Throughout history, nations also have used resources as a bargaining tool, even a weapon. American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 prompted the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to retaliate with an oil embargo. Having become a net importer, America awoke to its vulnerability, experiencing long lines at gas stations and skyrocketing fuel and heating oil prices. From Richard Nixon on, every American president has urged energy independence, although serious strides toward that goal have come only in the last few years.
Still associated with Middle Eastern instability, energy's impact on economics, politics, and security is truly global, the result of growing competition in Asia and South America and new energy exploration from the Arctic to Africa.
While visiting several African nations in June 2011 during Navy/Marine Corps partnership-building missions, I met with then-President John Atta Mills of Ghana. Like many Gulf of Guinea nations, Ghana hopes to reap significant economic benefits from offshore oil reserves. But alluding to the often politically distorting effects of natural resources, Atta Mills sagely noted that Ghana "thankfully discovered democracy before we discovered oil." Other nations blessed with valuable natural resources have seen corruption become a way of life, with resource wealth benefitting only a favored few. "Corruption," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says, "is often a factor in energy poverty as well as political instability."
There are also security challenges to both production and distribution. Drilling platforms, particularly offshore and in deep water, are subject to accidents, attacks, and natural disasters, requiring huge upfront investment and a regulatory system that assures private companies meet their public obligations. Many smaller and developing nations do not have the resources, and often they call on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to assist, calls that will come more often as exploration and extraction reach more difficult, more remote, and more fragile environments, such as the Far North or deeper oceans. I witnessed firsthand the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill as I worked at President Obama's direction to develop a disaster recovery plan for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On the distribution side, the Energy Information Agency estimates that about half the world's oil is transported by sea, moving through a handful of choke points such as the straits of Hormuz, Malacca, and Denmark; the Suez and Panama canals; and the Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. Navy has patrolled the world's global maritime commons, keeping sea lanes open for peaceful commerce and transport for all, not just itself or a few allies. While this has come at no small cost to our nation, after the upheaval of two global conflicts in just the first half of the 20th century, the relative peace and prosperity of the last few generations argues the wisdom of that investment.
Still, the postwar and post-Cold War eras have been marked by smaller conflicts, asymmetric engagements, and the harmful actions of non-state actors. Maritime choke points provide rogue states and terrorists with particularly vulnerable targets, allowing them to cause potentially devastating political or economic disruption. This year's attack and hostage crisis at the natural gas facility in southern Algeria again spotlighted the potential for havoc in countries heavily dependent on oil and gas for their economies. Algeria is a prime example, with fossil fuels providing 97 percent of its exports and two-thirds of its revenue.
Dependence for their energy needs on states less sympathetic to U.S. interests also increases the possibility for shifting allegiances around the globe, even among our allies. Energy has been a key concern for Europe and many former Soviet republics in their dealings with Russia. Tensions in the East and South China seas and competing claims for uninhabited bits of rock are in part related to possible fossil fuel reserves beneath the ocean floor.