Energy, the Next Great Thing

11/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rochester Photo Images

The sky was a vivid blue; the Arabian Sea heavy with ships and the afternoon sun glared unforgivably. We traveled down a dusty road teeming with people walking, sitting or riding in/on cars, trucks and donkey carts. Large hotels bore familiar names while many strange appearing buildings had very unfamiliar names. Then right there, up against the curb, was a dead donkey with two huge buzzards feasting on the carcass. No doubt about it; I was on the Indian subcontinent. This was nineteen seventies Pakistan. I arrived on a military mission and learned far more than military matters.

Approximately ten years ago, I was asked to evaluate the feasibility of constructing an oil refinery in the Karachi area. Construction was not economically feasible because the electric grid could not provide reliable electricity and there was insufficient fresh water. Americans tend to be isolated from the third and developing worlds. Often we don't understand the fragile edge that much of humanity still teeters on for survival. Meanwhile the dangers increase.

Now another generation of Americans is familiar with the rest of the world. A group of men and women who realize just how precarious life can be and how small is our world. Jon Powers, Chief Operating Officer of the Truman National Security Project and an Iraq war vet said:

Veterans understand the connection between energy security, climate change and national security.

I joined approximately 150 primarily Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security organizations, who gathered at the White House to discuss climate change, energy and national security. Wonks? Hardly. Primarily pointy-end soldiers who look about the world as they know it and want to be certain the United States remains safe and secure. To their view the greatest immediate and long term threat to our national security is climate change and energy policy. You may say "huh?" Long ago, I was hired by an energy company after retiring from the Air Force. My strong economics background was a factor but the major reason for my hire was that I understood US and worldwide energy distribution because for the last twenty years I prepared to use or destroy it. Fortunes were to be made just trading off these various national and international energy imbalances.

Our energy consumption is endangering US national security. But it isn't just our energy consumption; it is where we get that energy. Yes, I refer to hostile nations like Iran or countries opposed to our very freedom like Saudi Arabia. Also, I refer to carbon based fuels from coal to natural gas. Climate change is real and is happening. If you do not believe the vast majority of scientists, go visit your local farmers and ask if farming is changing. I did ask and received tales of crop substitutions, drought and change, some good and some bad. But this aside, these soldiers know a warming climate is changing weather patterns and water levels worldwide. The result will be displaced populations, famine, disease and war. This international turmoil will cause an increasingly unstable and violent globe requiring US involvement for defense and disaster relief. The Department of Defense, CIA and State Department all agree and already are taking action.

Our world-wise soldiers understand that energy is the mission of their generation. They call for a grand redirection of society. Recognizing that America's strength has always been cheap energy, these leaders call for major innovations. When threatened with Canadian intrusion and competition for Great lakes trade, New York State realized that the only way to develop that great state was canals, not roads. This state built the Erie Canal; a project declared too expensive, impossible to accomplish and a waste of time. The canal was built and cheap water power opened the Great Lakes to trade and settlement, developed towns and villages all across New York State and established New York City as THE port in the western hemisphere. Some scholars also credit its development as providing the industrialization and transportation base that defeated the South so decisively during the Civil War.

During the worst of the Civil War, the nation began the development of the transcontinental railroad to secure America as shining from sea to sea. Again, the timid and frightened said it was too expensive, couldn't be done and was not needed. They were wrong. The continent and the nation were united and secure while rampant American ingenuity and enthusiasm developed the United States in ways never imagined. This is our history! World War II industrial output and the Cold War Space Race reacted to national threats and accomplished amazing things which changed our country in ways never imagined. THIS is our heritage. These veterans know it and accept the challenge.

The men and women of Operation Free say that NOW is the time to launch our own "Erie Canal," "Transcontinental Railroad" and "Space Race." The cost is approximately the price of a glass of milk a day but it will transform America. The return on investment from unleashing our vaunted ingenuity, enthusiasm and work ethic is a secure nation and an economic powerhouse.