The Real Cost of Energy

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The national security implications of climate change has, in recent years, become a common theme in Washington policy debates, with politicians and military officials increasingly highlighting the potential threats posed by resource constraints and inhospitable climates. The Pentagon’s  Quadrennial Defense Review was, in fact, the first to point to climate change as an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” This week, the Pentagon is highlighting a separate but related concern: American’s unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels.

In recognition of Energy Awareness Month, the Department of Defense convened a series of panels on Wednesday examining the costs of this reliance and how national security could be strengthened by changing America’s energy portfolio. After all, the Department of Defense consumes about 2 percent of all fossil fuels used in the United States, as several speakers repeated at the event.

What was most telling, however, was the human cost of reliance. Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy, noted that Tuesday was 10th anniversary of bombing of the USS Cole. The attack killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others, and happened when the ship was docked in Yemen for refueling. Warships are in constant need of refueling—it has to happen every few days—so more efficient vessels are also safer, he said. “If we do that, we will improve both the security and the combat capability of that ship.”

Transporting oil in conflict zones is also a dangerous mission. In the past three months, Mabus said, six Marines have been injured while guarding fuel convoys. According to an Army report from 2009 Mabus cited, one American soldier is killed or wounded for every 24 convoys.

“That is too high a price to pay for energy,” he said. “We have to change the way we operate. We have to change the way we produce and use energy, not only to save lives and injuries in Afghanistan, but also free up those soldiers and airman to do what they were sent to do, which is to fight, to build capacity in the national security forces, and to engage with the local population.”

He also noted that the danger of relying on other countries for our energy. “Denial of energy can be used as a weapon, a weapon perhaps as effective as planes and tanks,” said Mabus.

Mabus recently witnessed the environmental costs of oil reliance first hand, after President Obama tapped him to develop the Gulf Coast Restoration Plan. (A former governor of Mississippi, he also served as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration.)

His remarks—and the wider show of concern about fossil fuels on display at the Pentagon today—should be a rallying call on energy. Even for those who still think climate change is a giant conspiracy theory, it’s hard to deny the real problems that reliance on fossil fuels creates for the US.

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