However, the chatter over benchmarks, surges, troop levels, timetables and Iraqi political accomplishments, or lack of, is dangerously misleading. It is misleading because it diverts our attention from the real threat America faces as a nation; and dangerous because it obscures the profound nature of the problem. The truth is that we in the West can’t fix the situation in Iraq until we fix our addiction to oil. Put more directly, America can’t leave Iraq until there’s a robust enough energy strategy in place to make us reasonably energy independent at home.
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Few of our leaders today seem willing to address the deeper reasons for our active involvement and presence in the Middle East. It was not borne out of some altruistic notion of bringing freedom and democracy to a distant land riven by centuries of tribal and sectarian conflict, but plain old-fashioned self-interest. We needed to protect and keep a steady and relatively inexpensive flow of petroleum coming our way to fuel the engine of our booming post-war economy, a need that has only intensified over the last 60 years to a point where every aspect of our life and our economy today is based on the assumption of a plentiful supply of cheap oil that will continue to be readily and indefinitely available.
Say what you like about Dick Cheney, but you can’t accuse him of not giving us fair warning about the strategic importance of oil to American interests. In an oft-quoted speech made in November 1999, while he was still Chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services company, he warned that oil – the “basic building block of the world economy” – was in danger of becoming extremely scarce. So where were future supplies going to come from? The Middle East is, he said, “where the prize ultimately lies.” The inconvenient truth is that we are critically dependent on the continuous flow of Middle East petroleum into the world markets. Without it our economy would be severely damaged; so severely that it could change our way of life.
The balance between supply and demand has never been tighter, and to further complicate the matter India and China, with two of the largest and fastest growing world economies, are between them driving demand to near capacity for suppliers. Globally, oil makes up no less than 90 percent of all fuel used in transportation. Lack of new oil reserve discoveries, little increase in lifting capabilities (Russia being the exception), and almost no new refining capacity has made the supply for petroleum very tight.
But what does all this have to do with our future in Iraq? Given our national dependency on oil, we need access to Iraq’s massive oil reserves, the third largest in the world with an estimated 1.5 billion barrels waiting to be extracted. A precipitous pull out from Iraq without a long-term plan for energy independence in place could bring catastrophic economic consequences. That means we can’t get out until we develop an energy policy that makes us significantly less dependent on Middle East oil as a whole.
At least some Islamic extremists are aware of this reality and regard it as our Achilles heel. A quick exit from Iraq without a Plan B for energy independence will embolden the dark forces of chaos to create more havoc in a region that possesses 75 percent of the world’s oil reserves. It does not take a great imagination to foresee an Iran, in its drive to be a regional super power, to wreak chaos in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and the small gulf states adjacent to it (whose people are mostly Sunni, as opposed to Iran’s Shia population). While it is fashionable these days to criticize the al-Maliki government for failure to form a cohesive and effective political administration, our real criticism should be focused on our leadership for failure to develop a Plan B… a plan for energy independence that will provide us with flexibility in dealing with Iraq and the entire Middle East.
For the last six years, energy independence has been featured in the President’s State of the Union message, and it receives applause from all members of the Congress. But no one puts forth a comprehensive energy policy to finally cure us for what President Bush has accurately diagnosed but lacks the political will to treat: (and that is) our addiction to oil. Our leadership seems forthcoming enough to make the connection between energy independence and national security, but no one seems willing to make this a condition to a disentanglement from Iraq and the Middle East. Special interests of all types (oil companies, auto industry, unions, environmentalists) frustrate and delay any meaningful policy.
America needs a robust Plan B, a plan that will free us from our economic dependence on the Middle East. Putting one in place will be no easy task. It will cause widespread pain and difficulty, it will take time … and most importantly, it will take political courage to confront the special interests.
A PLAN FOR ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
Four Steps, 10 Years
Any serious approach for energy independence would have to have, at its core, not just a plan for using less oil but a strategy to de-carbonize the entire US economy. It needs to have the urgency of a Manhattan Project and the leadership commitment that put a man on the moon. What could such a plan look like?
Hybrid vehicle legislation would require that all passenger cars, light trucks and SUV’s sold in the U.S. within 5 years will be powered by gasoline-electric hybrid engines which achieve a minimum of 40 miles per gallon. Within 10 years, all such vehicles will be powered by non-gasoline fuel sources.
A national energy independence body. Developing viable non-gasoline alternative fuels to run our passenger vehicles will require a huge commitment to research and development. A National Institute of Energy Independence (NIEI) needs to be legislated to provide criteria and funding to researchers in the disciplines of engineering and physics. Grants from the NIEI will fast track the research needed to develop cost-effective alternative fuels and insure energy independence. The NIEI will function like the National Institute of Health which provides funds for medical research at our leading Universities. This new NIEI research would be funded with a small additional tax on the sale of gasoline at the pump. Even with this additional tax, the price of gasoline at the pump will still be significantly lower in the US than elsewhere in the Western World.
Nuclear Power. We need to develop a plan, including incentives, to construct new nuclear power plants as an alternative fuel resource to supply home, office and factory energy. Fortunately, nuclear power has been somewhat rehabilitated in the generation since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Nuclear energy provides more than 16 percent of the world's total electricity. It has the potential to contribute much more, especially if the rising cost of oil and natural gas leads to a change in the relative economic disadvantage of nuclear electricity.
There is considerable popular appeal in the proposition that we should develop "renewable" technologies to harness more of the sun and the wind. While they certainly have their place in a balanced energy solution, many experts agree that we need also to recognize that such sources alone are intrinsically unsuited to providing base-load electricity, which requires reliable and continuous supply on a gigawatt-day (million kilowatt day), rather than kilowatt-hour, scale. On the whole, nuclear power is the only environmentally-friendly viable option (the issue of waste disposal notwithstanding).
Energy Efficiency Education. While there are many individual energy efficiency initiatives being undertaken by the energy utilities and state energy commissions, we need a comprehensive national energy efficiency education program and standards. The sacrifice has to be nationwide. At home, using energy efficient appliances can also have a positive effect on national security, (as well as, the economy and the environment). The efficient use of oil, gas, and electricity improves U.S. economic competitiveness. Lighting, for example accounts for approximately 20% of the average home's electric bill. Replacing regular light bulbs with ENERGY STAR-labeled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), energy-efficient alternatives that last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs would mean an electricity bill savings of around $1,000 over the life of the bulbs. These statistics need to be, literally, brought home to every family in the United States and their use mandated. Commercial building owners in the United States spend almost $100 billion per year on their energy bills. In California alone implementation of available technologies and practices for both new and existing buildings could reduce overall commercial sector electricity consumption by 22 percent by 2015.
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What is stopping us from pursuing these initiatives? There will be many, for their own special interests, who will oppose some or all. But true leadership will address this opposition with a forthright vision. Neither can we wait, as some suggest, for market forces to find a solution or wait over time as gasoline becomes too expensive for the average American. This is now an urgent matter for government action -- not just the marketplace. We are dealing with our national security.
We must get serious about reducing demand for foreign oil and in so doing cut the energy that fuels the current war. An effective Plan B will be nothing less than a comprehensive plan for energy independence. Without one we will be stuck in Iraq and Middle East indefinitely.
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