POLITICS: PennAve

Retired military officials call for energy R&D as national security necessity

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Politics,White House,Environment,Marine Corps,PennAve,Tim Mak,Pentagon,Military Budget

Retired Gen. James Conway is making a tough pitch: asking Congress, in an era of defense cutbacks, to invest in energy for the sake of national security.

With lawmakers almost universally howling about Pentagon budget cuts and scrambling for funds to bolster military readiness, the former Marine Corps commandant argues that America's dependence on foreign oil is a bigger problem.

A member of Securing America's Future Energy, a bipartisan group of business leaders and retired military officers, Conway argues that the U.S. faces a greater threat from its dependence on oil imports than billions of dollars in military budget belt-tightening.

Even with the budget cuts known as sequestration, "there are sufficient funds out there to do what the nation has to do," Conway said, characterizing the cuts as "not drastic."

"There's a wealth transfer [through oil imports], over $350 billion a year, to countries that don't like us very much in some cases," he told the Washington Examiner, warning specifically of Iran and more generally about "the potential of evil that could come if our lines of supply are disrupted."

SAFE is calling for the establishment of a federal Energy Security Trust Fund, which would fund energy research with new revenue garnered from opening up oil production in portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf.

The idea has attracted attention: Earlier this year, President Obama called for the establishment of such a fund, but without endorsing any new drilling.

And last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, released draft legislation for an energy trust fund and called for public comments on it.

Over the past 10 years, the metrics have headed in SAFE's preferred direction even without the creation of a trust fund. A decade ago, America imported 55 percent of its oil, compared with 45 percent currently.

"We are, by a fraction, probably less vulnerable" than a decade ago, Conway allowed. "The trend lines are in the right direction, the future is probably better."

For some lawmakers, the request is simply too much in an era of budgetary restraint. At a time of numerous national security threats, the framing of an energy issue in national security terms puts the proposal in a crowded field.

And although the idea has brought forward bipartisan support, it is just as vulnerable to bipartisan opposition.

Conway says environmentalists oppose the expanded drilling in SAFE's proposal, while government spending hawks oppose the use of government funds on energy research and development.

"We sat back after some of these discussions, with people saying, 'I can't give you money for this, I'm sorry, it's not in the cards,'" he acknowledged.

Congressional resistance doesn't appear to faze Conway, who formerly commanded the branch of the military that adopted as its motto "Semper Fidelis," meaning "always faithful."

"The theme that attracts attention and optimism is national security," he said, promising that prominent lawmakers from both parties would soon endorse an energy security trust fund. "That reaches past the aisle."

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