“The cleanest and least expensive kilowatt hour or BTU is the one you don’t use.”

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If You Want World Peace, Solve the Energy Crisis!
A Reflection for the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

By Walter Simpson
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In 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and fears were running high that they were going after the Saudi Arabian oil fields.  President Jimmy Carter responded with the “Carter Doctrine” which designated those oil fields as vital U.S. interests and stated that we would use “any means necessary” to defend them -- apparently including nuclear weapons. 

Risking nuclear war for oil, when we were wasting it like crazy, seemed absurd and dangerous to me -- so I created the “Energy Conservation Peace Pledge” -- a petition that said let’s conserve energy instead of risking nuclear war!  Pretty obvious stuff but it was in direct opposition to conventional wisdom and U.S. foreign policy at the time. 

My conservation pledge did not change history but it was an epiphany for me. I realized that if I wanted to be an effective peacemaker, I better address the energy issue. So I left my position as director of the WNY Peace Center and went back to school to study energy policy.  That decision led to a 26 year career as energy officer at the University at Buffalo where I planned and implemented energy conservation measures while teaching about the need for sustainable energy policies.

Discovering Hard and Soft Energy Paths

My early understanding of the energy issue was influenced by Amory Lovins’ groundbreaking essay “Energy Strategy: the Road Not Taken?” which appeared in the October 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs.  In that article, Lovins established his credentials as an energy visionary by discussing the “hard” and “soft” energy paths. 

The hard energy path is the path we are on -- with near total reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels and large central power stations mostly fueled by coal or uranium.  Lovins characterized the hard path as polluting, risky, vulnerable, costly, and capital intensive.  He was also prescient, observing over thirty years ago that a long-term commitment to coal-burning would cause substantial and potentially irreversible changes in global climate.  Moreover, he sounded the alarm about the dangerous connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Lovins’ soft energy path was easier on the environment, society, and pocketbook.  Instead of the hard path’s commitment to ever increasing conventional energy supplies, the soft path called for first reducing demand through energy conservation and efficiency and then the using “soft energy technologies” like solar, wind, and biomass to meet those reduced energy needs in ways that were renewable, diverse, decentralized, easy to understand, and appropriate to the tasks at hand. 

Observing that over half the energy we produce is wasted, Lovins turned energy thinking on its head by advocating meeting energy needs with “negawatts” or energy savings -- an approach he termed “least cost” because it generally costs much less to save energy than it does to make it. 

Risks of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence

Looking back, we see that the 1970s were watershed years in the energy world.  In 1973-1974 we experienced an “energy crisis” when Arab oil-producing nations imposed an oil embargo on the United States and its allies in response to U.S. support for Israel during and after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. Many will remember long gas stations lines which called into question our love affair with large gas-guzzling cars.  

That first energy crisis was followed in 1979 by a second energy crisis when the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was overthrown and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  In addition to seizing American hostages, Iran’s new anti-American government turned off the oil spigot, reducing global oil supplies and causing gasoline prices to soar again. 

These events and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan focused the Carter Administration on U.S. foreign oil dependence.  At the time only 37% of U.S. oil was imported -- compared to 57% now. While Jimmy Carter was an advocate of energy conservation, he was also willing to use U.S. military might to keep foreign oil flowing into our gas tanks.  Before Carter left office he created the Rapid Deployment Force, a new military command designed to quickly deploy to global hotspots like the Persian Gulf whenever U.S. interests were threatened.

Our first oil war occurred in 1991 when U.S. and allied forces carried out operation “Desert Storm” to repel Iraqi military forces that had invaded Kuwait in 1990, seizing its oil fields.  While President George H.W. Bush took pains to wrap this war in the American flag, calling it a defense of “freedom and democracy,” the war was clearly all about oil. After all, Kuwait was not a democracy but it did contain the world’s fourth largest oil reserves.  

While this Persian Gulf War was relatively short, each day of fighting cost taxpayers $1 billion or three times the annual federal budget for energy conservation. 148 American soldiers died liberating Kuwaiti oil.  Iraqi deaths were considerably higher -- 50,000 or more.  Civilian deaths were termed “collateral damage” with many killed during weeks of U.S. aerial bombing of Bagdad.   

One Oil War Leads to Another

Given the human and dollar costs of the Gulf War, the take home lesson should have been “let’s do everything we can to avoid another oil war.”  But that lesson was not learned.  Our cars remained inefficient and we drove them greater distances, causing U.S. foreign oil imports to grow during the 1990s.  Moreover, at the end of the Gulf War the seeds were sewn for the next oil war by establishing a permanent U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia.  This base was deeply resented by Saudi fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden and may have precipitated the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which served as a catalyst to our second oil war in 2003.

The ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus is credited with saying, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Nothing could illustrate that maxim better than all the lies that were told by the second Bush Administration to mobilize our nation for “regime change” and war in Iraq. 

We now know that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the 9-11 attacks and that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction threatening the United States.  While the Bush White House was masterful in conjuring up phony rationales for invading Iraq, they never admitted the real one -- oil.  The role of Saudi Arabia in 9-11 was also obscured.  Saudi money, much of it recycled U.S. petrodollars, was funding fundamentalist Islamic schools throughout the region committed to jihad against the United States.

Given the Bush Administration’s strong oil industry ties, it was not surprising that it immediately focused on foreign oil through Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force which met in secret with top oil company executives.  Its May 2001 report highlighted the dangers of U.S. foreign oil dependency, predicting that by 2020 as much as two-thirds of U.S. oil would be imported.  Cheney’s task force is believed to have reviewed maps of Iraqi oil fields, noting which U.S. oil companies wanted access to them. When the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred, the administration was ready to use this tragic event as an excuse to go after the Iraqi oil reserves -- the second or third largest in the world. 

When the cause of war is obvious, it’s remarkable that knowledgeable political leaders remain silent and sustain the masquerade.  It took Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, to say in his 2007 memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”  This statement’s truth was born out by the Bush Administration’s on-going attempts to pressure the new Iraqi government to sign no-bid contracts with western oil companies like Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Total, and BP which previously did not have access to Iraqi oil. 

Our second oil war, which has yet to end, makes the first one look like a piker.  4,000 Americans were killed and over 30,000 wounded.  Iraqi deaths are estimated between 100,000 and 1 million.  So far the war has directly cost American taxpayers over $700 billion and the U.S. economy an estimated $3 trillion – that’s $3,000,000,000,000 or $10,000 for every American. 

These staggering sums may be more than would be needed to completely redesign our transportation sector to run efficiently on domestic biofuels or wind powered hydrogen, completely eliminating U.S. foreign oil dependence.

Peak Oil Will Make Things Worse

In the absence of better energy policies we can expect more oil wars in the future, perhaps at an accelerating rate.  After all, our dependence on oil imports is still growing and most of the world’s remaining conventional oil is located in Middle East Islamic nations often not well disposed to the United States. 

Plus it appears that the world has or will soon experience “peak oil,” a point in time when global oil production peaks and then declines as the oil reserves which are easiest to discover and tap are depleted and finding more oil becomes difficult and costly. 

Peak oil, which is inevitable because global oil supplies are finite, will usher in an era of much higher gasoline prices and economic dislocation.  Even worse, peak oil could propel us toward “non-solutions” like reckless drilling for oil in fragile, irreplaceable natural environments or tapping Canadian oil sands -- which would be catastrophic given the energy requirements and carbon footprint associated with exploiting that resource.

The frightening prospect of peak oil should motivate us to quickly become “energy independent” by developing public transit, bicycle-friendly communities, smart growth plans to minimize sprawl, and highly efficient alternatively fueled vehicles.  Lack of action is setting us up to become full participants in an intense international scramble for dwindling oil supplies – a recipe for economic collapse, international conflict, and more oil wars. 

Climate Change May Precipitate War

Our addiction to fossil fuels is causing global climate change because when coal, oil and natural gas are burned they release vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas which traps heat in the atmosphere.  As the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases rise, so does global average temperature.  Our unusual recent winter notwithstanding, NASA warns that a new global average temperature record is likely to be set soon.

There is a natural tendency to deny the inconvenient truth about fossil fuels but it is based on overwhelming scientific evidence. We ignore this problem at our own peril because as climate change gets worse our species will find itself living in a much less hospitable world with rising sea levels and more intense storms, heat waves, droughts, and floods. 

Even now in parts of the world many people are just barely surviving.  Imagine the difficulties the world’s poor will have as natural environments fail.  Changing climates will cause millions of “eco-refugees” to illegally cross national boundaries, seeking land, food, and water resources to survive.  Water wars may rival oil wars as deserts expand and the glaciers and winter snowpack that feed rivers decline.

The U.S. military understands the science and takes the threat of climate change seriously. As early as 2004, the Pentagon released a study which found that climate change could lead to anarchy in many parts of the world, making international conflict endemic.  The report, which was quickly suppressed by the Bush Administration, described global warming as a greater threat to national security than terrorism. 

These findings were repeated in the recently released 2010 Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Review which described climate change as “an accelerant of instability” that “may spark future conflicts.”  While we spent 5 trillion dollars on national defense and war during the last decade, we have yet to address climate change and our addiction to fossil fuels in any meaningful way. 

Leading climatologist Jim Hansen said in 2006 that he believed we had just ten years to make substantial progress reversing current carbon dioxide emissions trends or we would be unable to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.  Hansen argues that we must curtail coal burning and implement a carbon tax.  To date, neither strategy has been seriously considered.  Nor has Congress passed even a flawed climate protection bill. 

Nuclear Power: Solution or Problem?

Our energy discussion has one more chapter -- nuclear power.  Friend or foe?  Does it contribute to peace or war? 

Consider the nuclear fuel cycle: Uranium is mined, enriched and then “fissioned” in a reactor to produce heat, steam, and then electricity.  Each step has risks. Nuclear plants also produce radioactive waste which must be safely disposed of for tens of thousands of years or reprocessed into more nuclear fuel. 

The enrichment and reprocessing steps use technology that can produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium --the stuff of radioactive “dirty bombs” or city-flattening atomic bombs that we never want to see in the hands of terrorists or governments hostile to us like that Iran.  Thus, nuclear power technology –  what President Dwight Eisenhower hailed as “atoms for peace” in the 1950s – is inextricably tied to “atoms for war.”

Climate change reopened the nuclear power debate because nuclear power plants operate without emitting carbon dioxide. While unimpressed by existing nuclear power plants, Hansen is among those calling for accelerated R&D on “fourth generation” nuclear plants to provide carbon-free baseload electric generating capacity.  He believes these “fast neutron” plants will be much more efficient than existing light water reactors and able to “burn” the radioactive waste and plutonium created by older reactors – easing both the radioactive waste and proliferation problems.

On the other side is Amory Lovins who still doubts we need large coal or nuclear power stations and observed years ago that nuclear power plants make inviting targets for terrorists.  Lovins maintains that advanced reactor designs will not adequately safeguard against nuclear weapons proliferation.  In any event, he argues that a nuclear resurgence is unlikely because -- compared to the alternatives -- nuclear power is just too expensive and will inevitably die from “an incurable attack of market forces.”

The Energy Imperative

Of the thousand things we need to do to create a more peaceful future, surely one of them – a principal strategy -- is finding less dangerous ways to meet our energy needs. 

Amory Lovins was right in 1976 and he is right now in his continuing plea for the soft energy path.  We can have a cleaner, safer world and meet our energy needs less expensively by making deep cuts in the amount of energy we consume and then using diverse, renewable, carbon-free, alternative  energy sources like solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal to meet those needs.  It need not be the “road not taken.” 


Walter Simpson has worked in the energy field since he was director of the WNY Peace Center, 1977 – 1980.   This essay was published as the feature article in the Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News, Sunday, April 18, 2010.