Not surprisingly there has been greater attention to critical minerals recently, including potential U.S. vulnerability with dependence on rare earth elements. The increased focus can, in part, be attributed to recent events in the South and East China Seas, where if you recall there was a tense diplomatic row between China and Japan last year that prompted Beijing to allegedly suspend exports of rare earth minerals to Japan. As the conversation about rare earths and U.S. vulnerabilities continues in Washington, there are two important reports that you should add to your minerals reading list.
Last month, CNAS launched Christine Parthemore's new report, Elements of Security: Mitigating the Risks of U.S. Dependence on Critical Minerals. The report explores a range of potential vulnerabilities that stem from dependence on several minerals that the United States will need for defense supply chains and clean energy goals in the decades ahead and offers several cost-effective, proactive measures to prevent mineral issues from impinging on security, foreign policy and economic growth plans in the years ahead. Among the recommendations Christine makes, international cooperation figures prominently, including promoting information sharing with our international partners and U.S. companies that do business abroad. “For instance, more open dialogue can provide important information to companies on emerging government concerns and geopolitical trends that may affect their businesses,” Parthemore writes.
As the U.S. military continues its drawdown of troops from Iraq – with the last of those troops to leave by December 31, 2011 – policymakers and analysts are likely to raise concerns over the country’s long-term stability and sustainability given the laundry list of challenges that continue to plague a fledgling and often times beleaguered central government. The New York Times report this morning on China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) recent oil operations at Iraq’s Al-Ahdab oil field sheds light on some of those seams, including challenges stemming from access to food and water and other basic social services that are largely not provided evenly by the government in Baghdad:
The [CNPC] deal began drawing intense criticism from residents and officials in Wasit Province, where the [Al Ahdab] field is located, shortly after the contract was signed. Some people demanded that Wasit be granted a royalty of $1 a barrel to improve access to clean water, health services, schools, roads and other public needs in the province, which is among Iraq’s poorest. The Iraqi government rejected the demands.
As Iraq continues to grabble with these challenges, one cannot help but wonder how much ill-access to water, food, shelter and adequate electricity (to name just a few social needs) will continue to exacerbate existing grievances and drive a greater wedge between the Iraqi people and the government. I am reminded especially of the hurdles the country faces with acute water shortages. Last June, I wrote a piece for Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog on this very issue. Here’s what I found:
Yesterday Wired’s Danger Room reported that last week the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $150 million in cuts to DARPA’s budget. Included in those cuts, the SASC suggested that DOD cut a project to push along small modular nuclear reactors for use on forward operating bases.
My reaction via Twitter: “Hurray!”
To be clear, I have nothing against this technology. (Nor do I think DARPA presents the DOD work most worthy of cuts.) I hope small modular reactors move along as many expect, a good sign of which is that the Tennessee Valley Authority recently signed a letter of intent with Babcock & Wilcox to explore building several right here in the U.S. of A. The private sectors in the States and other countries have been exploring these reactor designs for years, and I do hope that they can provide the benefits of nuclear power while reducing some of its risks.
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that there is new advice for vulnerable coastal communities on how to adapt to risings seas: move away from the shore. The Post report explores the implications of sea-level rise for the Hampton Roads area, home to Norfolk Naval Station, cautioning that traditional methods of holding back the sea could fall short. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the first manual on how not to hold [the sea] back, arguing that costly seawalls and dikes eventually fail because sea-level rise is unstoppable,” the report cited. “The federal Global Change Research Program estimates that the sea level will rise 14 to 17 inches in the next century around Hampton Roads.”
Instead of investing in massive (expensive) infrastructure projects to hold back the sea, the EPA hopes that its new report will encourage coastal communities to enact new city ordinances and development laws that prohibit new coastal construction, and devise incentives for already vulnerable commercial businesses and residents to move away from the shore. “The EPA report said governments have three options to deal with sea-level rise,” the Post reported:
They can stay on the well-worn path of building expensive protection and raising streets and buildings. They can beat an organized retreat from the shore, perhaps by offering financial incentives to people and organizations to move inland. Or they can allow people to do whatever they want for their waterfront properties but tell them in no uncertain terms that they are on their own when the waters rise.
On Thursday, the Department of Energy announced that the United States and its partners in the International Energy Agency will release 60 million barrels of oil into the market over the next 30 days “to offset the disruption in the oil supply caused by unrest in the Middle East”. The United States will release 30 million barrels of oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the government was “taking this action in response to the ongoing loss of crude oil due to supply disruptions in Libya and other countries and their impact on the global economic recovery.”
Photo: A technician works on one of the reserve's wellheads. Courtesy of the Department of Energy.
The New York Times reports that a fusion experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Labs is facing new hurdles.
Middle East nations face a looming vulnerability due to climate change, ClimateWire reports.
The Washington Post reports that Iraq’s crippling oil infrastructure presents major hurdles to increasing oil production.
Beijing continued its warnings on Wednesday for the United States not to let Southeast Asian countries drag it into South China Sea disputes, according to The Washington Post.
As I sit at my desk returning emails and eating a nice muesli lunch, I was a bit startled by the new headlines that that United States and its IEA friends "would release 60 million barrels of crude oil from reserves over the next 30 days." My initial reactions were, in order:
Obviously there is a strong political element to caring about gas prices, but hey, that's the job of political leaders. I do see this as a strong foretelling of 2012 election year headlines, even if it is anecdotal: gas prices & their economic impact overtook Afghanistan on the Washington Post homepage as soon as the story broke.
Today’s post is a recap of David Sandalow’s June 14 testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight on “The Federal Perspective on a National Critical Materials Strategy.” David Sandalow is the Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the Department of Energy. His testimony follows up a hearing held last year examining the U.S. government perspective on a national critical materials strategy.
Sandalow’s main point:
“The issue of critical minerals is important and needs priority attention…The Department shares the goal of establishing a stable, sustainable and domestic supply of critical minerals.”
The Department of Energy (DOE) is currently:
Introducing Kiernan Veith! Kiernan was a student delegate from DePaul University to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) COP-15 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. With her major in Political Science and a minor in Environmental Studies, Kiernan brings to the Natural Security program not only a deep background on climate change, but also the analytical scope to explore environmental and climate change through a national security and foreign policy lens. Take it away, Kiernan!
Last Friday, June 17, 2011, marked the last day of the two-week United Nation’s Climate Talks in Bonn, Germany. With the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol commitments set to expire at the end of 2012, the talks in Bonn were expected to pick up on the outcomes of the 16th Conference of Parties (COP) in Cancun last December and prepare for the 17th COP in Durban this December.
There was modest progress made during the negotiations toward extending carbon trading mechanisms and building institutions to help developing countries adapt to changes in the climate. The large differences that have been part of this process for more than 20 years (finance, emissions cuts, and future of the protocol) remained unresolved at the end of the two-week sessions, said the Environmental Defense Fund. These large differences include where nations will get the financing to stimulate investment in low-carbon development/adaptation, exact emissions reduction targets and whether or not to extend the Kyoto Protocol for a second period.
Some highlights from Bonn include:
This morning, The Washington Post ran a headline that seemed all too familiar: “As the sun awakens, the power grid stands vulnerable.” Indeed, the sun’s increased solar activity has been a concern for scientists and power industry experts who recognize that vulnerability. “Since February, our star has been spitting out flares and plasma like an angry dragon,” The Washington Post reported. And if a large solar flare headed our way, it “could knock some of the North American power grid offline.”
The consequences could be pretty severe, affecting everything from communications satellites to oil pipelines. According to the Post:
Communications satellites will be knocked offline. Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses. The GPS system will go wonky. Astronauts on the space station will huddle in a shielded module, as they have done three times in the past decade due to “space weather,” the scientific term for all of the sun’s freaky activity. Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight. And oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.
“But the biggest impact will be on the modern marvel known as the power grid,” the report cautioned.
You will recall that several months ago Christine wrote a post for the blog during our Final Frontier (Space) Week asking the question: “Will the Sun Take Down the Electric Grid?” Here’s what she found.
Water scarcity is a global challenge, one that affects nations of all stripes, regardless of economic or political vitality. From water scarcity in Yemen and Iraq, to skirmishes between Pakistan and India over access to water, these trends affect not only how well these states cope domestically, but they carry potential implications for U.S. national security as well. But as The New York Times reminded us yesterday, water scarcity is not solely a Yeminis, Iraqi or Pakistani story, it is an American one, too. And like these countries, how well we manage shirking water availability at home will depend on how well we understand and adapt to a world where resources like water are not as plentiful.
Water scarcity in America is not new. Indeed, it has been a perennial challenge, particularly for communities in the arid American Southwest that have relied for many decades on water being diverted from major rivers to quench the thirst of burgeoning cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But with population growth steadily increasing and climate change projected to affect winter snow accumulation in the mountains that provide seasonal runoff to many rivers in the American west, water will not be as accessible as it has been in years prior. The New York Times on Sunday summed it up very succinctly: “Water habits must adjust to new constraints.” “I think we have taken water for granted,” Myron Hess, the Texas water programs manager for the National Wildlife Federation, told The New York Times. “And I do think attitudes about water have to change.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn released DOD’s new Operational Energy Strategy on Tuesday, describing the strategy as part of the department’s broader need to “better manage the defense enterprise to adapt our forces to emerging threats, and to sustain a strong and capable military.”
“Our use of energy cuts across each of these issues,” Lynn said. “It affects military planners, acquisition managers and the warfighters alike. The way we build energy into our operations is a core part of fighting and winning the nation’s wars.”
In the coming months, DOD will follow up the strategy with an implementation plan that should provide concrete policy steps to enable the department and the military services to accomplish the strategic goals set forth on Tuesday.
Photo: Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn and Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, brief the Pentagon press corps on the department's Operational Energy Strategy at the Pentagon on June 14, 2011. Courtesy of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey and the Department of Defense.
On Tuesday, the Department of Defense released its operational energy strategy. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs Sharon Burke, former veep for Natural Security at CNAS, was sworn in on August 8, 2010 and charged with leading DOD’s operational energy office and delivering the strategy to Congress.
Overall, the operational energy strategy is the broadest effort yet to transform the way the military thinks about and utilizes energy. Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke and her office deserve credit for continuing to provide direction for U.S. military commanders, logisticians and policymakers to address one of the most challenging questions facing the U.S. military today: how can we safely and sustainably fuel the force?
In the next few months, the operational energy office will follow up the strategy with an implementation plan that should provide some concrete policy steps for enacting the vision laid out in the strategy on Tuesday. For example, the strategy emphasizes the need for the military services to generate data about their fuel consumption so that they can better understand how they consume energy and more easily adopt common sense practices that can have an immediate impact on reducing energy demand in combat theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan. The implementation plan is said to provide the military services with a set of targets and timelines to help generate that much-needed data.
Christine recently spoke with Jennifer Sciubba, a professor at Rhodes College and author of The Future Faces of War: Population and National Security. Here’s what the two discussed:
Christine Parthemore (CP): In the book, you point out that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt had a 50/50 chance of becoming a liberal democracy before 2020, based on historical demographic and political correlations. If you were a betting scholar, what country or countries would be next in line?
Jennifer Sciubba (JS): The work by Richard Cincotta establishes a correlation between proportion of young adults in a population and chance of democracy, pointing out that once the population of young adults as a proportion of all adults reaches 40 percent or less, the country has about a 50/50 shot at becoming a democracy. But, the work still doesn’t tell us enough about the mechanisms through which these variables are linked. Based purely on age structure, we would look to the five former Soviet Republics in Central Asia to democratize next. But a few states across the recent arc of revolution have seen instability and calls for greater representation even though they are still years away from this benchmark. For example, Egypt’s age structure is still young—48% of the adult population is ages 15-29. One explanation that doesn’t undermine Cincotta’s thesis is that though these states are all experiencing instability, it is far too soon to term these democratic revolutions. It will be years before these states have consolidated liberal democracies, and perhaps that won’t happen until they reach the benchmark. But there is another explanation that interests me. I’m working on some research with a student here at Rhodes to look at the emergence of a political generation across the region—the youth are all experiencing similar exclusion in the political, social, and economic realms that are unique to their position in life and this may matter more than the age structure itself. It is notable, however, that the wave of revolution began in a country on the cusp of the “half-a-chance benchmark.”
China's drought threatens farm income, drinking water, wildlife and hydropower, according to The New York Times.
Also in the NYT this morning, Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge.
The Pentagon rolled out its first energy plan, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Some international natural security news just in from The Wall Street Journal: German Nuclear Exit Hurts Merkel's Green-Energy Goal.
It’s not often that new blogs come online that so directly focus on what we at CNAS call “natural security” issues. But it’s happened. We bloggers here suddenly feel a little less cloistered in this field, and a little bit vindicated that it’s not just us.
A Georgetown Doha-branch post-doc named Mari Luomi appears to have launched one called “Emissions,” with a tagline “on the environment, climate change & the Middle East” at Current Intelligence. The first two posts show a lot of promise that the angle will be unique, and that the commentary will be well thought-through and pragmatic.
From the opening post, “Natural Resources and the Arab Spring”:
While the human factor has shown its epoch-making power all over the Middle East this spring, there is still something to say about the role of natural resources in the region’s past, present and future trajectories. But it’s not just “the oil, stupid” I’m referring to. It’s also natural gas and water…
The relationship between oil and authoritarianism in the contemporary Middle East needs a more accurate, refined description...During the past decade, depleting oil reserves, underdeveloped or lacking natural gas reserves, population growth, and industrialisation have strained authoritarian governments’ welfare provisions across the region. Tiny, gas-rich Qatar is the only clear deviation from this rule…
The first thing you need to see if you missed this weekend's news is this Mike Luckovich cartoon. Amazing.
You all know by now that tensions between China and Vietnam began rising quickly a few weeks back, sparked by a Chinese vessel cutting underwater cables being used by a PetroVietnam vessel in the South China Sea. By coincidence, I was just visiting China and Vietnam both for research, and one question I started hearing in earnest while in Vietnam was what the United States will do if conflict ensues over potentially resource-rich disputed territory. Financial Times reported Sunday that "Vietnam has called on the US and other nations to help resolve the escalating territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea." It appears that Taiwan may be preparing to send more assets into the disputed region as well.
The ever-shifting winds of international public opinion on nuclear energy topped the news this weekend. I didn't see major news news, just plenty of coverage of recent changes. On Saturday, The Washington Post had a long piece on German Chancellor Merkel's committment to get rid of her country's nuclear power in the next decade. (See also events list below.) It appears that a growing number of experts are projecting that the need for fossil fuels to fill Germany's gigawatt gap may be greater than political leaders are currently proclaiming, with implications for their goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The New York Times also reported on new protests over the nuclear situation in Japan as the country continues its efforts to recover from March's triple disasters. Nuclear trends in both of these countries will influence nuclear energy trends worldwide, but these two are particularly important to watch for the United States given their status as close allies. Their budgets and roles in energy tech trend-setting will influence our future relations.