The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from BP's drilling platform that exploded and killed 11 workers fouled key fishing areas, befouled wildlife and relentlessly threatened to ruin the region's beaches and tourism industry. But perhaps the biggest shock was the out-of-control oil plume's jolt to Americans' sense of national security.
Facing one of the worse environmental disasters in American history, federal officials were stumped as to how to use the armed forces to protect a vital coastal region--except as emergency clean up crews.
As oil slicks swirled toward an endangered beach and marshland, an angered veteran of the Louisiana National Guard lashed out at the folly of fighting overseas to protect a steady flow of the toxic gunk now threatening the coastal way of life in his home state. "When I signed on with the National Guard, I did it to help protect America from our enemies, like in the Persian Gulf, not to clean up an oil company mess in the Gulf of Mexico," Guardsman Evan Wolf said in a television ad squarely aimed at fellow Americans.
"America needs a new mission. Because whether it's deep-drilling oil out here or spending a billion dollars a day on oil from our enemies overseas, our dependence on oil is threatening our national security," said Wolf. The ad, sponsored by VoteVets.org, asked viewers to contact Congress to support legislation backing energy alternatives, CBS News reported.
In a related TV ad from the same group, Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, a former head of logistics in Iraq, pressed this startling message amid violent video clips of exploding military trucks: "Our troops are getting killed moving fuel we wouldn't need if our military was more efficient -- and our enemies know we're hooked on their oil," he said. "That's why breaking our addiction must not only be a military priority, but America's mission, and why the Senate needs to pass a clean energy climate plan."
In a statement on a veteran’s website, VetVoice.com, Anderson added: "It's through my experiences of overseeing the fuel resupply effort in Iraq that I learned the importance of energy efficiency, reducing risks to our troops, getting us off of foreign oil, and developing new, renewable fuel technologies."
These sobering public service-style ads by Iraq war veterans were not presented by "the usual suspects" on the Left of America's raging political wars. They came from military veterans who had directly experienced fatal flaws in policies that others debated in ideological terms.
Military Commanders Speak Out
Amid the alarums of news updates on oil slicks fouling beaches from Louisiana to Florida as undersea clouds of oil poisoned pelicans and prime fishing grounds, a group of retired generals and admirals also weighed in, issuing a joint statement putting Americans' addiction to oil into a larger, hotly contested context.
"Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place. It's threatening America's security," 33 high-ranking former military leaders contended in ads placed in Military Times publications. "America's billion dollar a day dependence on oil makes us vulnerable to unstable and unfriendly regimes. A substantial amount of that oil money ends up in the hands of terrorists... Taking control of our energy future means preventing future conflicts around the world and protecting Americans here at home."
The ad, sponsored by the Truman National Security Project's Operation Free and aimed at boosting public support for a bill in Congress, concluded that: "It's time to secure America with clean energy. We can create millions of jobs in a clean energy economy while mitigating the effects of climate change across the globe."
The "now hear this!" message by high-ranking military men (and a woman, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy) who had commanded large segments of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps was the latest salvo in a campaign waged by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans involved in Operation Free. The campaign also included bus tours and rallies in state capitals and many cities around the country and lobbying missions to Washington, DC.
Gridlock in Congress
The politically divided Senate, however, failed to muster enough votes to act on the bill the veterans' campaign supported--the American Power Act, developed in a bipartisan effort by Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman.
"July 27 was supposed to be the day that the Senate finally took real action on the issue we have all been working hard for over the past year. It didn’t happen," blogged one of the green-energy lobbyists, Chris Miller, a former Army sergeant from Illinois who served two deployments in Iraq. "As we all got on airplanes throughout the country in high spirits, something was happening on Capitol Hill: nothing.
"By the time we hit ground in Washington, D.C. we learned that everything had changed. The Senate didn’t have the sixty votes needed to proceed to an up-or-down vote on the bill. We went to the Hill again to meet with fence-sitting Senators and their staff. The opinion we encountered there was disappointing, but not surprising: we need to do something about the issues of energy security, energy independence, and climate change, but we’re not going to do anything now."
Hero or Goat?
Miller's hometown newspaper in Carbondale, Illinois reported on his appearance in a TV ad that featured exploding roadside bombs like one that had wounded him in Iraq, and then extensively quoted a local member of Congress who dismissed the veterans' campaign to cut oil use as a cover for leftist politics on climate change.
"Not everyone agrees with Operation Free. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said he believes the organization has a political agenda," reported The Southern, Carbondale's local newspaper. "'In no way am I disrespecting Mr. Miller's service or other soldiers involved with Operation Free, but the public should be aware of the stances the group supports,' Shimkus said. 'Their website explains the leftist positions that global warming supporters continue to use to scare us.'
"Shimkus said he supports an approach to energy that includes increasing domestic energy production through offshore oil exploration and coal-to-liquid technology. Shimkus said energy independence is vital to our nation and it is not in our best interests to rely on foreign oil.
"'Increasing our domestic exploration and drilling of oil, which climate change legislation does not do, is the only answer,' he said. 'Operation Free uses our veterans' heroic service to advance an agenda that is not in the best interests of our nation.'"
Meanwhile, the mainstream news media often muddled or entirely missed the significance of the war veterans' revolt against the energy system status quo.
"National security isn't a perfect argument for moving away from oil, at least for environmentalists—it's too easy to see how an even dirtier fuel like Canadian tar sands crude could pass muster just because it doesn't come from a hostile nation," Time Magazine argued in a feature story on war veterans joining with the Sierra Club to highlight implications of the Gulf disaster. "But the oil spill has demonstrated that America must have a reckoning with the way it develops — and uses — energy, and oil especially."
Yet the outraged vets were essentially channeling similar calls for America to get off the oil standard that have been repeatedly stated for years by national security experts in and out of government. Time gave the oil-wary veterans credit for dramatically raising an issue from an angle that seldom gets headlines, TV specials or radio talk time. "Think renewable power is a joke?" Time poked at scoffers. "Well the Department of Defense has invested billions in energy efficiency and renewable power--in part because they know from Iraq, where a gallon of gas is priced at $400 given the long and threatened supply chain, just how vulnerable our oil dependence makes us."
Previous Calls for Action
In September 2004, several national security experts and representatives of public policy organizations including the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Center for Security Policy, National Defense Council Foundation, and the American Council on Renewable Energy, issued an open letter to fellow Americans and a proposed plan for energy security called "Set America Free." The joint letter called for immediate action to dramatically reduce and replace America's use of oil.
"We are funding terrorism with our petrodollars," said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a former high-ranking Pentagon official. "The bulk of the funding for terrorism is money that flows from state sponsors of terrorism and from there to terrorist organizations. In other words we're paying them to kill us...As one who approaches this from a pure national security perspective I really believe we have no choice but to seize the opportunity to move the country as rapidly as possible off the vulnerability associated with this current reliance on foreign oil."
In 2006, the Council on Foreign Relations issued an extensive report titled "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency" prepared by a blue ribbon task force of former government officials led by past heads of the Department of Defense and CIA. The bottom line message was: "The Task Force is unanimous in concluding that stronger incentives are needed to encourage investment in energy efficiency and fuel
switching by the hundreds of millions of consumers and commercial enterprises in the United States."
Specifically, the national security task force "recommends that the federal government offer greatly expanded incentives and investments aimed at both short- and long-term results to address a wide range of technologies that includes higher efficiency vehicles, substitutes for oil in transportation (such as biomass and electricity), techniques to enhance production from existing oil wells, and technologies that increase the energy efficiency of industrial processes that use oil and gas. Government spending is appropriate in this context because the market alone does not make as much effort as is warranted by national security and environmental considerations."
Alluding to a previous Council on Foreign Relations report, the national security task force added: "In particular, policies intended to reduce demand for fossil fuels—such as those advocated here—can also slow the accumulation of gases that contribute to global warming."
The thrust of this foreign policy call to action caught the attention of editors at Scientific American, who profiled one of the oil-policy dissenters in an October 2008 article titled "For National Security, Get Off Oil."
"At R. James Woolsey’s farm in southern Maryland, solar panels on the roof of his house send electricity back to the utility grid when his family is not using much power. And he drives a Toyota Prius hybrid with a conversion kit that enables him to recharge the car’s battery pack using an extension cord and household current.
"Woolsey isn’t the average citizen who has gone green. As the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995, Woolsey warns that the U.S. faces a grave national security threat from its dependence on energy derived from oil."
Oil Threat Comes Home
As BP's oil well catastrophe dominated daily news reports for weeks on end, BBC radio producers focused on the larger ramifications and conveyed this exchange:
"The damage caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf is expected to affect the region’s environment and economy for decades. And some are suggesting it’s a greater threat to US national security than anything that’s going on in Afghanistan. The World’s Katy Clark has the story.
"KATY CLARK: Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University says that when requirements are great and resources limited, setting the right national security priorities is essential. Yet he maintains the United States has exhibited frustratingly bad judgment in recent years when it comes to addressing the greatest threats before it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, are the most glaring examples.
"ANDREW BACEVICH: And if we look at what matters most, I would argue strongly that the events ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico are of far greater concern to the American people than the events that are going on in Kandahar."
Bacevich, a retired Army colonel whose son died on a military mission in Iraq, has written an outpouring of books and articles in recent years warning that America's foreign policy priorities are disastrous to American society.
In a recent radio interview on Democracy Now, Bacevich linked the national addiction to oil to a dangerously inflated sense of military power that administration after administration in Washington has projected through massive troop movements and fleets of bombers, ships, armored vehicles and humvee patrols, supplied by long, slow, easily targeted fuel truck convoys snaking through deserts, mountains and cities full of hostile people with long histories of fighting military invaders.
"We are in that part of the world because of oil," Bacevich said. "We are in that part of the world because Washington is insistent on its—that it will demonstrate that America’s will shall not be defied, you know, that we cannot afford to back down in Afghanistan, many people in Washington believe, because that would call into question American global leadership. I think American global leadership, in many respects, is an illusion, and it’s a self-defeating illusion."
Conservative's Call for Change
Bacevich, who describes himself as a conservative, is a historian who has turned his critical eye on current issues. In a recent interview in U.S. Catholic magazine, he addressed the wider picture of national priorities that he contends loom behind the oil addiction that long preceded the momentous drilling-rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"When people talk about culture of life they're usually talking about abortion and end-of-life issues and capital punishment, but it seems to me that also raises environmental questions that are of vital interest to the United States of America," Bacevich said. "If the planet sustains terrible damage through climate change, then freedom as we know it is going to be compromised, and the well-being of future generations is going to be deeply damaged.
"All issues that relate to energy--what kind we use, how we use it, and where we get it--if informed by that larger consideration of preserving the planet, would lead us to practical, specific near-term actions that would be different than those that we've pursued with regard to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East over the past 30 years.
"Jimmy Carter's infamous 'national malaise' speech in 1979 is an illustrative moment. Carter was trying to define a new energy policy that would reduce our dependency on imported oil, but he also said: 'This crisis is not simply about oil. It's about the meaning of freedom. We are at a crossroads and the choice is a fundamental one: How do we intend to organize American society?'
"He was exactly right. It was very clear what Carter was proposing in terms of national sacrifice and a new direction on energy policy. But in the next election Reagan was offering 'morning in America.' And we, the people--don't blame Washington--we, the people, made a choice. It was not the choice that Carter recommended, and we're living with the consequences.
"We decided that freedom didn't mean freedom from dependency on Mideast oil, it meant driving a gas-guzzler at 85 miles per hour and living 50 miles from where you work. If we had made a different choice in the way we organize society and get our energy, it could have meant vast changes in what we're experiencing today."
America's Gas-Happy Culture
But American motorists didn't make these choices in a vacuum. Relentless, snazzy advertisements to buy big cars, big trucks and then big SUVs played a substantial role in selling a gas-guzzling lifestyle to a largely hard-working public. So did the continuous expansion through federal funding of the interstate highway system to nearly every corner of the country, enabling people to commute long distances and easily undertake family drives to distant vacation spots. And behind the scenes, lobbyists for oil companies virtually set the national energy agenda no matter who was president.
"The oil industry and related trade associations have been lobbying to secure their bottom lines by risking our national safety for decades," contends Rebecca Lefton, a climate change activist with the Center for American Progress. Lefton cites, among other examples, BP's oil contracts in Libya on behalf of which it allegedly pressed for the release from prison of the Libyan national held responsible for blowing up an American airliner over Scotland.
The explosion of BP's oil rig off the coast of Louisiana revealed to the public that the British oil giant's entanglement with America's security comes even closer to home, as the news media took a closer look at what was going on.
"The Defense Department has kept up its immense purchases of aviation fuel and other petroleum products from BP even as the oil giant comes under federal and state scrutiny for potential violations of clean-water and oil-spill laws related to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, according to U.S. and company officials," the Washington Post reported in July.
"Even before the Gulf debacle, the Environmental Protection Agency had begun probing the potential debarment of BP from all federal contracts -- including those reached with the Defense Energy Support Center, which buys all fuel for the military services. The EPA plays the lead role in debarment proceedings related to the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and its probe was sparked by BP's 2006 spillage of oil in Alaska and a 2005 explosion at its refinery in Texas," the Washington Post report added.
Oil Secrets Exposed
BP's Gulf spill lifted the lid off a number of secretive matters vital to America's security. These included lax enforcement of environmental regulations, lack of effective government oversight of deep-water drilling and failure to have a workable safety plan.
As Ramapo College environmental studies professor Michael Edelstein noted in a detailed critique of the Gulf crisis: "The BP Oil Spill disclosed to the world the full range of adverse consequences that such an event can cause. ... Perhaps most disturbing of all was the illustration that off-shore oil drilling, and perhaps other post-peak fossil fuel extraction, is dangerous in unanticipated ways and tests the ability of experts to mitigate. We cannot assume that problems that occur can be easily fixed or even that they can be fixed at all," Edelstein wrote in a forthcoming book chapter titled "Privacy and Secrecy: Public Reserve as a Frame for Examining the BP Gulf Oil Disaster."
"Yet, perhaps the most revealing of the causal issues is ... the failure of modern society to wean itself from its dependency on oil," Edelstein concluded. "Post peak, oil resources become harder and more risky to tap and the climate consequences of a combustion-based society become ever clearer. Our oil dependence is hardly a secret, and yet it is so central to our paradigm for understanding the world that it is assumed. It is invisible even if hidden in plain sight. Suggested is that the most hazardous secrets are the ones we ourselves collude in keeping."
In an examination of catastrophes that ended the Roman empire, Canadian peace and conflict studies professor Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that "our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome's in key ways." The Roman empire, he contends, expanded over a vast area to control--with armies and engineering feats, like irrigation aqueducts--the best agricultural areas in the Mediterranean region in order to fed growing urban populations and enrich a tiny elite. Eventual over-use of these croplands set in motion a shrinkage and then collapse of the once-formidable empire.
Our modern, oil-fueled global civilization is following in the same path, Homer-Dixon argues in his book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Readily available oil supplies have already passed their peak, forcing explorations of remote areas such as deep under oceans, he notes. "Oil will become far scarcer and costlier," he writes. "Could this lead to a modern version of the Roman empire's fall--caused by escalating tensions as players on the world stage struggle to control oil supplies and as skyrocketing energy costs contort our economies?"
White House Moves
While not endorsing such a gloom and doom scenario, the Obama administration has moved to nudge the nation into taking steps toward a more sustainable energy policy.
"For decades it has been clear that the way Americans produce and consume energy is not sustainable," states an "Energy and Environment" message posted on the White House website. "Our addiction to foreign oil and fossil fuels puts our economy, our national security and our environment at risk. To take this country in a new direction, the President is working with Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our reliance on foreign oil, to create jobs, and to cut down on the carbon pollution that contributes to the destabilizing effects of climate change."
While the Senate remained gridlocked in partisan battles over a clean energy bill and nearly any other proposal by the Obama administration, Obama ordered a number of executive actions, including "committing the Federal Government to lead by example and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020, increase energy efficiency, and reduce fleet petroleum consumption," the White House website noted.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has begun its own momentous turn from its oil-based traditions.
"No one is more acutely aware of this problem than the Department of Defense, and they are leading the efforts on breaking our dependency on oil," said retired Navy Lt. Robert Diamond, testifying to a Congressional committee in April on behalf of Operation Free. "This is critically important. Why? Because DoD is the largest energy consumer in the nation, and our nation is the largest energy consumer in the world."
Great Green Fleet
For example, Diamond stated, "Under the energized leadership of Secretary Roy Mabus, the Navy has set ambitious goals for shifting the Fleet to renewable energy sources. ... [including a] goal of sailing, by 2012, the 'Great Green Fleet'—a carrier battle group entirely powered by sustainable, renewable fuel sources, including nuclear power. Secretary Mabus has also set the goal of generating half of the power at the Navy’s shore installations from alternative energy sources—wind, solar or geothermal—by 2020."
In examining the causes of the collapse of Roman civilization, Homer-Dixon found some hope for our future. "We have an advantage over the Romans that gives us a head start: we understand much better how the complex systems around us behave," he argues. "We also understand that in any complex adaptive system, breakdown, if limited, can be a key part of that system's long-term resilience and renewal."
So the Gulf oil spill catastrophe, in this view, could spur Americans to fully embrace energy conservation and shift to more sustainable sources of energy. That's the goal of civic groups like Operation Free and reformers in and out of government, as well as researchers, writers and innovators seeking effective models.
"The Industrial Age was not planned but innovated. The next age will be no different," contend Peter Senge and his collaborators on a recently published handbook titled The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. However, they add, "to shape a sustainable future, we all need to work together differently than we have in the past." This is a book that perhaps the Obama administration has been reading.
Time for Change
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," President Obama said in a televised address to the nation in June. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny."
After describing the scope of the immediate problem of gushing oil ruining Gulf fisheries, marshes and beaches, Obama put the crisis into the larger context of national energy policies. "For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight," he continued. "Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.
"We cannot consign our children to this future. Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us," Obama concluded. "As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs -– but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment. And only if we rally together and act as one nation –- workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors."