By: Kelly de la Torre Issue: Vision Section: Government
Creating a More Secure and Prosperous America
Many people understand the direct link between oil and America’s enemies. But what they may not understand are the realities of our oil dependency as a nation. As a 35-year veteran of the Navy and President of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), Vice Admiral McGinn understands these realities because he’s experienced them. The good news is that his knowledge and experience puts him in the ideal position to change our dependency on traditional energy sources by creating opportunities for Americans. Better yet, he’s leading the charge.
In addition to his ACORE presidency, Admiral McGinn lends his expertise to, among other energy and climate boards, the CNA Military Advisory Board. The CNA Board comprises 11 recently retired three- and four-star generals and admirals, examining the national security implications of climate change and the nexus of energy, climate change and national security.
McGinn believes America’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels poses significant security risks to the country and our military. This is not a new issue for him. He became interested in national energy security issues during the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970’s when there were long lines at gas pumps. “We were relying too heavily on imported oil. I realized then how vulnerable we really were, and I haven’t lost focus on the critical link between energy and America’s economy and national security,” recalls McGinn in CNA’s Voices of Experience. Further, he believes, our dependence on fossil fuels comes with associated security, environmental and health costs. “America’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels comes at a cost that is not fully reflected in the amount paid at the gas pump,” says McGinn. “Every time we fill up, we need to understand the costs involved, especially the high price we pay with the lives of the men and women of the armed forces.”
Our dependence on oil undermines our national security on multiple levels. Vice Admiral McGinn explains that oil’s pervasiveness in America’s energy policy forces the country to engage at various levels with hostile and unstable regimes, weakening our international leverage and putting our economy in a precarious position. According to one CNA report, “The United States consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil production, yet controls less than three percent of an increasingly tight supply.” The trouble is that oil is traded on a global market, a market that is vulnerable to manipulation by those who control the largest shares. “Without bold action now to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, our national security will be at greater risk,” testified Vice Admiral McGinn, before a U.S. Senate panel. “Fierce global competition and conflict over dwindling supplies of fossil fuel will be a major part of the future strategic landscape.” America’s goal should be, he believes, to relieve our oil dependency by diversifying our fuel supply, increasing the efficient use of fuel and increasing our use of low carbon technologies.
Moving toward low carbon energy sources and technologies also helps confront the challenge of global climate change. “Climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security, acting as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the world’s most volatile regions, adding tension to stable regions, worsening terrorism and likely dragging the United States into conflicts over water and other critical resource shortages,” testified Admiral McGinn before a Senate Committee. “The truth is, climate change aside, our energy choices have a direct bearing on our economic well-being,” he says. “If we’re not economically strong and stable we aren’t going to be militarily stable.” To address these challenges, there needs to be recognition that “climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.”
“In 2008, we sent $386 billion overseas to pay for oil—much of it going to nations that wish us harm. This is an unprecedented and unsustainable transfer of wealth to other nations. It puts us in the untenable position of funding both sides of the conflict and directly undermines our fight against terror,” testified Vice Admiral McGinn, before a U.S. Senate panel.
With challenge however, comes opportunity. Positive action is an imperative for our economy, our national security and for the safety of our men and women in the armed forces, emphasizes Admiral McGinn. As Americans we have a history of standing behind our military and we must recognize that national security is not only the responsibility of the military. “Americans made clear sacrifices during World War II for reasons that are obvious in hindsight: they understood the stakes, and they were asked,” he said. The good news says Admiral McGinn and ACORE, is that the changes needed today to move to a more secure nation aren’t sacrifices—they are ways to utilize new technologies to live more sustainable, secure lives. “There is no free lunch when it comes to our energy choices,” says McGinn, “but by taking a systems approach, we can make changes without making the kind of sacrifices that Americans were called on to make in World War II—and the result is better security and economic opportunity with the added benefit of mitigating the causal factors of climate change.”
For example, according to McGinn, 97 percent of transportation energy is petroleum based. We need to change this by energy efficiency; squeezing every bit of value out of every gallon of gas. One critical step is to continue to increase our vehicle energy efficiency standards. Another critical step is to develop flexible fuel vehicles and open fuel standards where consumers have greater choice and vehicles are capable of operating on a variety of liquid fuels, for example, gasoline, alcohol fuels (e.g., butanol or ethanol), biodiesel or any combination of fuels. This type of flex-fuel vehicle would also complement hybrid vehicle technology like plug-ins and further increase the economic benefit. Flex-fuel capability directly impacts our national security by reducing our oil dependency, and it should become a standard feature like safety belts and airbags.
Fuel choice further applies to the electricity sector. “Although fossil fuels have supported America’s economic and military growth through the twentieth century, this growth hasn’t come without a cost in terms of environmental impact, health impacts and vulnerabilities to outside forces,” explains Admiral McGinn. To transition to a more diverse energy portfolio however, he believes we need to make complex choices, and these choices must be made while considering the linkage between energy security, economic security, environmental security and national security. In other words, we need to recognize that there is a cost related to each of these critical elements. For example, while coal is an abundant natural resource, of all the fossil fuels, it most impacts greenhouse emissions while releasing other serious toxins into our atmosphere. These and other external costs should be accounted for. “If we’re really honest and capture all the costs, direct and indirect, we make better energy choices,” urges McGinn.
Another safety concern is our domestic electric grid. “A fragile domestic electricity grid makes our domestic military installations and their critical infrastructure, unnecessarily vulnerable to incident, whether deliberate or accidental,” wrote McGinn and the CNA Board in their report, Powering America’s Defense. A more robust grid will facilitate integration of a more diverse portfolio of energy generation including solar, wind, hydro power and geothermal power, and will significantly reduce the emissions resulting from power generation. Equally important, the electric grid is a significant vulnerability in our domestic energy structure and the economic impact of an attack could be staggering. During the blackout in August, 2003, an estimated 50 million people lost power, shutting down sewage plants, gas and water pumps, cell phones, and television stations. The economic loss was estimated between $7 and $10 billion. The event was found to have been caused by the failure to trim trees near a power line, clearly demonstrating the extent of our vulnerability. “To the extent that the resiliency of the grid continues to decline, it increases the potential for expanded and/or longer duration outages from natural events as well as deliberate attack.”
Security, infrastructure, and climate threats are more than challenges—they are opportunities—opportunities to create industries around energy efficiency and renewable and low carbon technologies. Notes Vice Admiral McGinn, “One of ACORE’s guiding principles is that we are for all kinds of renewable energy, and against none. ACORE is about building a more secure and prosperous America with clean renewable energy because that is part of the solution. We need to apply every technology and efficiency to solve our energy challenges. There is no ‘one size fits all’ energy solution.” The energy platform can’t be rigid. The platform needs to evolve depending on variables like need, geography and availability of resources, to name just a few. For example, solar might be the best resource for Arizona while wind is better in the Midwest. We are looking at an integrated system of variable parts and we need to look for solutions to fit with that system.
Vice Admiral McGinn sums up our current position this way, “The ‘Greatest Generation’ took on the challenges of 60 years ago. We can be the ‘Next Greatest Generation’ in the 21st Century by taking on the new challenges of today that are threatening our way of life. We can do something about these challenges. The beauty is that to do so doesn’t mean sacrifice—it means more jobs, more national and energy security, and more economic security. Let’s get over the fear of the future and do something now to shape a better future for all of us. Business as usual is not the answer.”
Kelly de la Torre and Sue Carriere are attorneys who understand the solutions that advanced energy can bring to the military, the U.S. government and our nation. They are working to bring together partners from various industry sectors and government to identify barriers to implementation and encourage dialogue and consensus on industry solutions. To find out about ALG | Attorneys and how ALG can help bring your company’s energy solutions to these discussions contact or Kelly de la Torre at 720-536-4600 or please go to www.antonlaw.com.