War, Oil and Renewable Energy

by Steve Breyman

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, citizens have begun to ask “how could this happen?” Among the several complexly twisted roots of the crisis are America and the industrial world’s ongoing and worsening energy insecurity.

We did not learn a major lesson of the Gulf War: drastically reduce our dependence on imported petroleum so that America’s sons and daughters will never again need to shed their blood for oil. Instead, US daily oil imports rose by nearly 60% since 1991. World crude oil production has increased by over ten million barrels per day over the same period. Thirty percent of the world’s global daily oil production comes from the Persian Gulf, the home of sixty-five percent of known reserves.

The repressive, anti-feminist Saudi monarchy has been under US protection since FDR met with Ibn Saud in 1945. President Carter pledged to defend the free flow of oil from the Gulf in January 1980. Much of US military strategy and force structure came to revolve around the preservation of the anti-democratic oil sheikdoms.

And the US never left the Persian Gulf following the expulsion of the Iraqi military from Kuwait. The Fifth Fleet patrols the waters of the Gulf. US warplanes have flown more than a quarter million missions firing thousands of missiles against hundreds of targets as part of Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the no-fly-zone in Iraq. Over 20,000 US military personnel are currently deployed in the Gulf at the price of many billions of dollars per year.

The seemingly permanent US military presence in the Gulf is a chronic irritant in American relations with a significant sector of the peoples of the region, and has increased our vulnerability to terrorism. Recall the truck bomb attack against Saudi National Guard headquarters in November 1995 (killing five American servicemen among others). Another truck bomb killed nineteen young US servicemen in Dhahran seven months later. Nearly a year ago a human torpedo killed seventeen sailors aboard the USS Cole in Yemen. Osama bin Laden claims to be driven by an animosity born of the US presence in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites.

How to avoid the recurring tragedies that inevitably accompany our oil habit? Part of the answer is simple and straightforward: Kick the habit. Let’s make the shift to clean energy now, not later after the polar ice caps melt, and we suffer through further extreme droughts, hurricanes, and fossil fuel conflicts.

Contrary to popular myth, renewable energy technologies-solar, small hydro, wind, biofuels-are proven, reliable and affordable. Wind power is the world’s fastest growing energy source, and is currently cheaper than both coal and natural gas. Global shipments of solar photovoltaic cells grow by over 20% per year. Hydrogen fuel cells for appliances, homes, and cars appear to be right around the corner. ARCO/BP executive Michael Bowlin suggests we’re now in the “last days of the Age of Oil.” Frank Ingriselli, President of Texaco Technology Ventures, claims we’re moving “inexorably towards hydrogen energy . . . those who don’t pursue it . . . will rue it.”

We’re not yet ready-a delay of our own making-to meet much of our energy needs through renewable sources. Here in New York, Gov. Pataki ordered the state government to meet 10% of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2005, and 20% by 2010. This is a good start. But New York State does not currently produce enough renewable energy to meet that modest goal, to say nothing of the energy needs of New York’s businesses and households.

The answer to our energy woes is neither to commence oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge nor to increase offshore oil drilling. The answer to our energy troubles is not to build more nuclear power plants-themselves potential targets for terrorist attack. Only a rapid and far-reaching transition to renewable energy will ensure US energy security and prevent future oil wars.

Our shift to renewables is a question of when, rather than whether. Making the move sooner rather than later will pay off through cleaner air and water, stabilized climate, and improved human and ecosystem health. Switching to green energy is also one of the most important steps we can take to safeguard our long-term national security. CP

Steve Breyman is Director of the Ecological Economics, Values & Policy Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

CounterPunch: Complete Coverage of 9/11 and Its Aftermath

Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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