Clean energy tied to national security, official says

By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service

The changing U.S. and international energy pictures have a profound effect on security, a senior Pentagon official said.

Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, told industry partners and congressional leaders at the American Council on Renewable Energy’s National Renewable Energy Policy Forum that the motivation for seeking out clean energy sources is strongly rooted in national security interests.

The International Energy Agency’s world energy outlook, released in November, is “the shot heard ‘round the world,” Burke said. According to the report, she said, the world will need $37 trillion in new investment in the energy supply system from now to 2035.

Even as mature economies increase their energy efficiency, switch fuels and reduce their petroleum demand, the thirst for oil among the world’s economies ― particularly developing economies ― will continue to grow apace, Burke said.

“China will account for something like 50 percent of that [growth],” she told the audience. “When you add in India and the Middle East, you’re talking about 60 percent.”

The United States is affecting the most change on the world energy picture, she said. The IEA estimates that by 2020, the United States is going to outstrip Saudi Arabia as an oil producer. Another report predicts that the U.S. will succeed Russia as a natural gas producer, she added.

This means the possibility exists that North America could be energy self-sufficient by 2035, Burke said. “Even as everyone else in the world has growing demand and contracting supply, we’re bucking the trend,” she said.

This possibility has generated a lot of justifiable excitement, and for a variety of reasons, Burke said. There are positive consequences for the U.S. economy, for jobs and for the manufacturing sector, she said. But the Defense Department is most interested in the second-order geostrategic effects, Burke noted.

A danger in all this enthusiasm, she said, is that it overlooks the fact that the United States will still be part of a highly volatile global energy market, “and the world’s supply and demand trends are going to continue to shape our own prosperity here at home.”

The energy security variables have implications that aren’t yet understood, Burke said. For example, she asked, what will happen if Saudi Arabia ― already the largest single consumer of petroleum in the Middle East ― becomes a net importer?

Iran is suspected to have been behind two attacks on Saudi Aramco: a cyberattack in 2012 that damaged 85 percent of the company’s computers, and a two-vehicle suicide-bomb attack in 2006, Burke said. Both attacks failed to disable oil and gas production, but they were clearly intended to do so, she added.

Last month, Iran conducted naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, which it has repeatedly threatened to close, she said.

“I know a lot of people who think those are empty threats, because such a closure would certainly hurt the Iranian people most of all, but this is 20 percent of the global oil market,” Burke said. “It would cripple the global economy, so certainly at DoD we take those threats seriously.”

Territorial disputes pose a different kind of threat, she said. Tensions flared recently between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, due in part to the expected presence of oil there, Burke said. In the Arctic, global climate change has made more oil and gas accessible, driving bordering nations to stake claims on formerly ice-bound geologic provinces.

The Defense Department has a history of looking at how the effects of climate change ― droughts, floods, population migration, sea level rise and shifts in arable land ― are an accelerant to instability, she said. In May, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called climate change a threat to national security, Burke added.

The need for clean energy and energy efficiency has an enduring security angle, she said, adding that it’s the only way to break out of the paradigm of foreign energy dependence and its associated instability.

The Defense Department’s changing mission also has energy security implications, Burke said. In January 2012, Panetta and President Barack Obama released new strategic guidance that called for a rebalance of focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

Considering that the Defense Department already is the single largest consumer of fuel in the country, if not the world, she said, it’s “sobering” to think about what the rebalance means for fuel consumption. Last year, the department used 4.3 billion gallons of petroleum, and spent about $20 billion on fuel, Burke said.

Beyond the rebalance and the long supply lines that it implies, the strategy articulates a changing security environment, Burke said, including rising powers, weapons of mass destruction, anti-access/area-denial and violent extremism. “We are organizing to meet these challenges,” she said, but the ability to do so hinges on maintaining energy security.

Everything from cyber to special operations to large-scale humanitarian assistance efforts requires a lot of energy, Burke noted.

“Consider this ability to disperse, to maneuver, to operate over long distances in remote locations, and to be aware that people are going to try to interdict your movements, try to prevent you,” she said. “That’s a fuel challenge, and it’s a fuel logistics challenge, and we have to get our arms around it.”

The department has to apply the lessons it learned over the past decade of war, Burke said. An average of 45 million gallons of fuel is consumed each month in Afghanistan, she said.

“Delivering all that fuel takes a toll on a lot of different things,” Burke said. “It takes a toll on helicopters, aircraft [and] trucks that are moving the fuel, and that’s a bill that’s going to come due, because we need all those things for other missions in the future, and their life has been shortened.”

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