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The Department of Defense meets peak oil

Among the largest consumers of energy in the world is the US Department of Defense (DoD). It uses about 4 percent of the fuel consumed in the US . Planes, ships, tanks, trucks, bases— the list of uses for oil, coal, natural gas and electricity the US defense establishment has discovered in the last century is endless. However, for an organization that prides itself on planning and more planning, DoD has, until recently, been silent about just how they are going to get along when the oil starts running low. They have had an "Assured Fuels Initiative" going since 2001 seeking to encourage US industry to produce liquid fuel from domestic coal, but little else is readily evident.

Last week, however, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett brought a DoD-sponsored report to the world's attention during one of those late night special orders speeches on peak oil he has been giving recently. It seems that somebody in the Army Engineers' Research and Development Center is charged with worrying about how to keep all those Army bases running in the decades ahead. That person must have heard energy might be getting a little tight, so a study was commissioned on “ Energy Trends and Their Implications for US Army Installations.” Last September the study came in and, believe it or not, the contractor reported, with all the appropriate citations, that not only is peak oil imminent, but that the Army better get onto this right now. The report concludes with a lot of sensible recommendations about conservation and renewables.

One report, however, does not change an institution the size of DoD. It is doubtful that, prior to last week, more than a handful of people had read it and still fewer had grasped its import. You have to start somewhere, so just examining the problems of keeping bases running with diminished energy supplies is as good a place as any. While this report and the Assured Fuels Initiative are a beginning, they do not seriously address the potential consequences of peak oil or the role DoD will have to play in the coming crisis.

Despite many people's negative opinion of the US Defense establishment, it can, when properly motivated, be one of America 's greatest assets. Remember how it recruited, organized, equipped, trained and deployed 14 million men and women to fight in World War II. Remember the Manhattan Project, jet transport planes, digital computers, the Internet. The last 70 years have seen outpouring of innovation from DoD projects that, for good or ill, has made much of the world the way it is today. It is fair to say that Defense and its associated agencies have been the number one priority of the United States since the Pearl Harbor attack. Among the many things all these trillions of dollars have or have not accomplished, one clear result has been the demonstrated capability to plan and manage very large projects— many even reasonably well.

This management know-how might just be where peak oil and the Department of Defense come together. If the peak oil crisis comes upon us quickly —either by a major reduction in our ability to import oil or simply because of an unexpectedly rapid depletion of the world's oil fields— the US is going to need some very large projects to mitigate the effects of the missing oil, very fast. These projects could easily be on such a scale —trillions of dollars— that DoD could turn out to be the one organization with the appropriate project management skills and contracting expertise to tackle the consequences of peak oil on a timely basis

Nobody knows what American society, or others, would look like after a few years of declining oil and natural gas supplies, but there are a number of books out there predicting very bad things. If even a fraction of these come to pass, America, and of course, most other countries, are going to need some very solid, well-disciplined institutions to get us through the decades between the age of plentiful oil and whatever is to follow. If, as many believe, there will be much social disorder, then there may develop a need for DoD help in insuring the domestic tranquility.

For DoD, we are talking about a very big paradigm shift. Throughout history, armed forces have existed to insure the security of their political entity either by offensive or defensive action or simply by deterrence. This may be about to change.

Some believe the first of the "oil depletion wars" already have begun and are predicting that we shall see more of these as governments struggle to get a share (fair or not) of whatever oil is left. Others hope "oil depletion protocols" will enable the world to devise an equitable distribution of the remaining fossil fuel supplies, leaving countries free to concentrate their efforts on moving their economies to renewable energy sources and new lifestyles.

Because of the many uncertainties, it is difficult to predict just where DoD might fit into a world of rapid oil depletion. While it could be oil wars, the US experiences in Iraq suggest that sending troops to maintain production from foreign oil fields might not be a good choice. Eventually the cost and availability of liquid fuels will put constraints on supporting large air, sea, and mechanized forces. When the choice gets down to growing sufficient food or running an aircraft carrier, DoD might not fare as well as in the past.

As an alternative, DoD could be pulled into the management of very large and vital civil programs such as massive development of renewable energy or revitalizing railroad transportation. This would be especially true if the economic dislocation from the peaking of oil production leaves sectors of the economy dysfunctional.

Many commentators have noted the civil unrest ensuing from peak oil could reach a point where DoD, or at least the National Guard, would have to become involved to supplement civil authority. Large population movements are conceivable.

Indeed, it seems possible to make a very long list of situations that could arise under oil depletion where there is a need for DoD or other government agency intervention. Let's hope somebody out there has started to think about this.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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