Is energy a key element in the war we are fighting against the onslaught of Islamist terror and subversion? Does America need energy independence to really win this war? The American people seem to think so. The last time a Rasmussen poll asked them if the development of new homegrown energy sources was “an urgent national priority,” 81 percent said yes. Only 9 percent disagreed.
In NRO last month, I argued that the great American majority is right, on this fundamental policy question as on a heartening number of others. I said we need a commander-in-chief who will “insist on an all-out effort to increase our own supplies of energy as rapidly as possible,” focusing especially on the game-changing potential of the natural gas that is buried in the shale rock layers that lie beneath vast stretches of America, from Texas to New York.
Last week — after the failed Islamist terror bombing over Detroit — President Obama took a few belated baby steps in our direction. He reaffirmed, at long last, the fact that we are at war, and progressed from pretending that our enemies are “isolated extremists” to naming one of our Islamist enemies — al-Qaeda — though he pretended it is our only Islamist enemy. More progress: He re-endorsed energy independence as a goal, and unveiled a new program to fund various energy projects. However, the only types of energy he named were solar and wind; he failed to even mention nuclear power, let alone natural gas. For Americans who see energy independence as a national-security imperative, this is late, and much too little.
Kevin Williamson doesn’t see it that way. He sees us as dumb. Calling our concern “‘foreign oil’ alarmism,” he brands it “one of the dumbest themes in American politics, a yardstick of stupidity.” He offers three reasons for this cocksure assertion, which quickly collapse into two. First, he flatly asserts that American energy independence is impossible, unless we revert to the living standards of the 19th century. Second, he states that “the largest share of our ‘foreign oil’ comes from those perfidious Canadians, not from the perfidious Arabs”; therefore, he argues, “Our dependence on imported oil is no more dangerous than our dependence on imported steel . . . or T-shirts.” A paragraph later, he acknowledges that if we stopped buying so much foreign oil, the Saudis would be in “a world of hurt” because “no other player in the market is positioned to replace American demand.” Hardly a surprise, since we consume some 25 percent of the world’s oil, and currently produce only about one-third of what we need here at home. But, third, Williamson tells us, it’s dumb to worry, even if our great and growing demand does, after all, serve to enrich Islamist states like Saudi Arabia — not to mention Iran. No harm done, he says, because “oil touches terrorism only tangentially: Box-cutters and underpants-bombing misfits are not expensive.”
Let’s treat Williamson’s reason number two like the self-refuting irrelevance it is, and focus on his two main arguments, starting with his claim that there is no realistic possibility of our achieving anything close to energy independence in the near future. We can begin by acknowledging that he’s right if, like our president, you pin all your hopes on solar and wind power. Someday, American ingenuity probably will achieve the technological breakthroughs that can make these sources yield substantial amounts of energy, but counting on breakthroughs that haven’t happened yet is a dream, not a workable plan to deal with the terribly real problems facing us right now.
Natural gas, the energy source both Obama and Williamson ignore, is a different story, because two of the breakthroughs we need to fully exploit this energy source have already occurred. We’ve known for a long time that large amounts of natural gas are buried under vast swathes of American land, but, until very recently, not much of it was accessible to us in an economically feasible way, because drilling for natural gas is a lot trickier than drilling for oil. Oil collects in deep vertical pools below the surface of the earth, so if you drill straight down in the right place, you hit the jackpot. Natural gas is not like that. Much of it lies encased in a multitude of small fractures inside horizontal layers of shale rock that stretch out across millions of acres. As a result, simple vertical drilling in any one place produces only relatively small amounts of gas. In just the last few years, however, American ingenuity has changed that picture dramatically by achieving the two breakthroughs mentioned above. We learned to drill vertically to the necessary depth and then turn the drill, deep in the earth, and drill horizontally to reach much larger amounts of natural gas, and we developed a technique called hydrofracking, which uses water pressure to make new fractures and enlarge existing ones, creating larger spaces for the gas to move into, making it possible to retrieve much more of it.
We already use natural gas to create much of the heat and electricity in our homes, and we could use more. But, with a little help from government, we could also create the infrastructure necessary to replace gasoline and diesel fuel in the millions of trucks and buses that travel over our roads every day. That would make a real dent in the amount of oil we need to import, helping to create a surplus in the world market that would greatly reduce the amount of money our Islamist enemies can spend on their war against us.
Williamson’s claim that this would have no impact on the war is, to say the least, uninformed. Box-cutters and underpants are cheap, but it takes enormous amounts of capital to reach into every corner of the globe and aggressively propagate the evil Islamist creed that calls for our destruction, and to fund, train, and transport the growing multitude of Islamist terrorists, Islamist infiltrators, and Islamist propagandists who work to make our defeat a reality. Williamson’s apparent failure to grasp any of this doesn’t prove he’s stupid, but it does raise questions about the depth of his knowledge in this area.
Those of us who do “get it” need to press our government to act, now, not only to make maximal use of the new natural-gas bonanza American ingenuity has opened up to us, but also to drill for oil in all the American locations currently ruled off-limits, and to build at least as many nuclear power plants as the French have. If we take all these perfectly feasible steps now, energy independence is no pipe dream. It’s a reality we have the power to create, not in the 22nd century but in the next decade or two, and it will bring our ultimate victory in the war for freedom much closer. Along the way, it offers two additional bonuses: It will create many thousands of much-needed new jobs — not make-work government jobs, but genuinely productive ones — and it will give us a cleaner environment, because natural gas creates much less pollution than oil. And that is anything but dumb.
— Barbara Lerner is a frequent contributor to NRO.