in our being unprepared. All of this argues for prudent, no regrets action now to reduce future risk
The President has called on Congress to address climate change, and now we are told that he will release a detailed plan tomorrow to move forward because they have not acted. As the debate over this important proposal moves forward, we ask that all parties engage in a rational, fact-based assessment that fully recognizes the breadth and depth of the risks of energy insecurity.
Our energy system is fatally flawed: it is environmentally unsustainable, economically unstable, and we know it endangers our national security. We need a new conversation about energy, one that addresses the challenges of the 21st Century, not the ones that seemed to loom in the 1970s. We should not be misled by achieving what’s called “Energy Independence” while creating and using energy in the old ways. Work with us instead on building an energy system that reduces risks to our economy, our environment, and our national security.
Vice Admiral Gunn, US Navy (ret.), Brigadier General Anderson, US Army (ret.), and Brigadier General Cheney, US Marine Corps are affiliated with the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank focused on studying issues of national security. They are participating in a panel discussion, “Redefining US Energy Security for the 21st Century” on Tuesday, June 25 as a part of New York Energy Week.