America needs to cut its dependence on oil

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America’s dependence on oil constitutes a significant threat-- economically, geo-politically, environmentally, and militarily. What President Bush called our oil “addiction” ties our hands in the foreign policy arena. It forces us to depend on countries that do not share our values, and increases the risk of troops being sent into harm’s way. We also send a billion dollars to other countries for oil every day—money that could be far better spent at home.

Given our reliance on oil, any sustained interruption in oil supply today will cripple our economy and limit our ability to move people and goods freely around the country.  In our report, we examine the effect of a theoretical 30-day supply disruption due to a shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water between Oman and Iran. We found that over that month the trucking sector alone would lose $3.3 billion and 37,500 jobs-- increasing unemployment by about one quarter of one percent for the entire nation. As a result, the nation’s GDP would dip by more than $70 billion.

We also found that the negative effects of an oil supply disruption on our economy could be reduced dramatically if our nation used 30 percent less oil. This finding is consistent with research done by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which found that “oil independence”—defined as the point at which swings in oil prices and supply no longer have significant effects on US economic, military, or foreign policy—would require America to decrease oil consumption by a third to a half. 

As military men, we find that having a specific target – like 30 percent -- allows you to check your progress and adjust your aim if necessary.  Without a target you are merely shooting rounds downrange.

A 30 percent reduction in America’s oil use would dramatically improve our flexibility and leverage on the world stage, while also insulating our economy somewhat from oil market volatility and ensuring our freedom of movement. It would boost our economy, cut the trade deficit, and keep more dollars circulating on the home front.

We could go a long way toward reaching this goal via a deceptively simple solution: increasing efficiency. Experience shows that improving automobile gas mileage cuts down on oil consumption, and we applaud the new national fuel economy standards that are on the way, but we think the challenge of improving fuel economy should go farther, with broader application across a wider range of vehicles. 

Better driving habits, trip planning, telecommuting, all are among the many ways efficiency can be improved more broadly. A gallon saved is a gallon earned, and conservation is the cheapest way to stretch the fuel we have.

We also need to step up research, development, and production of alternative fuels significantly. There is no “silver bullet,” but deploying a diversified mix of fuels makes for a more secure and stable energy portfolio than relying on a single volatile commodity.  

We examined a broad range of alternative fuels in the work of this MAB and found that, from a holistic national security perspective – economic, geopolitical, environmental, and militarily, nearly all were better than oil based fuels.

The Department of Defense is already taking a leadership role in energy. Our armed forces have set ambitious goals for efficiency and use of oil alternatives. Even in war zones, troops are finding that using less oil makes sense, because it saves lives: using less oil means fewer vulnerable fuel convoys, which means fewer Americans sent into harm’s way.

Of course, the military cannot do it alone. Energy transformation requires all Americans to join the effort.

Our leaders need to send strong signals to the market, making it clear that efficiency technologies and homegrown, renewable energy sources are essential to our nation’s future.  Goals set by our government, and incentives for innovation, can attract investment and lead to new business opportunities. This effort, like the moon shot, would inspire companies and colleges, entrepreneurs and engineers to develop breakthrough technologies, and to spur the kind of innovation that makes our country both wealthier and more secure.

Our nation needs an energy roadmap. We need a long –term strategic plan that puts our nation’s welfare above political ideology and narrow partisan considerations, a roadmap that will withstand elections and changes in government. If we want to ensure an America that is stronger and better protected, an America that controls its own destiny, we need to slash our use of oil, starting now.

General Paul Kern spent 37 years in the Army, from Vietnam to his final assignment as Commanding General of the Army Materiel Command; the General is Chairman of CNA’s Military Advisory Board.  Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, Vice Chairman of CNA’s Military Advisory Board, served 35 years in the Navy, winding up his career as Inspector General of the Department of the Navy. For more information about Ensuring America's Freedom of Movement: A National Security Imperative to Reduce U.S. Oil Dependence, visit: www.cna.org/EnsuringFreedomofMovement.


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