Unless the United States' energy structure changes radically and rapidly, soaring oil prices will leave the country at the mercy of hostile states and terrorists, witnesses testified Thursday in Congress.
The United States currently consumes close to 21 million barrels of oil per day and imports almost 14 million barrels a day, or 60 percent. Countries in the Persian Gulf supply 16 percent of those imports, according to the Energy Information Agency, with another 10 percent coming from Venezuela.
Relying on these countries for the nation's lifeblood puts the United States at serious risk because it gives power to those who oppose U.S. policy, said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
"Many sources of fossil fuels on the world market are in parts of the world that are either unstable or politically unfriendly to the United States," Berman said Thursday at a hearing in the Foreign Affairs Committee. "This provides leverage for those who control these energy supplies, enabling them to challenge U.S. foreign policy objectives."
Currently unfolding events on the world stage attest to the willingness of many countries to use their energy resources to gain political power, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., ranking member of the committee.
"Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use energy to put political pressure on other countries, such as Ukraine," Ros-Lehtinen said.
As demand for oil and natural gas rises worldwide, emerging economies, such as China and India, may form unsavory partnerships to get the energy they need, putting the United States at further risk, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, a non-partisan policy institute.
"India's growing energy demand has led New Delhi to cultivate ties with Iran as the world's second-largest holder of natural gas reserves after Russia," Saunders said Thursday. "Japan, a key U.S. ally in Asia, has thus far resisted similar pressures but is clearly interested in a deeper energy relationship with Iran if it becomes possible."
As far as U.S. consumption goes, the transportation sector is the biggest user of oil, gobbling up 69 percent of the nation's daily use. U.S. transportation relies almost exclusively on oil -- the commodity provided fuel for 96 percent of U.S. vehicles last year -- making the United States vulnerable to the whims and political agendas of oil-exporting countries, said David Sandalow, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit policy organization in Washington.
"The overwhelming dependence of the global transportation system on this one commodity creates national security threats we ignore at our peril," Sandalow testified Thursday.
Dependence on foreign oil strengthens al-Qaida and Islamic terrorists, Sandalow said, by providing these organizations with powerful recruitment tools and a steady stream of income, as U.S. money pours into the region.
"With half the world's proven oil reserves, the world's cheapest oil and the world's only spare production capacity, the Persian Gulf will remain an indispensable region for the global economy, so long as modern vehicles run only on oil," Sandalow said. "To protect oil flows, the U.S. policymakers will feel compelled to maintain relationships and exert power in the region in ways likely to fuel Islamic terrorists."
The best way to solve the national security concerns inherent in oil is to wean the nation from the resource by promoting the use of plug-in electric vehicles, Sandalow said.
"To help end the United States' oil dependence, there is no higher priority than putting millions of plug-in electric vehicles on the road soon," said Sandalow, who urged representatives to provide tax incentives for the purchase of these vehicles.
Plug-in vehicles are charged via an electric outlet and then run on a battery for varying distances. Hybrids can run on battery or gasoline, so when the battery runs out, the car reverts to gas. A number of auto companies have recently announced plans to release all-electric and hybrid vehicles, including Nissan Motor Co., which plans a U.S. release in 2010 of its all-electric sedan.
But converting the U.S. fleet to plug-in cars is not a viable solution in the near term, because it will take a long time and cost a lot of money, said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.
"We have millions and millions of internal combustion engines that are running our cars across this country, and it's going to take a fairly long time to convert to hybrid cars," Burton said.
That's precisely why the country should start transitioning right now, said Sherry Boschert, vice president of Plug In America, a California-based non-profit that promotes electric and hybrid vehicles.
In order to get more of these cars on the road, though, the government will have to put the heat on automakers, she said.
"If you look at any of the changes to cars that have made them more environmentally and consumer friendly, it took a law to make it happen," Boschert told United Press International. "It took a law to get seat belts; it took a law to get catalytic converters. We have to have a law to push (the auto industry) to make changes, or else they have no incentives."
Boschert said prices will go down as more consumers buy the cars, just as they have for cell phones or computers, but government incentives to buy them would help jump-start the process. And the more plug-in cars on the road, the less oil Americans will use, she said.
Policies that focus on decreasing demand for oil, instead of simply starting with ways to increase supply, will get to the heart of the problem, said Joe Stanislaw, chief executive officer of The JAStanislaw Group, an advisory firm for investment in energy and technology.
"All energy solutions should start with demand; then you don't have to look for supply solutions," Stanislaw told UPI. "We always start with supply … (but) the oil we don't use, we don't have to buy."