Our Lethal Dependence on Oil

By Lieutenant (junior grade) Douglas L. Marsh, U.S. Navy

The reason for such profligate consumption stems ostensibly from specific energy. In the 2006 documentary A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash , scientist and Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) explains, "One barrel of oil . . . will produce as much energy - as much work - as you will get with 12 people working all year." This equates to 25,000 man-hours. 2

Keep in mind that a barrel of oil has a mass of 140 kg, or about 300 pounds, in 42 gallons. Thus, petroleum's energy density is an excellent compromise between mass and volume. In this regard, it outmatches resources like natural gas, which has a relatively low energy per unit volume, and coal, which has a relatively low energy per unit mass.

Petroleum is extraordinarily cost-effective, too. Its current price is over $70 per barrel; by comparison, imagine being paid a quarter of a penny for your hour's worth of hard labor. To boot, petroleum is easily transportable, easily storable, relatively abundant, and, occasional disasters such as the Gulf oil spill notwithstanding, relatively clean (fewer carbon emissions than coal and no nuclear waste as in nuclear fission). It is no wonder why energy expert Edward L. Morse proclaims, "Petroleum has proven to be the most versatile fuel source ever discovered, situated at the core of the modern industrial economy." 3

The impetus behind oil's rise from beneath the ground primarily began in industry. Mass production of the automobile in particular drove demand for oil into uncharted territory over the last century. Industry responded by building trillions of dollars in infrastructure for the discovery, extraction, transportation, and storage of what became an invaluable resource.

In his book The End of Oil , Paul Roberts explains, "The reciprocal mechanism of supply and demand took root in the oil economy. Greater supply fostered new uses for oil, which in turn spurred even greater demand - and forced industry to reinvent itself." 4 Governments in developed and developing countries responded, too, as their economies grew increasingly reliant on a steady stream of oil. And with governments concomitantly came armies; indeed, exercising military might is impossible today without oil.

Why the Military Should Care

Just as the world economy increasingly depends on oil, the U.S. military cannot function without it. In the words of Dr. Sohbet Karbuz, a well-known expert on American energy consumption, "The U.S. military is completely addicted to oil." 5 Dr. Karbuz breaks down what amounts to voluminous amounts of data and a web of tangled sources to show that American military oil consumption reached 350,000 barrels of oil each day in Fiscal Year 2008.

Miraculously, this was down from 360,000 barrels per day in FY 05. Over the last decade, U.S. military oil consumption has remained relatively constant, owing perhaps to an overall increase in the price of oil since 2002. Dr. Karbuz cites Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who estimates from the Department of Defense that "each $10 per barrel increase in oil prices costs the U.S. military an additional $1.3 billion dollars."

The military carries on a rich tradition with this dark, viscous substance. During World War II, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan aggressively sought non-domestic sources of oil to satiate their military-industrial complexes. Of course, in order to counter such a threat, the Allies required vast quantities of their own oil. Britain and France, however, could not domestically produce requisite quantities, so they were lucky to have the United States on their side.

A land of vast, seemingly unlimited resource potential, the United States provided both war materiel through the Lend-Lease program and oil for itself and its allies. Out of every seven barrels of oil consumed by the Allies in World War II, six came from the United States. 6 The Nazis didn't fare as well - they failed in their efforts to trounce Russia and secure its reserves. Meanwhile, eventual American naval superiority in the Pacific led to the sinking of much of the Japanese tanker fleet.

Following World War II, the U.S. military only grew more reliant on oil. The storybook ending of Allies over Axis fails to characterize oil's centrality in world affairs through today. Whether one likes to admit it or not, oil has influenced the buildup, conduct, and outcome of virtually every military imbroglio since the turn of the 20th century. Recently, oil has been such a looming factor in warfare and diplomacy that it is considered by many nations, including the United States, as a matter of national security as opposed to a mere natural resource. As far back as the Harry S. Truman administration, U.S. national security strategy was shaped by statements like this one: "In Saudi Arabia the oil resources constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in human history." 7

Why the Navy Should Care

Right across the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia is the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Surely, that the United States and its Navy choose to base an entire fleet in Bahrain demonstrates both the strategic and geopolitical values of the region and its resources. Bahrain provides a critical node from which to launch the U.S. Navy's unmatched power-projection capabilities in order to ensure stability in the Middle East. Such stability, of course, allows an uninterrupted flow of oil from the region, which encourages stability worldwide. The irony, however, that the Fifth Fleet uses a prodigious amount of the same oil it encourages to flow is no laughing matter. The U.S. Navy as a whole - for its unparalleled maritime dominance - uses vast quantities of oil.

Determining a quantitative value is rather difficult and perhaps impossible. According to Dr. Karbuz in his blog, "the DOD still does not know exactly how much energy by fuel type is used." He does claim that the Navy consumed 32 percent of total DOD energy. Assuming a direct relationship between energy as a whole and oil in particular (which we know is not the case because of oil's relatively high energy density), this amounts to a rough estimate of 112,000 barrels per day. Of the total fuel use by the services, 89 percent went to jet fuel (used in aircraft as well as tanks, other ground vehicles, and electric generators - remember that high specific energy), 3 percent to ground fuel, 3 percent to facility electricity, and 5 percent to other consumers. 8

Even more telling of the Navy's situation is that it is the world's largest consumer of diesel fuel. In this respect, it takes after the DOD as a whole, which is the largest single consumer of oil in the world. It is important to note, however, that DOD and Navy energy consumption represent only 1.2 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively, of the entire nation's energy consumption. 9 This implies that neither department has the ability to drive the energy market or alter American oil dependency, but they certainly wield substantial bargaining power in both cases.

Sooner, not Later

A navy without oil today may be stranded in port, but one hopes a navy without oil tomorrow can continue to fight. As Zachary Petersen noted in Navy Times , "Between 2021 and 2038, 165 ships will reach the end of their expected service lives." 10 SH-60R helicopters built today will end their service lives in the same time frame. 11 And based on the procurement and service lives of their predecessors, the P-8A and F-35C should remain in service until 2060 at the latest. 12 Beyond that, however, the Navy needs to consider using an alternate fuel to power its fleet and air forces. In the future oil will be prohibitively expensive, if not entirely unavailable. Thus, it is absolutely critical that developers of new platforms consider this in the design process. Failure to do so by building systems around a high-energy density liquid hydrocarbon like oil will leave the Navy with state-of-the-art warfighting capabilities but nothing to power them.

The issue looms large among the initiatives of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who late last year promulgated the development of a "Great Green Fleet," a carrier strike group using only alternative fuels or nuclear power, deployable by 2016. The Navy is actively exploring mitigation techniques for its oil-guzzling engines. Among those options are energy reduction on ships through more energy-efficient electrical equipment, improving ships' hydrodynamic characteristics by adding bulbous bows or stern flaps, shifting to alternative hydrocarbon fuels, and/or expanding nuclear propulsion to a wider array of ships. 13

Although an exhaustive study of the Navy's efforts to reduce its own dependency is beyond the scope herein, one can imagine that such reduction is critical to maintaining operational capabilities in the near term, too. One of the Navy's primary roles is to ensure safe passage of commercial shipping through the sea lanes, especially near choke points like the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal, or in the midst of pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The close proximity of these vital geographic landmarks is no coincidence. Failure of the Navy to perform its mission in this region would undoubtedly send shock waves through the world (oil) economy, which could possibly paralyze a service substantially dependent on oil. For this reason the Navy's mission has utmost importance to oil access in the Middle East.

The Oil Peak

The region has nearly 746 billion barrels of proven reserves of oil. This amount represents approximately 55 percent of world proven reserves. The United States, by contrast, has just over 21 billion barrels of proven reserves. This represents less than a tenth of the 266 billion barrels that come from the world's leader in both proven reserves and production, Saudi Arabia.

Speaking of production, the United States produces nearly 8.5 million barrels of oil per day. The Middle East produces 25.9 million barrels per day (10.8 million of which come from Saudi Arabia). If any of this seems troubling, just wait for the bottom line. The United States consumes over 19.4 million barrels of oil per day, more than 23 percent of world oil consumption, of which more than 56 percent is imported from countries around the globe. If no more oil were discovered tomorrow and thereafter (i.e., if proven reserves were the rest of the oil in the world), at a present rate of unchanged consumption the United States would deplete its oil in just under seven years, and the world would do the same in about 43. 14

Citing such hypothetical numbers may seem alarmist (and it is), but it drives home a point and has some merit. For one thing, U.S. and world oil consumption are not static; both are increasing exponentially. At a rate of 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent annually, U.S. and world oil consumption will reach 27.6 million and 118.0 million barrels per day in 2030, respectively. 15

The greatest, as yet-unmentioned player in world oil consumption increase is China, where a burgeoning economy and growing middle class are fueling an increase of 3.8 percent annually (more than 300 million Chinese - about the population of the entire United States - now earn enough to make car purchasing a reality). 16 Such a phenomenal rate means Chinese oil consumption will more than double in two decades.

Given the increase in world oil consumption and again assuming no more oil were discovered tomorrow and thereafter, worldwide oil supplies would be depleted by 2032. Any rational person knows that oil discovery will not cease tomorrow, but oil is unquestionably becoming harder to find and more difficult to exploit. Less oil has been discovered, on average, every year since the 1960s. This owes to the fact that the largest petroleum systems are generally the easiest to find (barring, perhaps, an enormous discovery in Arctic or deep offshore sites), and the locations left to explore are dwindling.

Oil exploitation in such remote and/or environmentally unfriendly areas requires added capital investment, too. Smaller petroleum systems are less economically efficient, so the combination of small, remote, and technically challenging drives oil prices skyward until at some point the commodity is no longer profitable.

Fortunately, higher oil prices and the advent of new technologies have enabled us to feasibly convert formerly unusable resources, such as tar sands and oil shale, into usable oil. Any gains made by unconventional oil sources, however, may be moot considering the question marks surrounding proven reserves in the first place. Paul Roberts writes, "estimates of proven reserves . . . are routinely exaggerated for economic gain." He cites the late 1980s, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) limited oil exports by members based on their proven reserves. Coincidentally, Kuwait, the U.A.E, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, "collectively added more than 300 billion barrels to their stated reserves." 17

Considering the nebulous nature of the world oil conundrum, the most important fact to realize is that at some point world oil production will peak. Dr. M. King Hubbert is now famous for his peak theory of oil, which essentially states that world petroleum output follows a bell-shaped curve. World oil production - following the trend of world oil discoveries - will peak. Some oil pessimists believe the peak may have already occurred, while optimists assert the peak remains two or more decades into the future. The United States (whose oil production peaked in 1972 18 ), along with at least 57 other countries, are "producing less today than they have in the past." 19

One should note that the American oil-peak date given here is based on "proven reserves" rather than "undiscovered, technically recoverable" oil. And the Minerals Management Service (MMS) does estimate that the United States has four times as much of the latter as the former. But how much of our national security do we want to rely on unproven oil reserves that require 13 syllables just to describe, let alone the effort and resources to extract ? Furthermore, the MMS candidly states that such oil does not come from a known field nor is it necessarily economically viable. 20 If nothing else is clear, increasing consumption coupled with declining discoveries means the age of oil will eventually end.

Now What ?

No one can claim to know all the facts concerning the peak of oil and its effects on the modern world. It is important that our own ignorance and the dynamism of the problem, however, do not dissuade us from significant, substantial action now. The United States is only growing increasingly dependent on (foreign) oil, and the implications of this inertial trend portend serious consequences for the U.S. Navy and society in general.

There is no question that the Navy depends just as much on oil as does the society it is meant to protect; the Navy must take a proactive role in the situation or it will actively jeopardize its own viability by continuing with the status quo. Whether by bridging to more sustainable energy sources in new warfigthting platforms, applying conservation measures to existing and new assets, increasing its own energy efficiency Navy-wide, encouraging conservation and increased energy efficiency in America as a whole, or implementing any other means of dependence reduction, the Navy must work to solve the problem now rather than later.


1. "The World Factbook," available from: Central Intelligence Agency (4 August 2009).

2. A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash , DVD, directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack (Zurich, Switzerland: Lava Productions AG, 2006).

3. Edward L. Morse, "A New Political Economy of Oil ? " Journal of International Affairs 53, No. 1 (Fall 1999), p. 2.

4. Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p. 36.

5. Sohbet Karbuz, "US Military Oil Pains," Energy Bulletin (17 February 2007), available from:

6. Michael T. Klare, Blood and Oil (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 32.

7. Ibid.

8. Sohbet Karbuz, "Neo Conservative Oil-Military-Industrial Complex," U.S. Military Energy Consumption, Geopolitics, Peak Oil, Oil Market, Twisted Truths (23 September 2006), available from: (6 August 2009).

9. Ronald O'Rourke, "Navy Ship Propulsion Technologies: Options for Reducing Oil Use - Background for Congress," Congressional Research Service (11 December 2006).

10. Zachary M. Petersen, "Destroyer Extension Part of 313-Ship Plan," Navy Times (12 February 2008), available from: (6 August 2009).

11. "SH-60 LAMPS Mk III Seahawk," Federation of American Scientists (2008), available from:

12. "F-35C Carrier Variant Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)," GlobalSecurity.org (2006), available from:

13. O'Rourke, "Navy Ship Propulsion Technologies."

14. "Official Energy Statistics from the U.S. Government," available from: Energy Information Administration (6 August 2009).

15. Ibid.

16. Klare, p. 32.

17. Roberts, p. 48.

18. Klare, p. 32.

19. A Crude Awakening .

20. "Assessment of Undiscovered, Technically Recoverable Oil and Gas Resources of the Nation's Outer Continental Shelf," Minerals Management Service (February 2006).

Lieutenant (junior grade) Marsh graduated first in his class from the United States Naval Academy in 2007. He earned a Master of Science from the University of Maryland and flies the P-3C Orion in VP-4.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Marsh graduated first in his class from the United States Naval Academy in 2007. He earned a Master of Science from the University of Maryland and flies the P-3C Orion in VP-4.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership