Saturday, August 7, 2010

On the Cost of Protecting Oil Supplies

I am increasingly becoming a fan of both Foreign Policy magazine and its website.  Here's an interesting article by a New York Times Magazine writer that attempts to lay out the costs associated with the US military's obvious but rarely spoken mission of ensuring a steady world flow of oil.  I am no financial analyst, so I can't tell how close the numbers he cites are--but even if they were high by half, we're still talking a lot of money.  That's right--protecting the world flow of oil costs a lot of money, and American taxpayers are footing most of the bill.  For those of you on the left, that's money that isn't going to progressive causes.  To those of you on the right, that's YOUR money that has been separated from you.  Anyone familiar with my writing here or elsewhere should know that I'm not particularly bothered at the notion of spending even MORE on our ability to protect the flow of oil, among other Naval missions.  But the dirty little secret of my ardent navalism is that I would be hard pressed to justify more resources for the Navy if America weren't as addicted to oil as it is.

I make no value judgments on the use of oil in the United States.  Sprinkled among the ridiculous Israel bashing/loving found in the comments to the cited story, is one defense of oil that I found compelling--and that is, that oil has been and will continue for the near future to be that which drives our economy.  That the economy continues to be the world's largest, that it remains the engine for world economic health (China's economy is a fraction of ours, still), should be reason enough to tie the continued access to oil with continuing investments in naval power.  We're simply not going to wean ourselves from oil anytime soon, and if we want to remain a global ECONOMIC power, we need to remain a global NAVAL power.

But how different would our strategy, force employment and force structure be if we (the US) were NOT as addicted to oil as we are?  There's a PhD in the answers to that one.

For the moment though, I make the following observations:

1.  We are dependent on oil and will be for decades to come.  Continuing to invest in robust naval power designed at least in part to ensure the free flow of oil to world markets is a critical national security interest.

2.  In the pursuit of defending that flow, we are beholden to many countries with views of modern America that are at best, dubious, and at worst, hostile.

3.  Our addiction to foreign oil fattens regimes who are with one hand, accepting our cash, and with the other, funding the world-wide Islamic Jihad.

4.  (Here's where things take a course change--stay with me)  Continuing to beat the American public over the head with the science of climate change is not going to drive people to change their habits.  Too many people are aware that the dinosaurs lived in a warmer world than we, and that there have been ice ages.  They believe that CLIMATE CHANGES whether humans contribute or not--irrespective of the evidence.  As a behavioral change model, CLIMATE CHANGE is a loser and it will not result in the policy aims it is put forward to support.

5.  National Security however, is an effective model for behavioral change.  Effective leadership in this country would talk about our dependence on oil as a NATIONAL SECURITY CHALLENGE--citing the bad actors on the other end of the transaction, their stated aims, and their ideological bent.  Might we have spent $7.3 trillion on defending the flow of oil from 1976-2007?  Maybe--who knows?  But we all know we're spending SOMETHING to do that, and we all know it must be a considerable sum.

So--in summary.  We spend a lot of money on (predominately naval) forces that are employed to protect the flow of a commodity that undergirds our prosperity.  In the meantime, we fatten the coffers of those who would do us harm and even as we drain our own accounts in protecting that flow.  Were we to communicate more directly with the American people--the real costs of the dependence on oil--we would go much farther in generating the behavioral changes necessary to end it, and there would be more support for government policies designed to usher in that end.

But instead, we try and convince Americans that if we don't switch to solar energy, in 600 years someone living in Salem, New Jersey might not be able to live in Salem, New Jersey. 

Moving toward energy independence is the grand unifying theme of the future of American politics.  It is a defense issue, an environmental issue, a technology issue, a commerce issue and an educational issue.  Hanging its pursuit on ephemeral slogans like climate change is inappropriate to the magnitude of the challenge and the sacrifice needed to achieve it.  Energy independence is primarily and most importantly, a national security issue, and it should be spoken of as such by our leaders at every opportunity.  If in the process of moving toward renewable and non-carbon based fuels, we arrest man's contribution to climate change, that's all the better.

Cross-posted at Information Dissemination


Jonathan said...

We need to state clearly that the result of our delayed shift to energy independence rises far above the euphemism of "fattened coffers". USG is saying nothing as key actors in the Mid-East (yes, suppliers) make an ever more perilous bed for the region; if/when they ever choose to lie down in it--whether forced or by choice--it's going to be wicked.

Mark P. said...

I don't think it should come as a surprise to anyone that a key tenent of our national security strategy is assuring access to energy to drive the country's economic engine - whether it is explicitly stated or not. I also agree with what you say about the behavioral change models - when push comes to shove, people always vote with their wallet.

One point I would make is that the implication that a reduction is the US's energy dependence on oil would allow a direct reduction in national security expenditure and global presence may not be completely correct. If the US didn't secure the flow of oil for almost everyone (a side effect of our efforts), the 2nd order effects would be pronounced. Wouldn't we be drawn into the resource competition, militarization, and conflict that would likely follow around the world? We do have other interests around the world that would be impacted. The interconnectedness of the global system would draw us in whether we liked it or not. We could be 100% energy independent, but I think we would still be required to stabilize the global economy's energy supplies (failure to do so would have drastic consequences).

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