Medill reporters launch 'Oil Change,' a major investigation into US energy security


The USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier is seen as it allegedly went 'inside the maneuver zone' where Iranian ships were conducting 10 days of wargames in the Persian Gulf, according to Iranian officials. A showdown between Iran and the United States over Tehran's threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers worsened with warships from each side giving weight to an increasingly bellicose exchange of words.



WASHINGTON — The United States’ unquenchable thirst for oil has shaped nearly every aspect of the country’s domestic and foreign policy for more than five decades: from the sometimes controversial relationships it forms with other countries to the hugely expensive deployment of military troops and ships.

Energy and national security scholar Roger Stern estimates that since 1976, the United States has spent more than $7.3 trillion dollars just to maintain a security presence in the Persian Gulf. It does so, in part, to secure access to the region’s rich oil stores by protecting friendly governments and oil tankers as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow sea lane and one of the world’s many energy choke points.

Graduate student reporters from Northwestern University’s Medill National Security Journalism Initiative spent three months traveling far and wide to examine the many aspects of US energy security, and how the effort to protect the US oil supply is changing rapidly in these turbulent times. This Special Report, based on their work, is titled, “Oil Change: The World's Most Precious Commodity and the Future of US Security.”

Using innovative interactive and multimedia journalism, the project drills deeply into the past, present and future of US energy security policy, which is often defined as access to oil at an affordable price. But, as the reporters discovered, the definition is much broader and more complicated than that.

Here are some of their findings, with hyperlinks to individual text, multimedia, interactive and video stories:

*  With the resource boom of natural gas, the US seems to be more energy secure than ever. But this can be deceptive, as America’s energy security is intertwined with that of other nations. As the US becomes less reliant on foreign oil and the appetite for oil grows in China and elsewhere in the east, the balance of energy — and power — relations will shift dramatically.

Despite seven successive US presidential administrations calling for the country to be energy independent, there is no such thing as absolute energy independence. The complexity of energy geopolitics means the US will remain invested in the global market even if the domestic energy boom continues. With oil a globally traded commodity, unrest and disruption anywhere in the world has the potential to impact prices and supply everywhere. 

The US military has used force or the threat of force to protect its energy interests around the world, primarily in the Middle East, for more than five decades, safeguarding foreign oil sources and the sea lanes through which they pass.

More than half of the world’s oil is transported by sea, making maritime security one the most crucial factors of energy security. Before getting to US consumers and industry, oil leaves ports and harbors around the world and passes through global choke points. These narrow sea lanes are often highly vulnerable to disruption, including piracy, robbery and mining by hostile nations.

*  Protecting US energy interests also means ensuring that important domestic oil and petroleum infrastructure remain safe. US domestic sources like the Port of Houston remain vulnerable to threats such as natural disasters, cyber and terrorist attacks.

*  The balance of power is shifting away from the US and the West. The burgeoning economies of oil-hungry countries like China and India are driving oil imports to the East and changing the global-political landscape in the post-millennial era. According to recent reports, Asia will account for more than 85 percent of the increase in demand for oil over the next 20 years, transforming the international energy landscape and US energy security interests.

*  As the oil flows east, so too will America’s military presence. In 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration announced the US military’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. More US ships will be positioned in Asia in part to prevent any conflicts that may arise as the result of ownership disputes in the contentious South China Sea.

*  The US builds close relationships with oil-rich countries to help secure our energy supply, sometimes turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights abuses and other problems in those countries that can also undermine global security. Many experts and security officials say that only if the US becomes less dependent on foreign sources of oil can it firmly and effectively promote reforms in many of these oil-rich countries.

*  The US has benefited greatly from the development of economical hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — and technologies to recover previously inaccessible heavy oil. Ongoing research and development of new technologies, such as the use of microbes to enhance oil recovery, is certain to greatly affect our future energy supply and help increase energy security.

*  The US may be overlooking what experts and security officials call its natural partner in energy security — Latin America. The region, home to many of the world’s biggest oil suppliers such as Venezuela, is close and much more stable than the Middle East. But experts say US disengagement in the region is causing America to miss out on opportunities, including with major future producers like Brazil.

*  The US insurance policy in case of an oil shortage, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, has been dogged by controversy since it was created in the aftermath of the 1973 energy crisis and oil embargo. The reserve has cost taxpayers more than $60 billion since then, and holds vast emergency supplies of crude oil thousands of feet underground in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana in case of a domestic or foreign disruption. Now, some in Congress are questioning whether it is even necessary.

*  The real future of US energy security may lie in the new frontiers, including countries with vast amount of untapped oil now accessible due to technological advancements. US oil companies are looking to areas like Brazil’s pre-salt basins, which may yield as many as 50 million barrels of oil, and developing close partnerships with these countries to secure a future energy supply.