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Renewables for National Security: The Battle Cries Grow Louder

Clint Wilder's picture

Last month I described the need to reframe the subject of clean energy to gain broader public and bipartisan support, including casting the move to renewable energy sources as a matter of national security. A lot has happened since then to further this reframing, and not just $2.50 per gallon of gas near my northern California home, although that certainly doesn't hurt the cause. In late March, 31 former top government security officials and retired military officers signed a letter to President Bush calling for at least $1 billion in research funding and tax incentives over the next five years to promote production and use of renewable transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel and technologies such as plug-in hybrid cars. Their argument is as straightforward as it gets: the United States is dangerously dependent on imported oil, especially from the Middle East. "This really constitutes a national security emergency in the making," says signatory Frank Gaffney. "The crisis is incipient, if it's not already here now." You can choose your own scary statistics from a plethora of available data, but here are some of my favorites:

The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world's oil consumption while holding just 2% of the planet's oil reserves. That translates to 60% of our oil coming from overseas, with a great percentage from the Middle East and other unstable if not downright hostile regimes.
In the last two years, net oil export revenue for OPEC countries has increased 42%.
The Saudis have spent an estimated $70 billion from 1975 to 2002 on "overseas development aid," much of which, says Center for Security Policy senior fellow Alex Alexiev, funds jihadist schools and teachings in Indonesia, Pakistan, and the U.S.
A terrorist strike on a major Saudi oil refinery could take six million barrels a day offline. The results for the U.S. economy, in the words of coalition member Robert "Bud" McFarlane, would be "catastrophic."

That's why some of the leading conservative voices in the country have united with the likes of the Natural Resources Defense Council and others to call for a dramatic increase in renewable fuels and more efficient vehicles. And we're not talking about hydrogen; its large-scale deployment is too far in the future, like 20 years. That's too long to wait to address a security crisis that's here today. Signers of the Energy Future Coalition letter include some of the leading conservative voices in Washington. Gaffney is a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, widely considered the Holy Grail of neoconservative foreign policy. C. Boyden Gray was White House counsel to President George H. W. Bush. McFarlane was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. On the military side, signatories include former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William T. Crowe Jr., four retired Navy vice admirals, two former Navy secretaries, and retired Air Force Gen. William Lawson, past president of the National Mining Association. (The letter and all signatories can be found at Most of the news headlines on this story used terms like "unlikely bedfellows" to describe neocons embracing a supposedly environmentalist position. But when you strip away the political cliches and sound-bite labels and apply simple logic, the coalition's call to action makes infinite sense. We are, very simply, sending billions of dollars to our enemies, and relying on mission-critical supply lines that are highly at risk. It doesn't make military sense, security sense or geopolitical sense, no matter what your political stripe. So where does this leave a Bush administration that has not, to put it delicately, aggressively embraced the development of renewable fuels? You tell me. The day before the coalition announcement, influential New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman called Bush's inaction on oil dependence "one of the greatest examples of misplaced priorities in the history of the U.S. presidency." To its credit, the Energy Future Coalition did not simply renew the call for increased production of corn-based ethanol, which has never lacked bipartisan support from farm- state senators. Corn-based ethanol may reduce oil use, but it requires more energy to produce than it yields and is a much less efficient use of agricultural land than the alternative the coalition supports: cellulosic ethanol from farm waste and other crops like switchgrass and poplar or willow trees. The coalition put forth a compelling vision, perhaps unrealistic in the near term, but nonetheless inspiring -- of a car that gets 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's a plug- in hybrid only requiring gas for long distances, running on so-called E-85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gas. It's a long way from the approximately 200,000 Toyota Priuses and other hybrids (about 1.2% of the market) to be sold in the U.S. this year, but it's something positive to work towards. Especially with the security of the nation at stake. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.