Robin Eckstein has a closer relationship than most of us to the long supply chains that brings oil from the well to the wheel. In 2007 she was an Army truck driver in Iraq, shipping fuel from Baghdad International Airport to the forward bases of American operations. The U.S. military is an oil-thirsty machine, and it was the job of troops in logistics, like Eckstein, to keep the occupation fueled. That meant driving miles every day in a fuel convoy through some of the most dangerous streets in the world.
"Every day when we left the airport, I was thinking, time to roll the dice," she said. "Would it be insurgents, an IED, something else? We were just a big, slow, vulnerable target."
To Ecksteinwho made it home OK from her tour in Iraqthe epiphany was inevitable. If gas was still cheap in America it was in part because the U.S. military was paying to keep some level of stability in the Middle East. Oil had its hidden costs for the U.S., costs that weren't factored into the price of gasone of which was the blood of young American soldiers. "It all really resonated with me," the 33-year-old said. "Why weren't we doing things in a more efficient way?"
I met Eckstein on a boat among the oiled waterways of southern Louisiana, where we'd come to see a once-hidden cost of crude that had suddenly made itself heartbreakingly visible: the Gulf oil spill. Eckstein, a handful of other Iraq veterans and even some and retired generals were in Louisiana as part of Operation Free, a young advocacy group that has begun pushing a green message not so much on environmental grounds, but on national security ones.
They point out that the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency has put out reports highlighting the danger that a warming world will post to America's security. Climate change is a "threat multiplier," these experts say, because a warmer planet will have more refugees, more instability and more conflict. And the other side of their message is the price of oil addiction. With hostile countries like Iran buoyed by oil revenue, our refusal to move away from cheap crude has us, in the words of former CIA director James Woolsey, "funding both sides of the war on terror." Adds Jonathan Murray, the campaign director for Operation Free and a Marine veteran: "The real cost of gas is not what people pay at the gas station."
Operation Free had sponsored the Louisiana boat trip with the arch-green Sierra Club. Veterans and tree-huggers are two groups that might not have that much in common. But their unioneven if they don't agree on anythingis a welcome sign as the environmental movement tries to broaden its message and win skeptics. Think Al Gore or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just made up global warming? Then listen to Pentagon, which is already preparing for a warmer world. Think renewable power is a joke? Well the Department of Defense has invested billions in energy efficiency and renewable power-in part because they know from Iraq, where a gallon of gas is priced at $400 given the long and threatened supply chain, just how vulnerable our oil dependence makes us. "We come from different perspectives," said Kate Colarulli, who runs the dirty fuels campaign at the Sierra Club. "But we can leverage those skills toward the same goal."
Among the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana, however, it was the environmental message, not the national security one, that was most pressing. I'd last been in these waters at the start of June, just when the oil from the ongoing Deepwater Horizon spill was really beginning to hit the coast. The cleanup and coastal defense operation was barely getting off the ground then, but it's now become much more visible. Massive barges hold thick coils of red and yellow shoreline boom to be deployed throughout hard-hit Barataria Bay. Wetlands are ringed with foamy white absorbent boom that can soak up oil, and their fresh color indicated that they'd been recently changed. Small charter boats carrying Coast Guard officers and BP officials skim the bay. Hundreds of brown pelicans roost on a small outcrop called Cat Island, protected by three layers of boom.
But take a closer look: a number of those pelicans were lightly but distinctly oiled, placing them among the thousands of seabirds directly threatened by the spill. And soon enough, as we cruised into Bay Jimmy, we could see where oil had infected the marsh grasses. Crude had penetrated several feet deep into the wetlands, turning the cane grass closest to the water as brown as a decayed tooth and leaving the plants dead or dying. There was boom but it was too late for this path of marsh. I reached in and fingered the plantsthey were wrapped in crude that had the consistency and tenacity of caramel. This was an old oilingthere was no crude visible floating in the water. But there would be no cleaning up, no saving this wetland. One of the retired senior officers on the boat, General Paul Monroe, part of the Operation Free team, shook his head at the scene. "It's hard to believe we could have such an impact on the environment," he said.
Nearly three months into the oil spill, that shouldn't be hard to believe any longer. The question going forward is whether this disaster will change usor be ignored, another forgotten tax on the price of gas. National security isn't a perfect argument for moving away from oil, at least for environmentalistsit's too easy to see how an even dirtier fuel like Canadian tar sands crude could pass muster just because it doesn't come from a hostile nation. But the oil spill has demonstrated that America must have a reckoning with the way it develops and uses energy, and oil especially. Greenswhether that's the color of a tree or camouflagewill need all the allies they can get.