Terrorist Attacks Bring U.S. Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil Into Question

The Al Qaeda terrorist attacks make the U.S. have second thoughts about our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

| April/May 2003

The United States begins to have second thoughts on our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and our energy security.

The monstrous acts of the Al Qaeda terrorists have caused thoughtful people to take another look at our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Many are shocked to discover that, 28 years after the first Arab oil embargo, the United States still has not done anything serious about weaning itself from oil. In 1997, the world consumed 52 billion tons of coal, 26 billion barrels of oil and 82 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If we include state-owned enterprises as well as multinational Goliaths, 20 giant companies marketed about half of all this fuel. When their common interests are threatened, these companies can coalesce into an essentially unstoppable, supranational force.

As Jay Leno said during Desert Storm, if Kuwait's major export had been broccoli, U.S. troops would never have left Fort Bragg. The U.S. government's love affair with Big Oil is reminiscent of Disraeli's classic line about Gladstone: "He had only one idea, and it was wrong." In the ordinary course of things, it is not possible to beat Big Oil on any issue of core concern to it. This, by itself, is a sufficient reason to demand campaign finance reform. But, during certain extraordinary moments, when gushers of democratic populism pour forth, windows of opportunity exist. As with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the launching of Sputnik, epochal events can briefly change all the rules of the political game.

The attack on the World Trade Center has put us at a political crossroads and thinking twice about our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. After that terrible day, we have every reason to cure ourselves of the oil habit. It's not just the new urgency for U.S. energy independence (which, by the way, we will never achieve through drilling; how can we, with only 3 percent of the world's estimated oil reserves?). Nor is it just the old urgency for curbing global warming, vital as that is.

The global oil trade also provides some of the most attractive targets for terrorism. By sinking two or three tankers, terrorists could completely shut down the flow of oil (18 million barrels a day) through the Straits of Hormuz—perhaps triggering a global depression. Or, with a few small, well-placed bombs, they could congeal all the oil in the whole length of the Alaskan pipeline. Such an act would not produce a depression, but it would create the world's first 800-mile-long Chap Stick. This possibility is one refutation of the illogic that considers oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be a hedge against terrorism.

Coming at a moment when strong federal action is needed to stimulate a flagging U.S. economy, the surge in global terrorism could provide the impetus needed for this country to get serious about moving away from oil. Obviously, we should enact the whole environmental energy agenda: tougher building codes, tougher lighting- and appliance-efficiency standards and so forth. But if this is truly a watershed on the order of Pearl Harbor, let's think outside the box.

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