Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: National Security

This is the first post in a three-part series that examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 2  Part 3

Though it is unlikely that the first generation of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) will be adopted by the masses, there is a compelling case for everyday consumers to take a look at these vehicles when they become available this winter.  There is no silver bullet to solving climate change, but PEVs could play an important role as one of a broader set of solutions. As is the case for many climate solutions, the benefits from PEVs are more than environmental. In this three part series, I’ll make the case for PEVs based on the gamut of issues that matter to Americans – national security, the environment, and their wallets.

Let’s begin with national security. Most have heard the stats – the United States sends a $1 billion a day overseas to accommodate our oil addition – but let’s put this number in perspective. From January of 2008 to May of 2010, using monthly average world oil prices and average U.S. imports, the U.S. has sent over $840 billion overseas (see Figure 1 for where the money went). That is almost equivalent to the updated cost of the President’s stimulus package. We’re talking serious money.


Figure 1: U.S. Payments for Oil Imports by Recipient Country.  The U.S. sent over $840 billion overseas to satisfy oil demand from January of 2008 to May of 2010. Other includes countries that provide a relatively small amount of petroleum or petroleum products, from Guatemala to France. Source: U.S. EIA Oil Imports, U.S. EIA World Oil Price

The story about national security goes beyond just exporting money out of the U.S. economy. It is clear that many of the countries from which the U.S. imports oil do not align with our strategic interests (e.g., OPEC countries like Venezuela). In some cases, even our declared enemies are the benefactors of the money the United States sends to petro-states, which are countries where state-owned oil production dominates the national economy. Vice Admiral Dennis V. McGinn (U.S. Navy retired) indicates practical experience on the ground shows that some petro dollars sent to Iran have gone to buy the enemy the very best arms available on the market?from night vision goggles to armor-piercing incendiary devices that are killing U.S. soldiers in theater. While the U.S. does not import petroleum directly from Iran, oil is a global commodity and U.S. demand drives up the price of oil worldwide, which in turn enables Iran to funnel more money to America’s enemies.

Another facet of national security links with the second segment in this series – the environment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) issues a report every four years in order to assess current threats and determine the “most likely and lethal threats of the future.” The most recent issuance of the report in February 2010, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), discussed the threat of climate change for the first time. The report highlights many of the known indicators of climate change such as rising temperature and sea level, thawing permafrost, and heavy downpours, all of which are contributing to the weakening of fragile governments according to the DOD. The DOD summarizes the threat as follows: “[w]hile climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” Our own Jay Gulledge recently discussed the similar risks associated with climate change on E&ETV’s OnPoint and in blog posts on Climate Risks and Extreme Weather.

The relationship between oil consumption and passenger vehicles is undeniable – the United States uses more than 70 percent of our oil for transportation, and passenger vehicles are the largest piece of the transportation pie. PEVs can use substantially less gasoline than conventional cars – in the case of all-electric vehicles, that amount drops to zero. The less gasoline used in cars, the lower the overall demand for oil worldwide. Lowering demand will reduce the global price of oil, thereby sending less money to unfriendly states. And less money in these states’ coffers benefits our national security.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow