Among the ways in which Sept. 11, 2001, marked the American psyche, the phraseology of fuel use hardly stands out. But though they predated that infamous day, certain concepts became public parlance in the ensuing years: energy independence and oil addiction.
Ten years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, policymakers are no closer to solving the puzzle of energy security than they are to agreeing on a way to discuss the intricacies of globally set oil prices that are skewed ever more sharply by geopolitical forces. The second decade after 9/11, then, may provide the truest test of whether policy coherence can result from consensus-building buzzwords.
"The tensions arising from the global race for petroleum and other energy resources, the use of oil revenue by rogue regimes to promote terror and instability, the expanding access to nuclear technologies in the developing world, growing concern over the consequences of climate change, and the nexus of energy security to America's economic prosperity, and, in turn, U.S. national security pose a demanding set of national challenges in the post 9-11 era," retired Gen. Jim Jones, a former National Security Adviser, said through a spokesman.
"These rising challenges create the imperative for our government to organize itself more effectively," Jones added, to "set clear, sensible energy security goals, to develop a coherent national strategy to achieve them, and to implement the strategy. ... Relying on the platitudes of 'energy independence' has not gotten us where we need to be."
Even so, the political allure of striving to limit U.S. reliance on oil imports from the Middle East has hardly abated in the years following 9/11. For liberals and conservatives, environmentalists and drilling advocates, energy insecurity remains a compelling argument for their preferred solutions -- whether to drive down oil use by setting a price on carbon and high fuel-efficiency standards or to secure a more reliable domestic supply through drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic.
The notion of independence from oil-producing nations that may use profits to support terrorism or instability "works to the advantage of the group that's trying to sell whatever they're selling," Nick Loris, a policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, said in an interview.
Even as Loris lamented the use of reducing post-9/11 "dependence on foreign oil" as a justification for misguided priorities that "don't stand the test of the marketplace" -- from biofuels mandates to electric-car incentives -- he acknowledged that those who "think we can drill out way out" of the problem misunderstand that oil prices are set globally.
In the years after 9/11, however, the nuances of the oil-use debate were largely obscured by partisan combat over a series of energy bills. Each of them carried the stated aim of liberating U.S. consumers from the fluctuating fuel prices and demand that resulted from the attacks and the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and each came before Congress against a rhetorical backdrop that connected post-9/11 combat to oil.
"We are at war with Iraq, and millions of Americans believe that this war is about oil," Rep. Henry Waxman of California, now the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, said during debate over a 2003 GOP energy measure that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
"We have a bill before us that reinforces this belief. In almost 400 pages, there is nothing that focuses on the easiest and most common-sense step we can take -- eliminating the waste of oil in this country."
Another senior Energy and Commerce Democrat, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, made an almost identical argument during floor debate on a 2005 Republican energy bill with similar Arctic drilling language: "We have 150,000 young men and women over in the Middle East protecting our country in that region, and largely as well the oil supplies coming into our country. This bill does nothing in order to deal with that problem."
During 2003 and 2004, the first years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, annual U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf topped 912 million barrels, according to the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration. By 2009 and 2010, that number had fallen below 625 million barrels.
Annual U.S. imports from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which includes oil-rich Gulf nations as well as Venezuela and Libya, also have fallen from a peak of more than 2 billion barrels between 2004 and 2008.
But those import trends represent a sliver of the post-9/11 oil security story, not least because they reflect a 2008 financial crisis and economic slowdown that helped drive down demand as well as prices.
Steve Eule, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, noted that the worldwide energy risk index maintained by his group showed a notable uptick in the security of crude reserves as of 2003, when the 175 billion estimated barrels of extractable Canadian oil sands were added to the mix.
"Much of the public believes we're much more secure when we produce our oil here at home and when we import it from friends like Canada," Eule said in an interview, touting the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that is bitterly opposed by environmentalists who hope to increase energy security by using less oil.
Broadly speaking, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ushered in a decade marked by geopolitical turmoil in multiple oil-rich regions and natural disasters that threatened U.S. supply, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Looking at those events, Natural Resources Defense Council policy analyst Brian Siu pointed to higher auto fuel-efficiency standards backed by President George W. Bush in 2007 and the Obama administration in 2009 and 2011 as a sign that steps "can be taken, have been taken" to diminish crude imports.
"I'm not sure if the phraseology is the problem -- oil-addicted, oil independence -- because whatever you call it, the fact exists that we use lots of oil and we're vulnerable to price swings," Siu said. "What we call it might actually be somewhat irrelevant, because we feel these things in the real world."
A Pentagon legacy?
Looking ahead to the second decade after Sept. 11, 2001, one of the day's lasting legacies could be a heightened awareness of oil use within the military ranks.
The two wars set off by the terrorist attacks, combined with a contemporaneous roller-coaster in prices, saddled the Defense Department with fuel bills of nearly $20 billion by 2008 even as convoys carrying crude became a target for insurgent ambushes in combat (Greenwire, July 1). Advisers to new Pentagon chief Leon Panetta have signaled that going green is a top long-term priority, in June making energy efficiency an official priority for procurement.
Such changes could go even further in the eyes of retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, a former senior logistician in the Iraq War turned high-profile advocate for even stronger limits on military fuel consumption.
"We are essentially funding, for the first time since the Civil War, both sides of a major conflict," Anderson said in an interview. "Our energy dependencies and inefficiencies provide the monetary means to sustain our enemies and carry out their warfight against us."
But while Anderson described oil as far from "the essential element" driving post-9/11 military involvement, he acknowledged that civilians' energy choices are as crucial as soldiers' in determining U.S. energy security going forward.
"We'll look back [on 9/11] and say, 'We could have, in addition to taking on the Taliban, the al-Qaidas, the Saddam Husseins, conditioned ourselves to not be as vulnerable in the future," he said. "We didn't do that. We haven't effectively done that."