Documentary screening followed by panel discussion

by Sungil Ahn | 1/19/16 8:26pm

Last night, the Truman National Security Project and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy hosted a screening of the documentary film “THE BURDEN: Fossil Fuels, the Military, and National Security.” The screening was followed by a panel discussion with former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, Truman Project executive director Michael Breen and former Assistant Secretary of Defense. They spoke to a crowd of 30, five of whom were students, on America’s oil dependence, climate change, and how both affect national and international security.

Communications and program manager at the Truman Project Victoria Glynn, who organized the event, said that she wanted the film and the discussion to communicate to the audience that issues of clean energy and climate change are important regardless of political affiliation, as they affect both the military and national security.

The film, which featured interviews with many active and former military servicemen and servicewomen, opened with an active military officer commenting on the difficulty and the necessity of supplying soldiers on the field with oil, sometimes resorting to dropping barrels from the air in dire situations.

Interviewees in the film said that the U.S. is too dependent on oil, which creates strategic vulnerability for the military. Transporting oil requires large amounts of money, manpower, resources and lives, with one casualty occurring on average per 24 convoys. The U.S. must also defend “oil checkpoints,” pathways through which much of the oil from the Middle East flows. The volatility of oil prices also hurts the American economy, according to the film.

The film pointed out the danger of depending on countries with interests adverse to those of the U.S. for oil, especially when the military is the largest consumer of oil.

However, because oil is an internationally-traded commodity, the oil transactions of other countries can indirectly affect the U.S. For example, even if the U.S. were to become completely energy-independent, the film stated that U.S. allies in Asia would still have to buy half a trillion dollars worth of oil from outside sources.

Overdependence on carbon fuels such as oil affects not only national security, but also the environment. The consequences of climate change and other effects of excessive fuel consumption can contribute to international instability, the film noted.

For example, an officer interviewed in the film said that the melting ice in the Arctic has resulted in competition from several nations for resources in the area. In addition, he said that this effect has allowed Russia to pose a greater threat to U.S. shores.

Burke said in the film that water shortages in already-unstable regions caused by climate change further perpetuate instability in those regions. The film also said that the increased incidences of natural disasters strain the U.S. military, which serves a large role as a first responder around the world.

Ballard noted in the film that whether one wants to improve national security, improve international security, create millions of jobs, save the U.S. from sending billions of dollars overseas every year or clean up air for the citizens, solving oil dependence and combatting climate change would help mitigate all of these issues.

A soldier interviewed in the film echoed the importance of preventing conflicts caused by fossil fuels.

“We’ve already lost too many, far away from home, because we didn’t think about energy enough,” he said.

The film ended by calling for alternative sources of energy as an investment in the future.

In the panel following the screening, Burke said that though the price of oil has decreased from $100 to $30 per barrel since the documentary was made, the film remains relevant because oil is still a globally-priced commodity. She noted that the risks the nation is exposed to will not change as long as the U.S. is using oil.

Ballard concurred, pointing out that the U.S. is not independent from other countries’ effect on the oil market.

“They are controlling it, no matter what the price of oil is,” he said.

During the discussion, Burke said that an alternative to oil that is cost-effective, high in energy and easy to access remains to be found.

Throughout the film and the discussion, the three continually voiced that the need to move to an alternative energy source is no longer a partisan issue.

Ballard recalled that during his time as the mayor of Indianapolis he and his office calculated that the cost of switching to hybrid and electric cars would save the city money almost immediately.

The panel concluded with all the speakers calling on the audience members to advocate for the importance of oil independence and climate change awareness regardless of political affiliation.

After the event, Thayer School of Engineering professor Ulrike Wegst said that she found the film’s fresh view of the oil dependence problem interesting, especially the role that oil plays in the U.S. military.

She said it was “an important angle I have not seen yet.”