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Military and Oil: The Historian

Scott Tong Aug 29, 2011

week Marketplace airs a special series on the U.S. military and energy, and the
to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”


“Churchill really laid out at that time what has become and remains the basic starting point for energy security. He said, ‘Don’t rely on one source alone.'”

Energy historian Daniel Yergin explains warfighters’ dependence on oil dates back at least a century. He recalls Winston Churchill, then head of the British royal navy, who switched warfighting machines from coal-power to a new, superior fossil fuel: oil. Yergin won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.” He is chairman and executive vice president of consultancy IHS CERA.

Here’s a brief video interview that I conducted with Yergin, where he discusses the history of the military’s addiction to oil. The clip begins with Yergin discussing America’s oil use during World War I:

And a few more excerpts from my interview with him (along with extended audio clips)…

On oil and World War I (extended excerpt here):

“The First World War was to be a short war. It was a war in which people would ride horses. And instead, it very quickly became motorized. And it very quickly became dependent upon oil, whether you were talking about planes, whether you were talking about trucks to move people around, whether you were talking about motorcycles, or you were talking about this new innovation which was first called the cistern, and then it got another name, which was the tank. And all of it depended on oil.”

On oil and World War II:

“A war over oil was part of the larger war. And was critical in every phase of it, from the decisions to go to war to the outcome of the war. You can start with the Japanese decision to attack”

On Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the role of oil (extended excerpt here):

“One of the admirals who planned the attacks said they needed to attack the United States, which was a flank attack to protect their main drive into Southeast Asia to get the oil of what is now Indonesia, which was one of their major strategic objectives. And this admiral said: ‘We have to do this, otherwise we won’t have fuel and our battleships will become like scarecrows.’

On dangerous energy supply lines in Iraq, Afghanistan (extended excerpt here):

“Many military officers I’d talked to over the last several years had read The Prize very carefully and knew those lessons, the logistical problems, knew the threat. But what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan – the challenge of moving supplies, the vulnerability of moving it — has highlighted it anew. And made it very clear that it’s so oil intensive. And that in itself creates vulnerabilities in looking for other ways to handle it, to reduce the need to simply move this fuel through often dangerous territory… the problem is very evident. The solution is not so evident.”

On reducing military energy use through innovation (extended excerpt here):

“I think necessity will drive innovation. It’s not going to show up overnight. It will take time. And the focus is there on something that there has not been in the past.”

“I don’t think we have seen yet anything near a commercial scale. Some people are very optimistic. And some who have been working on it say actually it’s harder than we thought. It’s a tougher problem to solve. But I think it’s only been in the last few years you have really started to see the application of biology to the issue of fuels…. Are we in another shift from oil and hydrocarbons to alternative fuels? Certainly there’s never been so much focus on innovation in the energy sector, all across in renewables, alternative, conventional fuels. And if we have a concerted application and stick to it for several years, experience says that we will see important innovations. Some of them may be predictable. And some of them may be very big surprises.”

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