February 27, 2009 - From the February, 2009 issue

Former CIA Director James Woolsey Argues Energy Consumption Now A National Security Issue

James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, might seem like an anomalous figure to speak on the importance of a well-built energy grid, but in the following keynote address, delivered at the Art Center Clean Energy and Design Summit held this month in Pasadena and excerpted here by MIR, Woolsey presents a strong message on the domestic and international security issues at stake in the way the United States currently consumes energy and clearly describes the benefits that a new energy paradigm could bring the world.


James Woolsey

James Woolsey: I want to say a few words about two types of problems we have with energy that we need to solve and how we're going to get there. One of my colleagues calls them malignant problems and malevolent problems. A malignant problem is one that no one is trying to create but that arises out of the disturbance of complex systems that causes changes in a cascading or unexpected way. Climate change is one such problem. We are increasing risk by putting so much carbon into the atmosphere-and that is, in its nature, a malignant type problem.

I tend to refer to Amory Lovins's "global weirding," rather than global warming, because the warming is certainly not uniform. It's not at all necessary to believe that we are the sole cause of climate change by putting carbon into the atmosphere. It's likely, given the views of virtually all climatologists, that we're doing something damaging. Are we causing all of it? Probably not. The earth tilts on its axis; climatologists tell us we're in the middle of a several thousand-year warming period. That doesn't mean that we should ignore the fact that we're definitely doubling and trebling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and it is a greenhouse gas. Saying that we should ignore that and go ahead and do what we want, putting as much carbon into the atmosphere that we conveniently want to, is like saying that even if we were genetically predisposed to cancer, it's fine to smoke ten packs a day. No, it's not. It will make the problem worse.

Do we know exactly what is going to happen when? Of course not. We do know that there are some "un-modelable" events-such as the melting of the West Arctic Ice Shelf and the Greenland Ice Shelf, perhaps the thawing of the tundra and the release of huge amounts of methane-that could make change occur faster than it otherwise would. Discussions of certainty about this are not really sound. It's far more that there could be some catastrophic events that we rather need to insure against. It doesn't necessarily mean that we do it only one way or that we do it in the most expensive way possible. There may be other possibilities. But it's something that we need to pay attention to.

There are other malignant problems that grow out of the way we use energy. For example, take the electricity grid. It is ready made for cascading failure as a result of a disturbance. It is fragile. It is old. As Amory Lovins put in his fine book in 1982, which I wrote the forward to, Brittle Power, it is brittle. In August of 2003, a tree branch touched a power line in Cleveland during a summer storm. Within nine seconds, some 80 gigawatts of power went offline; 50 million consumers in the eastern part of the United States and eastern Canada were without electricity for several days. We try to blame Canada for that one, but the Canadians, in their polite way, pointed out to us that Cleveland is actually south of Lake Erie, not north of it, so we had to fess up to the fact that it was our tree branch and our power. We're going to see more of that sort of thing from this extraordinarily fragile electric grid.

One of the last things we ought to do is make this grid smarter while ignoring its insecurity. Do we want hackers to be able to get into the control systems for the temperature of your home through the web? We better get the grid secure and resilient, at least at the same time, but hopefully before, we start making it smarter and smarter.

There is another type of problem that we have today with energy (which my colleague called malevolent) that is rather easily summed up. Terrorists are a great deal smarter than tree branches. They don't have to wait for tree branches to touch a power line in a storm. They can figure out how to go after the key nodes of the electricity system. They can figure out how to hack into the supervisory controls and acquisition systems and attack them. That type of vulnerability to the energy system is serious.

Oil presents a very special type of malevolent problem because if we have the will and the dedication we could fix the electric grid. It is here in North America. The fuel for it is here; we import very little for electricity, other than 15 percent of our gas from Canada. The fuel is here and the grid is here. It's our own balkanized management of it and our own lack of concern about its vulnerability that makes it hard to fix. The problem with oil is that the infrastructure is not here. It was around the early 1970s when the Texas Railway Commission stopped being OPEC and OPEC became OPEC. Not only is three-quarters (or so) of the world's oil in the hands of the Middle East and Russia, so is the infrastructure. The infrastructure is vulnerable to attack; Al Qaeda talks about it all the time. Twice they have tried to go after Abaqiq-the largest oil production facility in the world, which is located in northeastern Saudi Arabia. They rigged the truck bomb incorrectly, happily, or they could have easily, several years ago, sent oil over $200 a barrel.

The oil infrastructure has some other problems. We could see, at some point, a change of regime in Saudi Arabia. One of the two or three most powerful men in the kingdom, Prince Nyef, the interior minister, is a fanatic lobby. King Abdullah is at least pleasant to the American president when he shows up and begs for more production to keep oil prices down.

Then we have the phenomenon that Tom Friedman of the New York Times calls the First Law of Petropolitics: "the price of oil and the path of freedom run in opposite directions." There have been economists that write about this but essentially it's a large amount of economic rent: huge returns, even at $40 a barrel, over and above what it costs to lift oil and have reasonable returns. That huge economic rent tends to concentrate power. It doesn't turn nice democratic Norway into dictatorships just because they discover oil, but it's not accidental that eight out of the nine top exporters of oil in the world have dictatorships or autocratic systems.

What else are we paying for with our oil purchases? How about nuclear programs being funded by Sunni Arab states so that they can catch up with Shiite Iran and its nuclear program? Everybody says that they're looking for electricity. Right. These states with huge amounts of oil and gas need nuclear reactors for electricity. If you believe that, there is a bridge in Brooklyn you really ought to bid on. Of course they are after nuclear weapons. So, with our oil purchases, one of the things we are funding is a nuclear arms race between the Sunnis and the Shiites in that part of the world.

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Lawrence Wright, in The Looming Tower-which I think is the best book about 9/11 and Al Qaeda-said that with a little over one percent of the world's people, the Saudis exercise control over about 90 percent of the world's Islamic institutions. So in the West Bank or in Lahore in Pakistan, they teach little eight-year-old boys to hate Shiite Muslims, Jews, and homosexuals. They cross states to oppress women and try to make them dedicated enough to become suicide bombers. If you wonder who is paying for that type of education in those places, next time you pull into a gas station, before you get out to charge your gas, do what I try to remember to do-move your rearview mirror a couple of inches so you are looking into your own eyes. Now you know who is paying for those little Pakistani boys to learn how to become suicide bombers. So, to put it mildly, we have some very serious malevolent problems with oil.

Now, what might be done about this? It is easy to get trapped in doom and gloom when looking at these issues. But there are some interesting things about malignant problems and the malevolent problems-about things like climate change and things like resilience to terrorism-in that there are a number of steps we could take that help us in both dimensions. I've written a piece for Brookings, a book on climate change that concludes with a dialogue of two people in a planning meeting on energy policy for the United States, with the two people being a tree hugger and a hawk. The tree hugger is the ghost of John Muir, and he is interested only in carbon. The hawk is the ghost of George S. Patton, and he is interested only in terrorism. What Muir and Patton keep finding is that, even though they have different objectives and are working on different problems from their point of view, the solutions keep matching up.

For example, the efficiency of buildings-we can save a huge amount of energy that way, reducing the stress on the grid and reducing climate change gases being put out. Another example is decoupling sales and earnings for utilities, so you could make money as a utility by doing something other than just selling more and more electricity; they can make money by investing in clean technology. California started that 20 years ago, which has been one of the main reasons that California's electricity use per capita has been flat while the rest of the country went up about 60 percent in that time. Some other states have started to learn from California.

Combining heat and power generation is another solution, using waste heat to produce electricity. The Danes get one third of their electricity from heat and power co-generation. We do a tiny share of ours-five or six percent.

There are a number of things that we can do to reduce the amount of energy that we use and, most importantly, to move, with respect to our transportation sector of energy, away from oil as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. The most important is moving toward electric power, particularly in the form of electric hybrids, although as time goes on, moving toward all electric vehicles, electric vehicles with fast charging, and electric vehicles with swapping batteries.

There are a number of ways we can go about this. The main thing is to start adapting hybrid vehicles to plug-ins that use electricity. We know from the NRDC and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories that by shifting from a combustion engine vehicle to a plug-in hybrid with 30 miles plug-in range, you reduce global warming gas emissions by about 20 percent on average in the nation, even though we use 51 percent coal to generate electricity. In a clean-grid state like California, each one of those cars reduces that car's global warming gas emissions by about 80 percent. It's only in very coal-heavy states, like North Dakota and West Virginia, that it's essentially a wash. As the grid cleans up, the cars clean up.

As we move toward plug-ins in the first phase, we also want to move toward alternative fuels, not particularly from the land we use for food, but principally from waste feed stocks, algae, switch grass, cellulosic biomass, and the rest. We don't know which of these liquid fuels is going to prove to be the most efficient. We need to insist that our cars be flexible fuel vehicles as well as to encourage them to convert to electric so that we can use these different types of alcohol-based fuels to see which ones work the best. If you are driving a hybrid that's been converted to a plug-in, as I do now, you're getting well over 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. When you move to using a liquid fuel at the end of the 30 to 40 miles of electric driving range, if that liquid fuel is, say 85 percent ethanol, methanol, butenal-whatever waste product-you are going to get over 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

I ran through those numbers in some remarks in Washington not too long ago and there was a gentleman there that I've known for some years, who is from a Middle Eastern country. He came up and said, "Jim, 500 miles a gallon? You're going to destroy my country." I said, "We don't want to destroy it, but you know what? We really do think you ought to get into greener work."

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