Oil Security is National Security: Petroleum and the US Consumer

Rachael Wolber Arlen Weiner Shira Rascoe Abrey Thrane Anno Lello-Smith


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Interview Participants
In 2010 the United States represented only 4.5% of the global population, yet it is responsible for 22% of total world petroleum consumption. Individual use pales in comparison to that of the Department of Defense which is responsible for almost 80% of total United States petroleum consumption.
Every military operation relies on petroleum and is therefore vulnerable to the volatile nature of oil prices and disruptions in supply. The US military’s dependence on petroleum also endangers individual personnel. Traditionally the US has imported most of its petroleum from the Middle East. However, recently America has begun to import increasing amounts from Africa.
The DOD reported, “Africa’s vast potential makes African stability a near-term global strategic imperative.” Many of the nations in which the US has intervened are producers or potential producers of oil. The US wants to stabilize these vulnerable regions. However, many of them are unstable because of oil. Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer.
In 2008 Nigeria was the world’s 8th largest producer of petroleum. Before oil was first discovered in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s economy was based on agriculture. Today, petroleum represents 95% of export earnings. Oil abundance contributes to governmental corruption, economic instability, public grievances, and the emergence of rebel groups.
Michael Ross, a conflict expert, identifies these as the relationships between resources and conflict. Petroleum profits do not trickle down to local communities. Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency estimated in 2003 that 70% of oil revenues or 14 billion dollars were stolen or wasted.
Because the government is funded by oil revenues, as one Nigerian citizen explains, ‘rather than being a resource the people are impediments.’ In addition, the Niger Delta’s increasing petroleum production has exacerbated local poverty.
Soil erosion, deforestation, oil spills, and gas flares have contaminated water sources, affected public health, and prevented locals from making a livelihood in fishing and agriculture. As the state benefits at the people’s expense, locals have turned to violence. Rebel groups attack oil infrastructure and steal tens of thousands of barrels of petroleum per day.
All these factors have been the drivers of ongoing violent conflict in the region. Over the past two decades the US government has been training and financing Nigeria’s military. This financing is funneled to the petroleum sector while policy coordination is lacking and infrastructure addressing health, poverty, and education suffer without financial support.
In combination with other factors, resource abundance increases the likelihood of conflict. The US’s direct and indirect investments in Nigeria’s petroleum industry fuel instability in the region and drain the DOD of financial and human resources. The Air Force and Navy plan to use alternative energy sources for 50% of their domestic energy needs by 2020.
However, the DOD needs comprehensive policy that incorporates energy efficiency into all sectors. Because of its scale and influence, the DOD has the capacity to develop technologies and infrastructure to spark an alternative energy revolution in the US. Historically, the DOD has been the catalyst in dramatic energy shifts and once again has the opportunity to lead the charge.
In Nigeria reduced demand for oil has the potential to reduce conflict. In turn, American soldiers can come home. Naturally, reduced demand alone will not solve all of Nigeria’s problems and so it is imperative that the State Department invests responsibility in education, health, and improved governance.
Oil which created the sinews of our strength is now becoming an even greater source of weakness. By reducing petroleum consumption and developing alternative fuel sources the Department of Defense can restore US moral leadership and clarity of purpose.
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