Moving Toward a Smart Energy Policy
End our reliance on oil
To increase their energy security, nations need to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. We need to break away from dependence on the Middle East region.
by Dan PleschBritish and American officials now talk of the present conflict lasting years, even decades. As we begin to consider the implications of such a conflict it is clear that our options are greatly limited by the impact of regional instability on the world economy. Replacing oil as the mainstay of our energy policy should be a vital part of winning the long-term struggle against terrorism, and would dramatically improving Western policy options.
Asymmetric warfare is a buzz phrase much used to describe the new context following the atrocities visited upon US and Washington. This simply means acting in unexpected ways that do not fit into orthodox ways of fighting. A shift from oil to renewable energy sources would be a strategic way to apply this approach to conflict and make things better, not worse.
In the present crisis, the oil factor narrows military and political options. Some see the Western military presence in the region as itself a source of further problems but realise we cannot withdraw because of the threat from Iraq. Even the most hawkish, like the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, have had to realise that the oil price would skyrocket if they went to war simultaneously with every state they don't care for in the region - even if they were prepared to ride out the other disastrous consequences of such escalation.
Even before the attacks on the US, American and Western global strategy gave a very high priority to ensuring access to Middle East oil. This priority translates into a massive investment of taxpayers' money, personnel, military equipment and political capital. 20,000 British troops are in the Gulf today in pursuit of this objective. The UK and other Western states give little support to democratic change in the region for fear of upsetting "stability."
When traditional strategists look ahead to 2020 or 2050 they still see Middle Eastern oil as the key issue in international energy policy. In the UK this view informs the terms of reference of the House of Commons investigation into Energy Security which assumes that we will have to import our energy. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategy document 'Joint Vision 2020' makes the same assumption. Renewable energy can provide a substitute for oil. Just 3% of wind resources could provide 30% of global energy needs. Solar power has the potential to provide a similarly limitless capacity. Wind power is far advanced in other states. In Denmark for example it already provides 14% of national supplies projected to rise to 30% in a few years time.
Major car companies have now developed engines using advanced fuel cells using hydrogen. In his presidential campaign Al Gore went so far as to propose eliminating the internal combustion engine in 25 years.
Renewable energy has additional advantages to providing strategic freedom of action in the Middle East. It provides considerable employment. It is decentralised, making it invulnerable to terrorist attack in contrast to large-scale power stations. Unlike nuclear energy, renewables do not bring the risk of catstrophic toxic releases. Many people will be able to make money by selling back to the utility companies surplus energy produced by back-garden windmills and solar roofing tiles. Lastly, of course, the shift to renewables will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But there are three major obstacles which must be overcome before we can take oil off the list of key objectives for our military and foreign policy. These obstacles are the the difficulty of changing official thinking, the vested interests of the oil companies, and the need for a transition strategy.
The difficulty of changing the bureaucratic mindset cannot be overestimated. Previous generations and civilsations offer all too many examples. Before 1914 cars had been around for a quarter of a century yet no army started the war with mechanised units and they came late and painfully slowly. Pre-Columbian civilisations such as the Inca and the Aztecs failed to turn the wheel from a toy into a practical tool. We look back at these follies, comfortable in our our superiority. But are we any better?
The power of the oil companies to resist change is immense, though there are conisiderable signs of change. Shell recently predicted that oil would be an outdated technology by 2050. Today there is a national security imperative to cease our needless reliance on oil.
Luddite attitudes from the oil barons would be not just bad for the environment but would also undermine the defence of the West.
But nobody is proposing that we give up using energy and return to the pre-industrial age. A shift to renewables would merely taking the opportunity of the present crisis to move industrial society ahead a stage. A transition strategy to renewable energy should focus attention on the leading industrialised nations of the G-7 and in particular on the EU and the US. Key officials from Washington and Brussels will next meet at December's EU-US summit. This meeting should seek to take key strategic decisions. One strategy to move to hydrogen power cars was mapped out, in a fairly slow way, by Gore - a central plank of this was that governments should announce a date for the transition of their fleets of official vehicles.
The EU set a target last month of creating 22% of electricity supply from renewable sources by 2010. This target should be dramatically increased and accelerated by both the EU and the US. In America the policy should fall under the strategy of improving homeland defence through increasing America's self-reliance. Congressional districts, states and counties could develop programs with federal support.
These objectives are far reaching. But they constitute a policy shift in the world's strategic environment that we as a public can bring about. We need worry no more about the Gulf than we do of the Costa Brava.
Dan Plesch is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
Increasing our dependence on oil, whether that oil comes from the Persian Gulf or the Arctic Refuge, practically guarantees national insecurity. If our nation wants to declare energy independence, then we have no choice but to reduce our appetite for oil.
--- Robert Redford
Shifting away from dependence on oil fights terrorism by reducing one of its underlying causes. What are your views? Tell The Progress Report:
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