The Oil Addiction Myth

by William Yeatman on December 12, 2008

Every day some pundit, politician, activist, business leader, or academic claims that America’s “oil addiction” endangers U.S. national security and, indeed, the habitability of our planet. Champions of this message now include defense intellectuals, who have joined forces with global warming campaigners to demand new taxes or regulations on fossil energy use.

How refreshing, therefore, to find that not everybody in the Pentagon buys this message! A new report by the Joint Forces Command (The Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force, November 25, 2008) presents a very different perspective.

In a nutshell, the JFC report argues that the performance of the global economy will be the most important factor affecting international stability and national security in the coming decades, and that sustained economic growth will require accelerating oil production both domestically and worldwide.

One point the JFC makes repeatedly is that globalization fosters expectations that only a strong global economy can meet. By dashing expectations, a weak global economy sets the stage for violence within and among nations:

Serious violence, resulting from economic trends, has almost invariably arisen where economic and political systems have failed to meet rising expectations … Thus, the real danger in a globalized world, where even the poorest have access to pictures and media portrayals of the developed world, lies in a reversal or halt to global prosperity. Such a possibility would lead individuals and nations to scramble for a greater share of shrinking wealth and resources, as occurred in the 1930s with the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe and Japan’s “co-prosperity sphere” in Asia. [Page 15]

The JFC also clearly affirms the dependence of U.S. military power on the health of the U.S. and global economies:

A central component of America’s global military posture is its massive economic power. This power is predicated on a financially-viable, globally connected domestic economy. Should this central feature of American power be weakened, it is highly likely that military capabilities will be diminished or otherwise degraded as a result. [Page 16]

JFC then argues that maintaining U.S. and global economic growth critically depend on increasing oil production:

To meet even the conservative growth rates posited above [2.5% growth for the developed world and 4.5% for developing countries], global energy production would need to rise by 1.3% per year. By the 2030s, demand would be nearly 50% greater than today. To meet that demand, even assuming more effective conservation measures, the world would need to add roughly the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s current energy production every seven years. [Page 16]

The JFC indicates that our real oil problem is largely self-inflicted:

New sources (Caspian Sea, Brazil, Colombia, and new portions of Alaska and the Continental Shelf) could offset declining production in mature fields over the course of the next quarter century. But without drilling in currently excluded areas, they will add little additional capacity. [Page 16]

To avoid a disastrous energy crunch, together with the economic consequences that would make even modest growth unlikely, the developed world needs to invest heavily in oil production. There appears to be little propensity to consider such investments. [Page 17]

The JFC cautions that biofuels cannot replace oil on the scale required to sustain global prosperity but could endanger global food security:

Production could increase to approximately 3 MBD-equivalent, but starting from a small base, biofuels are unlikely to contribute more than 1% of global energy requirements by the 2030s. Moreover, even that modest achievement could curtail the supply of foodstuffs to the world’s growing population, which would add other national security challenges to an already full menu. [Page 16]

Finally, the JFC is skeptical about the scientific bona fides of claims linking energy use to an impending climate catastrophe:

The impact of global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomena such as rising sea levels has become a prominent—and controversial—national and international concern. Some argue that there will be more and greater storms and natural disasters, others that there will be fewer. In many respects, scientific conclusions about the cause and potential effects of global warming are contradictory. [Page 21]

So much good sense in one document! It restores belief in the phrase “military intelligence.”

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