As I mentioned last week on World Water Day, the intelligence community released its assessment on Global Water Security, timed very well I thought with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's launch of the new U.S. Water Program. Special thanks to our friends (and my former colleagues) across the way at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program for writing this thoughtful piece on the new intelligence community assessment that originally appeared on the New Security Beat blog.
By Schuyler Null, Managing Editor of the New Security Beat
Alongside and in support of Secretary Clinton’s announcement of a new State Department-led water security initiative last week was the release of a global water security assessment by the National Intelligence Council and Director of National Intelligence. The aim of the report? Answer the question: “How will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years?”
1) Over the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure. However, water problems – when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions – contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.
U.S. policymakers and military officials are giving the Arctic some more attention.
On Saturday, The Navy Times reported on the Coast Guard’s request to Congress to purchase a new heavy-icebreaker to bolster the U.S. presence in the Arctic. “Rising global temperatures and melting sea ice are opening the Arctic as a new frontier for research, travel and oil drilling — and creating more area for the Coast Guard to patrol,” the report said. “To keep up, the Coast Guard is asking for $8 million in the fiscal 2013 budget to begin procurement of a new large icebreaker.” The total cost of the icebreaker is projected around $860 million. The initial $8 million is to, as the report notes, get the procurement process started.
The U.S. Coast Guard currently lacks the icebreaking capability it needs to secure U.S. interests in the Arctic. “Neither of the U.S.’s two heavy-duty Polar-class icebreakers is in service. The Polar Star is awaiting a $57 million upgrade set to be finished in December. Its sister ship, Polar Sea, has been docked in Seattle since 2010 with engine issues,” The Navy Times said. “The medium-duty polar icebreaker Healy is designed for research and cannot cut through the thickest ice.”
Water is “an essential ingredient of global peace, stability, and security,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday in honor of World Water Day. “We think it actually is our duty and responsibility to make sure that this water issue stays at the very top of America’s foreign policy and national security agenda.”
Secretary Clinton’s remarks also coincided with the release of the intelligence community’s Global Water Security report, a study commissioned by the State Department to analyze the effect of water on U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. “This assessment is a landmark document that puts water security in its rightful place as part of national security,” Secretary Clinton said of the report.
Photo: Secretary Clinton delivers remarks honoring the 2012 World Water Day. Courtesy of Michael Gross and the U.S. State Department.
Today is World Water Day, a day to promote awareness of the acute water and food shortages plaguing the estimated 1 out of 8 persons that lack reliable access to clean drinking water.
This morning at 10:30 AM, tune into the State Department's website where you can watch Secretary of State Clinton deliver her remarks on World Water Day. According to a State Department release, Secretary Clinton will also launch the new U.S. Water Partnership (USWP) today. The statement says that “The USWP is a public-private partnership formed to share U.S. knowledge, leverage and mobilize resources, and facilitate cross-sector partnerships to find solutions to global water accessibility challenges, especially in the developing world.”
The Director of National Intelligence will also release the Global Water Security Intelligence Community Assessment, a long-awaited report from the intelligence community that describes the security challenges associated with increased water scarcity.
Hopefully the rollout of the IC report timed with a major speech by Secretary Clinton will generate some greater awareness within the security community about the importance of water security to U.S. national security and foreign policy. As Secretary Clinton said in a speech in 2010, “water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time.” As the United States rebalances in the Asia Pacific, perhaps water can serve as a touchstone for building strategic partnerships with countries already beset by water insecurity, a challenge likely to be exacerbated in the future. It is something that security practitioners should consider.
On March 25-26, 2012, the second Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), an international conference on global nuclear issues, will take place in Seoul, South Korea. The guest list has been finalized at 58, which includes representatives from 53 countries, and five representatives from four international organizations. In a post-Fukushima era and one in which the threat of terrorists obtaining and employing a nuclear device is viable, the 2012 summit will explore the issues of nuclear safety, security and terrorism. The summit is an avenue for the international community to collectively consider and learn from the mistakes of Fukushima in order to develop measures to prevent future nuclear disasters, the event of nuclear terrorism and restore public confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Enhancing Nuclear Security and Safety
There will be various meetings preceding the March 25-26 event. The two most significant are the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Industry Summit, on March 23-24, when roughly 150 nuclear industry CEOs will discuss the role of the nuclear industry in enhancing nuclear security and safety, and the Nuclear Security Experts Symposium, on March 23, when over 250 representatives from NGOs, nuclear research institutions and nuclear security experts will convene for discussions on innovating nuclear security governance.
U.S. President Barack Obama inaugurated the NSS in Washington on April 12-13, 2010. The first summit addressed preventing nuclear terrorism, or the event of terrorist organizations using a nuclear weapon or one comprised of radioactive materials – “a dirty bomb” – on civilian populations. In the summit communiqué, a document that participating nations signed at the summit’s conclusion, leaders succeeded in defining the current parameters of nuclear security and particular nations, for example Ukraine, agreed to relinquish their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. However, while the first summit did bring high-level attention to the issue of nuclear terrorism, it neglected to produce collective agreements requiring nations to secure their own domestic nuclear weapons material and facilities. As nations were largely responsible for setting their own goals, naturally these states set the bar low as to ensure positive results. Accordingly, the second summit has the opportunity to set a more ambitious agenda and introduce higher standards for participants.
Last Tuesday, President Obama announced that the United States, the European Union and Japan filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against China for its export restrictions on rare earth metals – materials used in a wide range of high-end technologies, including smart phones, clean energy technologies and even some weapons systems.
On Friday, President Obama followed up the announcement with an Executive Order (EO) on National Defense Resources Preparedness with the broad purpose of identifying the resources and services critical to U.S. national security. Production of non-Chinese rare earth metals is expected to increase over the next several years as mines in Australia, the United States, Malaysia and elsewhere come online. However, one of the greatest hurdles for U.S. defense planners and others in the U.S. government trying to address resource-related challenges is a lack of fidelity in the supply chains for defense systems, energy technologies and other products that undergird the national defense and economy.
President Obama’s EO is a first step in helping provide better clarity into supply chain issues. Specifically, the EO states that:
Executive departments and agencies (agencies) responsible for plans and programs relating to national defense (as defined in section 801(j) of this order), or for resources and services needed to support such plans and programs, shall:
(a) identify requirements for the full spectrum of emergencies, including essential military and civilian demand;
(b) assess on an ongoing basis the capability of the domestic industrial and technological base to satisfy requirements in peacetime and times of national emergency, specifically evaluating the availability of the most critical resource and production sources, including subcontractors and suppliers, materials, skilled labor, and professional and technical personnel;
The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has been holding hearings with the U.S. combatant commanders over the last several weeks. The combatant commanders have been briefing their posture statements for their individual geographic Areas of Responsibility (AOR). Here are what the combatant commanders had to say about climate change in their prepared remarks.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM)
General Carter Ham, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, March 1, 2012
General Ham’s posture statement did not initially mention climate change, which seems strange considering the findings of a 2011 Defense Science Board (DSB) report on national security and climate change that gave “special attention to the African continent due to the vulnerability of African nations with high potential to intersect with United States national interests."
However, in follow up Q/A, Senator Mark Udall asked General Ham to comment on the DSB report and whether “resource scarcity and the impacts of climate change have the potential to cause or aggravate conflicts in your AOR?” General Ham replied:
Senator, there's no question but that environmental security can have a dramatic effect on overall security, both in individual states and more regionally. I would tell you my frank assessment is that we're having better success in response to environmental security challenges than we are finding traction for preventative or predictive actions that could be taken.
On the good side, we have incorporated in a number of regional exercises, which we conduct over the course of this fiscal year, 16 exercises involving as many as 30 different African states that will have as a component of that exercise response to an environmental disaster of some sort, mostly water-related, either flood or drought. We are finding that the African nations are very accepting and understanding of the security impacts of such issues.
As I indicated, though, we're finding -- and perhaps because it's more difficult -- we're finding less traction on the preventive steps than we are on response.
Continue reading the full exchange here.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)
General James N. Mattis, Commander U.S. Central Command, March 6, 2012
General Mattis’s posture statement did not include any mention of climate change, which is expected given that CENTCOM is charged with managing the war in Afghanistan and addressing emergent issues in the Persian Gulf. Of course, General Mattis may have many thoughts about climate change within his AOR; I have no reason to suspect otherwise. Nevertheless, climate change is a challenge that should be integrated into CENTCOM’s strategic planning given the range of resources issues in the region that could be exacerbated by climate change, from water scarcity to food shortages.
The rise in gasoline prices topped the headlines this weekend. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that gas prices rose an average of 6 percent in February and are expected to climb higher as refineries in the U.S. Northeast go idle or offline due to rising global oil prices that are making it too expensive for refiners to produce gasoline. “Gasoline production in the Northeast is expected to decline to 350,000 barrels a day in 2013, from 580,000 barrels a day in 2011, according to government estimates,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “By 2013, the government estimates, motorists in the Northeast will be using 240,000 barrels more each day than refineries and imports are providing right now.” What is more, the rise in global oil prices is having a ripple effect on other consumer goods, with overall consumer prices rising 0.4 percent in February.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that gasoline prices have come front and center in presidential politics ahead of the Illinois primary on Tuesday. However, according to The New York Times, gasoline prices may not significantly influence the election in November.
Regardless of the influence on presidential politics, the rise in gasoline prices seems to have renewed the domestic debate of how the U.S. government can help manage consumer pain at the pump, including through the sale of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve. The Obama administration ratcheted down expectations last week that the United States will release oil from the strategic petroleum reserves in order to mitigate supply and demand issues. The White House announcement came after false reports that the United States and Great Britain would coordinate a sale of their respective strategic reserves. (To have the most strategic effect, the United States would need to coordinate the sale of strategic petroleum reserves with other members of the International Energy Agency, adding a large volume of supply to the global oil market that can quench global demand and effectively manage the global price of oil.)
On Tuesday, President Obama announced a World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint against China for its export restrictions on rare earth metals, which are used in high-end electronic equipment, including smartphones, green technologies and even some weapons systems. The United States joined with the European Union and Japan in bringing the case before the WTO. Experts suggest the case will be ruled on near the end of 2012.
China currently produces about 95 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals, but holds only 50 percent of global reserves. Several mining projects are expected to come online in the next several years to help diversify the global supply away from Chinese dominance. However, experts say many companies that rely on these materials have and are continuing to move manufacturing to China in order to take advantage of its domestic supply, which could have implications for domestic growth in clean tech and other high-end technology manufacturing.
Photo: A screen grab of the president’s announcement of the WTO complaint. Courtesy of the White House.
Global climate change has doubled the risk of coastal flooding for many American communities. “Global warming has raised sea level about 8 inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating,” a new report from Climate Central found. “Scientists expect 20 to 80 more inches this century, a lot depending upon how much more heat-trapping pollution humanity puts into the sky.” While the projected range of sea level rise may leave a lot to be desired with respect to certainty, the implications of even the low- to medium-range projections (between 36-48 inches) over the next century could have dramatic consequences for the estimated 5 million Americans living at less than 4 feet above high tide, and more so for the 3.7 million living at less than 3 feet above the tide.
U.S. military planners and others in the national security community should pay attention to the study’s mid-range projections. Depending on the location, mid-range projections are estimated at 1-8 inches in sea level rise by 2030, and 4-19 inches by 2050, with some projections much higher in areas currently home to U.S. military installations. The study’s authors give projected ranges and best estimate predictions. For example, in Virginia, Sewells Point – Hampton Roads (home to Norfolk Naval Base) is projected to experience between 3-10 inches in sea level rise by 2030, and 7-24 inches by 2050, with best estimates projected at 6 inches in sea level rise by 2030, and 14 inches by 2050. In La Jolla, California (the greater San Diego region, home to Camp Pendleton to the north near Oceanside and Coronado to the south), the study projects 2-9 inches in sea level rise by 2030, and 4-22 inches rise by 2050, with best estimates projected at 5 inches by 2030 and 11 inches by 2050. The study provides a list of other communities and the projected sea level rise with 90 percent confidence intervals that are worth reviewing at length.
Although the ranges for projected sea level rise (given in inches, not feet) may seem insignificant, the risks and concerns are quite legitimate. Communities like Hampton Roads are already plagued by sea level rise and have given serious attention to adapting to the increased risk. One concern for these coastal installations is the increased risk of storm surge and the subsequent damage. Indeed, even modest sea level rise measured in single inches portends serious risks with respect to flooding. “Cities such as Norfolk have already experienced the effects of sea-level rise as powerful storms pushed water inland, leading to flooding in places where it once was rare,” The Washington Post reported last year. What is more, climate scientists project an increase in the severity and frequency of storms which may exacerbate the effects of sea level rise and the damages incurred for coastal communities, including U.S. Naval installations. The implications for military readiness cannot be overstated, and military planners need to adapt to these changes, or be prepared to reconstitute their capabilities and facilities in the wake of these events.
Yesterday, the United States, the European Union and Japan filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) challenging China’s export restrictions on rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are critical components to advanced technologies like solar voltaic cells, hybrid electric batteries, smartphones as well as some defense systems. “We want our companies building those products right here in America. But to do that, American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials – which China supplies,” President Obama said of the formal complaint. “Now, if China would simply let the market work on its own, we’d have no objections. But their policies currently are preventing that from happening. And they go against the very rules that China agreed to follow.” Beijing fired back against the WTO complaint. According to The Wall Street Journal, China’s Ministry of Commerce said that the export restrictions are intended “‘to protect resources and the environment,’ not distort industry.”
The WTO complaint comes on the heels of several years of angst with respect to China’s monopoly on rare earth metals. China currently produces about 95 percent of the world’s rare earths supply, but holds only about 50 percent of global reserves. In 2010, China suspended exports of rare earth metals to Japan following a months-long diplomatic row over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Europe is dependent on Chinese supplies. According to Reuters, “The EU directly imports 350 million euros worth of rare earths from China each year…The damage done to European manufacturing runs into billions of euros, the official said, because it was nearly impossible to diversify away from Chinese supply.”
As the United States rebalances in the Asia Pacific, cooperation around climate adaptation could be a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our relationships with existing and emerging partners in the region. In a post last week I noted a thoughtful piece by Francisco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of The Center for Climate and Security that fleshes out how U.S. policymakers should think about integrating climate change into a strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, including developing a “Climate Investment Plan” that would encourage the United States to make good on its commitment to help raise climate finance funds that would assist developing countries in adapting to the effects of climate change.
The Climate Investment Plan that Femia and Werrell describe would be an important element of a strategy for the Asia Pacific. But beyond helping raise the funds for these countries to pay for climate adaptation projects, what other opportunities should the United States consider as avenues for cooperation?
One area ripe for cooperation are more science and technology agreements that share lessons learned from U.S. projects that would help our partners navigate engineering challenges or other roadblocks to successfully implementing climate adaptation projects. One project that comes to mind is the New Orleans Storm Surge Barrier. The Science Channel has a great program called “Build it Bigger” that highlighted this project in a recent episode. The idea behind the storm surge wall is to protect the city of New Orleans from another Katrina-size hurricane that could potentially inundate the city again.
The disturbing report of a U.S. Army sergeant slaying at least 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday in southern Afghanistan is the most recent in a series of incidents exacerbating tensions between Afghans and Americans. Three weeks ago, the U.S. military accidentally burned copies of the Koran at Bagram Airbase that incited deadly anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country. These incidents are not only exacerbating tensions between U.S. military personnel and Afghans in the near term, but may also undermine the ability of U.S. aid and development personnel from establishing the presence and relationships they need with Afghans to complete development projects essential to the country’s long-term stability.
On Sunday, The New York Times published a report citing concerns that aid and development companies share about Afghanistan’s deteriorating security environment. The spate of demonstrations set off by the Koran burnings three weeks ago and added to by the U.S. Army sergeant’s killing of at least 16 civilians, coupled with the Karzai government’s plan to ban private security companies by the end of March, is worrying aid and development groups charged with carrying out projects in some of the most volatile regions of the country. According to The New York Times, the situation has “left the private groups that carry out most of the American-financed development work in Afghanistan scrambling to sort out their operations, imperiling billions of dollars in projects.” The prospect that these development projects could be left unfinished “threatens a vital part of the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan, which envision a continuing development mission after the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014,” The New York Times report added.
On Wednesday, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus testified before the Senate Appropriations Sub-committee for Defense about the Navy’s fiscal year 2013 budget request. Discussing the Navy’s energy program, Secretary Mabus emphasized that “we'll maintain our efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and use energy more efficiently. These efforts have already made us better war fighters.” Secretary Mabus added that:
By deploying to Afghanistan with solar blankets to charge radios and other electrical items a Marine patrol dropped 700 pounds in batteries from their packs and decreased the need for risky resupply missions. Using less fuel in theaters can mean fewer fuel convoys which will save lives. For every 50 convoys we bring in, a Marine is killed or wounded. That is too high a price to pay. We already know the reality of a volatile global oil market. Every time the cost of barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the Department of the Navy an additional $31 million in fuel cost. These price spikes have to be paid for out of our operational funds. That means that we sail less, we fly less, we train less. For these reasons, we have to be relentless in our pursuit of energy goals that will continue to make us a more effective fighting force in our military and our nation for energy independence.
Photo: On March 7, 2012, Secretary Mabus testified before the Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee for Defense. Courtesy of Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers and the U.S. Navy.
As the United States continues to draw down from its current conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia and rebalance in the Asia Pacific, U.S. policymakers must think creatively about how to integrate climate change into a U.S. strategy for the region. In many ways, engagement around climate change could be an opportunity for the United States to achieve some of its broader national security and foreign policy objectives in the region. Specifically, as the United States seeks to develop strategic partnerships with countries in East and Southeast Asia – from the Philippines to Vietnam – a serious commitment to helping those countries adapt to the pernicious effects of climate change could enhance our relationship with those countries and make them more comfortable with partnering with the United States on more traditional security missions, such as maritime security and nonproliferation.
Francisco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of The Center for Climate and Security have a thoughtful piece on how to think about climate change in the context of a strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. “The U.S. requires the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the Asia-Pacific to help countries address the climate challenge, and to complement its current military and economic engagement in the region,” they write. “It needs, in other words, a Climate Investment Plan.” According to Femia and Werrell, these investments – known in the international community as “climate finance” – are funds needed by developing countries to adapt to the “effects of climate change, protect their forests and other natural resources in a manner that still generates revenue, and develop renewable energy sectors that will both grow their economies, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”
Femia and Werrell make a strong case for how climate finance could strengthen U.S. relations in the region. “These investments will help the United States build a strong coalition of allies in the region through: building resilience and goodwill; protecting commercial ties between the U.S. and the region, and; decreasing the likelihood of instability, disaster and conflict.” This last point about decreasing the likely of instability, disaster and conflict is particularly salient: in these fiscally austere times, the United States is looking for opportunities to build the capacity of its partners to provide for their own security. Climate finance could serve as a means to achieving that goal, specifically by building the capacity of our partner governments to respond to climate-related disasters that might otherwise overwhelm their response capabilities and require the U.S. Navy and Air Force to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This of course is not to suggest that the United States would not help its partners if they were overwhelmed; it is merely to suggest that the United States is better served if its partners have their own robust response capabilities.
While on a visit last week to the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was asked by a reporter about his thoughts on the national security implications of climate change. Several themes came up, including the need for the intelligence community to track climate trends so that the national security community can understand the consequences of environmental and climate change. What is more, Secretary Panetta pointed specifically to emerging challenges in the Arctic, such as increased activity by countries seeking access to natural resources. Here is an excerpt from the transcript that is worth sharing in full:
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you all for speaking to me. A 2008 Department of Defense report noted how climate change will impact current and future U.S. national security. The Department of Defense has been progressive in transitioning bases around the world -- solar panels, et cetera -- but the noted climate patterns in Somalia have led to some difficulties with Al Shabaab there. And so first, I was wondering if you could comment kind of on the unusual topic of climate change with regard to the future of the Department of Defense.
And then second, if you could help Senator Mitch McConnell accept that science and stop blocking that legislation. Thank you. (Applause.)
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I learned a long time ago, don’t mess around with people -- (laughs) -- you know, state what you think is right and hope that others will follow and be able to incorporate those thoughts in whatever they do. And I have tremendous respect for Mitch McConnell and I think that -- I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to discuss with him, not only this issue, but other issues as well.
On Friday, BP announced a settlement with thousands of Gulf Coast individuals and businesses afflicted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, individuals and businesses will be able to submit two types of claims that will make up the estimated $7.8 billion settlement: economic-loss claims and medical claims. “The settlement doesn't cover claims against BP by the U.S. Department of Justice or other federal agencies for violations of the Clean Water Act or by states and local governments,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “BP has been in off-and-on discussions with the government over those issues in the past.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday The New York Times reported that deepwater oil drilling is ramping up again in the Gulf of Mexico, in large part as a response to the global demand for energy. “After a yearlong drilling moratorium, BP and other oil companies are intensifying their exploration and production in the gulf, which will soon surpass the levels attained before the accident,” the report said. “Drilling in the area is about to be expanded into Mexican and Cuban waters, beyond most American controls, even though any accident would almost inevitably affect the United States shoreline.”
According to The New York Times report, deepwater drilling continues to be relatively dangerous. “Exploration in deepwater fields remains dangerous because of high temperatures and high pressure when drilling 6,000 feet or more under the sea floor, and accidents continue to occur, most notably last year off the coasts of China and Brazil,” the report found. Nevertheless, the Obama administration continues to issue drilling permits in waters more than 500 feet deep. The New York Times reported that the administration had issued 61 permits between February 28, 2011 and February 27, 2012. Moreover, the administration recently reached an agreement with Mexico “to open a new tract to offshore drilling, some of it in water more than 6,000 feet deep, despite persistent questions about the strength of Mexican oil industry regulation.”
On February 20, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa signed the U.S.-Mexico Agreement Concerning Transboundary Hydrocarbon Reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico. As I noted in a post last week, it will be interesting to see how much production Mexico is able to safely develop now, and what effects this could have across the rest of Mexico, considering that oil revenues account for roughly 40 percent of the government’s budget.
Moreover, one wonders if there are any lessons that can be gleaned from this agreement with respect to Cuban offshore oil drilling, considering that today there is very little the United States can do to support Cuba in the event of an offshore oil accident akin to Deepwater Horizon. As The Washington Post reported yesterday, “Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island.” This may end up being a case of comparing apples to oranges given the fundamental differences in our relationship with each country, but we should consider the lessons learned from the experience of stewarding through the U.S.-Mexico agreement and whether those lessons could generate some avenue for a U.S. response to a Cuban oil spill, especially considering that the U.S. coastline is extremely vulnerable to such an event.
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. State Department.
Worsening tensions with Iran in recent weeks are in part to blame for higher oil and gas prices. In response to these higher prices, there has been a lot of discussion about how to reduce our demand for oil, including with the use of more renewable and alternative energy for electricity generation. And while I certainly support the use of more diverse energy technologies to meet our electricity needs, it is worth remembering that liquid fuels are the real albatross when it comes to moving away from our outsized dependence on oil. Addressing that challenge requires a serious reduction in gas consumption in the near term, through conservation and efficiency practices, and a chemical replacement in the long term.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, about two-thirds of oil is consumed by the transportation sector in the United States. This includes gasoline for vehicles, as well as diesel, jet and residual fuels. As we think about how to reduce our demand for oil, diversifying our liquid fuel sources will be crucial. There are a lot of challenges of course with developing a liquid fuel replacement. The fuels must be cleaner than conventional fossil fuels so that we are making progress toward reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to global climate change. The fuels must be chemically equivalent to fossil fuel so that they are capable of being dropped in to existing vehicles. This is extremely important and has implications both for vehicle performance and the longevity of our existing infrastructure that transports fuel around the country (i.e., pipelines).
The U.S. military is giving serious thought about its dependence on oil, in part as a response to higher oil and gas prices, as well as concerns with assured access to fuel in the future. Indeed, oil and gas prices take a toll on the Department of Defense and have implications for policy, especially in this austere budget environment. Every $10 increase in a barrel of oil adds about $1.3 billion to the department’s gasoline bill. Of course, many of the efforts the department is currently leading to develop alternative fuels are generating fuels that are still today relatively more expensive than conventional gasoline. But as experts correctly note, these fuels are still in the research and development phase. As the companies producing these alternative fuels move toward commercial deployment they will become cost competitive with oil – some of them within the next decade or so.