The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 14, 2011

Zachary Hubbard | Energy key to restoring America’s national power

Zachary Hubbard

— The elements of national power generally fall into one of four categories – diplomatic, informational, military and economic. In government circles, these are represented by the acronym DIME. 

Students of history know energy has long played a key role in the ability of modern countries to develop national power. Abundant energy resources generally strengthen a nation’s diplomatic, military and economic power. A scarcity of energy resources weakens them.

With the dawn of the Information Age, we discovered that energy is also tied to the informational element of national power. Cyber attacks conducted across the Internet can be used against Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems.

SCADA is sophisticated computer technology used to control critical infrastructures, including oil and gas pipelines, electric power grids and dams, to name a few.  

The importance of energy to America’s national power first became evident with the introduction of the steam engine. Steam-powered machines revolutionized agriculture and enabled the industrial revolution that made America a global power. 

Most early steam engines burned wood. The next generation burned coal. Oil eventually supplemented coal, but never supplanted it.

As almost anyone here in western Pennsylvania can tell you, it was an abundance of coal that enabled the region to become the center of the world’s steel-producing industry in the 19th century. 

In the late 19th century, much of America’s economic development shifted from internal to external, as the nation began to compete in imperialistic pursuits with economic competitors in Europe and East Asia. As the commercial shipping industry and the U.S. Navy converted ships from wind power to steam propulsion, America began a territorial expansion in the Caribbean and Pacific. 

Coal fueled this expansion, with the Navy establishing coaling stations in Honolulu and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

These stations extended the reach of steam-powered naval vessels, which in turn helped make the Caribbean and Pacific regions safer for U.S. commercial shipping and trade. 

During the 20th century, the internal combustion engine overtook steam as the primary means of channeling energy to enable economic growth. Not surprisingly, much of the fighting in the two world wars was focused on vital oil- and gas-producing regions, including the Middle East, the Caucasus and portions of East Asia. 

Following World War II, the Soviet Union used energy as a political and economic tool for controlling its satellite nations. Most electric power generation plants were built in mother Russia and dependable allied countries, such as Belarus and Ukraine. 

Major transmission networks carried electricity to less reliable countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. 

If a Soviet satellite nation got out of line, the Russians could literally turn off the lights in the offending country.

The Soviet Union is no more, but the Russians continue to use energy as a weapon of persuasion. In 2006, Russia shut off a major natural gas pipeline over a political dispute with Ukraine.

The pipeline to Ukraine also serviced Germany and other European Union nations, leaving them out in the cold. In 2007, Russia temporarily cut off oil to Belarus. 

This again impacted many EU nations. The ability to control the flow of oil and natural gas into the EU gives Russia considerable political influence over the EU member nations.

Recently, the world has witnessed a flurry of activity by India and China as they seek to extend their reach for global energy resources. The enormity of the population in these countries will make it necessary for both to become increasingly aggressive in their quest for energy. Growing competition will make world energy resources increasingly expensive. 

The decisions of every president since Teddy Roosevelt have been influenced by America’s growing energy needs. Today, the United States maintains a costly presence in the Middle East for this reason. This has cost Americans both politically and economically.

Virtually every U.S. military plan for the Middle East includes a requirement to maintain a free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. America’s continued military presence in the region has drained the national treasury and left thousands of her young dead or maimed.

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has correctly charged that America does not have a serious energy policy. Since the Arab oil embargo during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, American political leaders have understood the nation’s vulnerability to political coercion by energy-rich foreign nations. Just as the EU yields power to Russia in exchange for natural gas and oil, America must bow to its energy suppliers, yielding power to unfriendly political regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela.  

Even if the United States were to succeed in generating all of its electricity through clean, renewable resources, it would still need oil for producing plastics, chemicals, asphalt, paints, clothing materials, building materials, aviation fuel and a host of other products.

Likewise, coal is needed for making chemicals, cement, paper, ceramics and metal products, to name a few. The need for oil and coal in America’s economy will likely never be totally eliminated.

Energy costs trickle down through every layer of America’s economy. Rising oil, coal and natural gas prices increase the cost of electricity generation, which increases the operating costs for manufacturing and other industries, and increases household costs for American consumers. 

Rising oil prices also increase the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel. Consequently, expensive fuel increases the shipping cost for food, manufactured goods and other products. Energy prices directly or indirectly affect the price of nearly everything in the economy. 

America’s national power has diminished significantly as its energy dependency and presence in the Middle East has increased. To regain its power and revive the economy, it is essential for the United States to become energy independent. 

Until wind, solar or other forms of clean energy become economically feasible to produce in large volumes, the importance of domestic oil, coal and natural gas will continue to increase. It is time for politicians to put America first and work together to develop the domestic energy resources critical to the country’s survival. America’s national power will continue to wane until they do.

Zachary Hubbard is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in Upper Yoder Township. He is a member of the Tribune-Democrat Reader Advisory Committee.   


Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.