Our Energy Infrastructure Invites Sabotage


America's fragile domestic infrastructure threatens her energy security at least as much as dependence on Mideastern oil. Replacing Mideastern oil with even more vulnerable domestic systems would therefore decrease energy security.

Extraordinarily concentrated energy flows invite and reward devastating attack. Even today, as our 1982 Pentagon study "Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security" found, a handful of people could shut down three-quarters of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern states (without leaving Louisiana), cut the power to any major city, or kill millions by crashing an airliner into a nuclear power plant. Expanding such centralized and vulnerable energy systems would harm national security.

Fundamentally, energy security is less about foreign vs. domestic sources, or a shortage of giant energy facilities, than about the basic architecture of the energy infrastructure. A system is secure not because it's American or big, but because it's designed to make large-scale failures impossible and local failures benign. Energy security starts with using less energy far more efficiently to do the same tasks. Then it gets that energy from sources that are inherently invulnerable because they're dispersed, diverse, and increasingly renewable.

This strategy doesn't cost more; indeed, it's already winning in the marketplace. For example, central power stations, no matter how well engineered, can't supply really cheap and reliable electricity. The power lines that deliver the electricity cost more than the generators, and cause almost all power failures. Onsite and neighborhood micropower is cheaper, eliminates grid losses and glitches, and harnesses waste heat, so savvy investors favor it.

Of course, Mideastern oil is a problem. Getting oil from the unstable Persian Gulf leaves America less secure and tied to unattractive regimes. Although only 22% of oil imports come from the Gulf (67% come from the Western Hemisphere), decreasing that dependence is wise. But this requires investing in the fastest and cheapest means, buying the most solution with each year and every dollar. We don't need just another crude-oil source, but an inherently secure supply chain delivering useful mobility fuels all the way to customers.

Energy efficiency is the rapid-deployment energy resource. Last year, America used 40% less energy and 49% less oil to produce each dollar of GDP than in 1975. Those savings are now the nation's largest "source" -- five times domestic oil output. Most were achieved in just six years, during 1979-85, when GDP grew 16%, total oil use fell 15%, and Gulf imports fell 87%. Maintaining that pace could have eliminated Gulf imports ever since 1986.

Modern efficiency technologies can put another $300 billion a year back in Americans' pockets. Just a 2.7-mpg better light-vehicle fleet would eliminate Gulf imports. Saving energy is the fastest way to blunt OPEC's market power, beat down prices, and expand invulnerable sources' share of energy supply. Billions of dollars in annual military fuel-saving opportunities just found by the Defense Science Board would also improve war fighting.

Then there are new ways to supply fuel that are secure, fast, and competitive. Done right, abundant farm, forest, and even urban wastes can yield clean liquid fuels while protecting topsoil, farmers, rural culture, climate, and prosperity. Producing such biofuels locally bypasses vulnerable pipelines and provides more jobs. Another attractive innovation is fuel cells using natural gas or renewable energy. (Manhattan's Condé-Nast Building outperformed its rivals by saving half its energy and incorporating the two most reliable known power sources -- fuel cells and solar cells -- all at no extra cost.) Together, these proven alternatives can displace oil promptly, securely, profitably -- and, in time, completely.

In contrast, such options as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge decrease security. If the Refuge held economically recoverable oil (unlikely and a decade away according to the official data), then delivering that oil by its only route, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), would undercut the anti-terrorist purpose of the pending Defense Authorization Bill. It would make TAPS the fattest energy-terrorist target in the country.

TAPS is American, but frighteningly insecure. It's mostly above ground, accessible to attackers, and often unrepairable in winter. If pumping stations or key facilities at either end were disabled, nine million barrels of hot oil could congeal in one winter week into an 800-mile-long Chapstik. The Army, US General Accounting Office, and Senate Judiciary Committee found TAPS indefensible. It has already been incompetently bombed twice, shot at, and otherwise sabotaged. A disgruntled engineer's more sophisticated plot to blow up three critical points with 14 bombs, then profit from oil futures trading, was thwarted by luck two years ago. He was an amiable bungler compared with the Sept. 11 attackers -- whose Algerian colleagues have just threatened to blow up a major gas pipeline to Southern Europe.

Both Gulf oil and the vulnerable, rapidly-aging TAPS imperil national energy security. Both should be replaced with faster, cheaper, inherently secure energy (a resource six times larger and cheaper than their sum) and distributed domestic supply alternatives. That is how to design an energy system that terrorists can't shut off -- and a durable foundation for an America that is no longer a fragile power.

Amory B. Lovins is co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining world. This originally appeared at

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