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By Jack Ganssle

The Real National Security Issue

Published 8/11/2008

They say it's a bad idea to talk about politics and religion in polite company, and for that and other reasons I always avoid these issues in these columns.

Till today.

In my opinion, the biggest national security issue facing the US is one that gets lots of pandering but little leadership. That issue is the energy crisis.

By crisis I'm not talking about $120 or $140 a barrel oil. Though those sorts of energy prices are indeed a crisis to many families, they are merely a harbinger of the future.

The facts are simple: Oil is a finite resource. The world's appetite for it is increasing yet it isn't being replenished. New discoveries are lagging. Therefore we will exhaust the supply at some point. But long before that happens the immutable law of supply and demands means it will become very expensive. At some point, prohibitively so. Oil will pass the $140/barrel figure again. It will someday cost $500/barrel, and then $1000 and more. That's an economic certainty.

Some who subscribe to the Peak Oil theory feel we've already crossed the brink, and will be unable to meet demand in the very short term. A few optimists think there's a century before the fields are depleted, but it appears most people, including an awful lot of oil executives, talk about supplies dwindling in a few decades.

A few decades will be here in the blink of an eye. A few decades from now our kids will be dealing with a world that has too little energy. A few decades ago we had the first oil shock, and learned that our oil addiction was truly a national security issue.

We forgot that lesson.

Though everyone is reeling from gasoline prices ($10/gallon in some of Europe) I think the true shock of recent energy cost increases won't be seen till this winter's cold embraces the northern regions. Heating costs will certainly cause distress to many families. Will that shock motivate change?

About 8% of the world's oil goes into making plastic. And what isn't made of plastic? In May, responding to energy prices, DuPont raised the price of their products by 20%.

2% of the nation's workers feed the rest of us, an agricultural miracle made possible by cheap energy. Count on significant increases in the cost to eat in coming years. And who doesn't eat?

Transportation, globalization, and the power consumed by data centers that transmits virtual products "for free" over the Internet all rely on oil.

Then there's the problem of our biggest export: shiploads of greenbacks. As T. Boone Pickens has been recently pointing out, we send some $700 billion overseas in exchange for oil. Though Canada and Mexico, both currently friends, are the number one and three providers of foreign oil to the US, most of the other nations we rely on have little love for us. Some would be happy to see the country collapse. Too much of that $700 billion bankrolls regimes hostile to us. We've used sanctions against countries for various political ends in the past; will these nations, faced with plenty of eager customers in the developing world, use oil sanctions against us?

And all of that $700 billion is part of our unsustainable trade deficit that continues to decimate the dollar.

Even if you don't believe oil supplies will dwindle, it's surely logical that exporting so much money to hostile regimes is a national security risk.

Yet neither presidential candidate offers any significant energy policy. They're pandering with a grab-bag of random ideas, some pretty good, some pretty bad, but both lack a coherent vision. No single proposal will work; we could empty the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and drill everywhere, but those are merely short-term solutions that postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

I think the two presidential candidates missing an opportunity to lay out a stunning vision about energy, an Apollo-style program that encompasses finding new sources of energy and improving the efficiency of systems that use it.

There's so much promising technology available today. 70% of oil goes to transportation. Plug-in hybrids can make a huge dent in that with no new inventions required. Picken's ideas about wind and natural gas are interesting and use existing technology. Nanosolar Corporation can screen solar cells onto a substrate for just a $1/W, and are entering production this year. A buck a watt is considered the magic price point for solar.

But new inventions, most as yet unimagined, will yield even more benefits. These will be enabled by embedded systems. Efficiency gains, like those from Energy Star appliances and hybrid cars, will be mediated entirely by smart firmware created by us, the embedded developers.

Unlike Apollo, I suspect most of the funding could come from the private sector. So much wealth is at stake - energy is a multi-trillion dollar industry - that alternative approaches will generate gobs of money. The invisible hand will handsomely reward many.

Kennedy's decision to endorse Apollo was coldly political. But it galvanized the country and launched a new wave of scientists and engineers, some of whom still work today. I think an alternative energy program would be no less exciting. A new generation of Americans, some born in this century, could save the country.

Kennedy's goal seemed unattainable at the time, yet in a short 8 years had been accomplished. Weaning our oil dependence also seems difficult. But it's not unattainable, and there is nothing more important to our long-term security.

Even absent a national vision you will find management demanding you make your products use less power. Efficiency will be, and already is in some sectors, a valuable feature that's used to differentiate products. But an ad hoc approach will take far too long to upend the massive and obsolete infrastructure that has haphazardly evolved over the last century.

Meanwhile, instead of offering a sweeping vision, the candidates and Congress do little but fiddle while the oil burns out.

What's your take?