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Energy security: It takes more than drilling

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New ways to supply fuel from renewable sources can be secure, fast, and competitive. Urban, industrial, farm, and forest wastes and soil-replenishing crops, such as prairie grass, can yield clean transportation fuels, electricity, fertilizer, and substitutes for petrochemicals. Done right, this can also improve topsoil, enhance farmers' income, preserve rural culture, and stabilize the climate. Producing such biofuels locally bypasses vulnerable pipelines, employs Americans, and keeps dollars at home. Hydrogen fuel cells based on natural gas (but without using more) or renewable energy could also save about $1 trillion of investment for transportation fuel infrastructure in the next 40 years while displacing oil promptly, securely, profitably – and in the long run, almost completely.

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Drilling for more oil in the United States might be a useful but limited step, since the US uses 25 percent of the world's oil but owns only 3 percent. New domestic oil is generally costly and far from customers. Of the some 4 million oil wells drilled since the 1860s, 3 million have been drilled in the lower 48. Alaska has been less exploited, so the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might yield oil – albeit, says the US Geological Survey, uneconomically, a decade off, and briefly cutting imports by only up to 5 percentage points.

But the real show-stopper is national security. Delivering that oil by its only route, the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), would make TAPS the fattest energy-terrorist target in the country – Uncle Sam's "Kick Me" sign.

TAPS is frighteningly insecure. It's largely accessible to attackers, but often unrepairable in winter. If key pumping stations or facilities at either end were disabled, at least the above-ground half of 9 million barrels of hot oil could congeal in one winter week into the world's biggest Chapstik.

THE Army has found TAPS indefensible. It has already been sabotaged, incompetently bombed twice, and shot at more than 50 times. Last Oct. 4, a drunk shut it down with one rifle shot.

In 1999, a disgruntled engineer's sophisticated plot to blow up three critical points with 14 bombs, then profit from oil futures trading, was thwarted by luck. He was an amiable bungler compared with the Sept. 11 attackers. Connect the dots: Doubling and prolonging dependence on TAPS hardly seems a prudent centerpiece for what advocates whimsically called the Homeland Energy Security Bill.

Reliance both on Mideast oil and on vulnerable domestic energy infrastructure such as TAPS imperils the security of the US and its friends.

Both sources of vulnerability are unnecessary and uneconomic. They should be countered by the cheapest mix of two secure options: efficiency gains and distributed domestic supply alternatives. Then, adding the power of markets to the ingenuity of industry, we can move promptly toward an energy system that terrorists can't shut off – and a durable foundation for an America that would no longer be a brittle power.

• R. James Woolsey, an attorney, was Director of Central Intelligence 1993 to 1995. The Lovinses, who lead the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, have long advised major oil companies and the Energy and Defense Departments. For more information on this subject, go to www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid533.php and www.nepinitiative.org.

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