Back to top

The National Security-Clean Energy Link

A growing number of industry experts and government officials are coming to the same conclusion: clean-energy technologies can provide a range of business opportunities and environmental benefits as well as increase national security. Relying on foreign sources of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels for our nation's energy presents a significant risk to our economy and our well-being. Several prominent national security experts are joining the ranks of supporters encouraging a diversified energy portfolio that includes a strong component of clean, renewable energy. R. James Woolsey , director of the CIA from 1993-1995 and now co-chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding democracy and fighting terrorism, is embracing the vision of a robust, clean-energy future. Woolsey and fellow co-chairman George Schultz, recently authored a paper (PDF) entitled Oil and Security, describing the national security reasons for diversifying our energy portfolio. Woolsey spoke with John Gartner about the risks of petroleum dependency and the emerging clean energy technologies that could reduce oil imports. John Gartner: Why are developing alternative fuels technologies and promoting fuel efficiency critical to our national security? James Woolsey: The infrastructure for transportation is now so linked to oil that we would have no place to run (if there were a disruption in oil supply). Bob Baer's book Sleeping With the Devil discusses how terrorists taking out the sulfur-cleaning towers in northeastern Saudi Arabia could take six million barrels per day off the market for up to a year, which would wreak economic devastation on our country. The United States borrows about $2 billion per day to finance our consumption. One billion of that is money for oil, and the Mid East is home for two-thirds of that oil. We are living on top of a volcano as long as we are that dependent on foreign oil. JG: What clean energy technologies should be developed to reduce our dependency on oil? JW: There are two types of fuels that can be used to replace oil -- cellulosic ethanol, made from switch grass or other crops, and renewable diesel from waste products or waste carcasses. These things are real now. For example, in Carthage, Missouri, Conagra is taking 200 tons of animal waste per day and turning it into 300 barrels of oil. This has an advantage over biodiesel, which is hard to use with regular diesel in a mixture. JG: What impact could the increased use of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and the development of advanced batteries have on fuel consumption? JW: Plug-in version of hybrids can provide very cheap power for driving short trips. They don't have the disadvantage of electric cars where you had to worry about the electric charge going down, leaving you stranded. Hybrids are really electric vehicles with solid insurance policies. The plug-in movement from groups such as is already adapting hybrids to get more than 100 miles per gallon, and higher capacity lithium ion batteries are being developed by companies like Valence of Austin, Texas. If you run these hybrids on 85 percent cellulosic ethanol, then you could be talking about vehicles that get up to 1000 miles on a gallon of gasoline. Plug-in hybrids can be recharged from the grid for the equivalent of $1.00 per gallon of gasoline, and if they are charged off peak, it can be as low as 25-50 cents per gallon. JG: You also see reducing the weight of vehicles as an effective method of increasing fuel efficiency. How can that be accomplished without compromising passenger safety? JW: Constructing vehicles with inexpensive versions of the carbon composites used in aviation and race cars, which is outlined in Amory Lovins' report for the Rocky Mountain Institute called "Winning the Oil Endgame," can reduce the weight of vehicles while making them safer. These composites are stronger than steel and can reduce the weight of the vehicle by 50 percent. By cutting the weight in half, you could make a 50 miles per gallon Prius into a 100 mpg car. The goal is to machine produce vehicles with 80 percent of the efficiency of aviation composites while at 20 percent of the cost. You don't need a "Manhattan Project" type initiative to make this happen -- these are technologies that are here today. JG: A new energy bill was recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. How will this new law affect the development of these alternative energy technologies? JW: We missed the boat on two big things. First we need compulsory CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, and we also need a compulsory carbon capping and trading system. I would not give it (the energy law) better than a C or C-. It would have gotten an absolute F until they added endorsement of ethanol and clean diesel. There is an awful lot of money that is wasted in trying to find more oil in the United Sates. There are 4 million oil wells in the world, and 3 million of them were dug here in the United States. We're not going to find any useful amounts anymore. If we were to start drilling in ANWR (the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge), the optimistic view is that in 20 years we may be able to lower the amount of oil we get from foreign sources from 68 percent to 65 percent, which isn't much. JG: What role should government play in investing in oil-alternative technologies to make them a reality? JW: Energy policy is intertwined with natural security, so there is plenty of rationale for using government in these areas. The trick is not to have the government get into the business of picking precise solutions. The best option is for the government to provide tax credits and loan guarantees that foster technologies if they achieve an important objective. The government ought to incentivize using fuels that don't add to global warming. People who say never interfere with market aren't paying attention to this as a national security issue. JG: Do you believe reducing our dependency on foreign oil could influence our foreign policy towards the Middle East? JW: I think we need to move to bring democracy to the Middle East regardless of the rule of law. Unfortunately, for countries that receive most of their revenue from oil, it is harder to move to democracy. The reason is that for oil-rich nations, oil provides too much economic benefit to the central ruling power, making it hard for a government to establish a legislature, which is described in a study which was recently published by Oxford University (economists Collier and Hoeffler). As long as Mid East countries such as Saudi Arabia get most of their income from oil and don't need to have taxes, it is going to be very hard for them to shift to democratic states. John Gartner is a contributing writer for Wired News and Technology Review, focusing on alternative energy and environmental technologies.