An Energy Call to Arms

Issue 10 and Volume 105.

By Brian K. Schimmoller, Managing Editor

It’s difficult to find meaning – let alone understanding – in the aftermath of the horror inflicted on America and its citizens on September 11, 2001. With all due respect to Pearl Harbor, “a day that will live in infamy” is a colossal understatement, and an inadequate expression of the shock, outrage, sorrow and empathy that filled American hearts that day.

Although the reality of such a terrorist attack may not have been a surprise in certain military, law enforcement and civilian circles, its scope, coordination and magnitude stunned and staggered the “innocent” general public. As difficult as it is to look beyond the carnage to determine how this could have happened, however, that’s exactly what must be done, and one focal point is security. How did our security systems fail us? How could armed terrorists make their way onto commercial airliners, overpower the flight crews, and fly the planes straight into U.S. landmarks?

These questions all must be answered and addressed, but questions of energy security are just as critical to the nation because, like it or not, energy security is an integral component of overall security. While I believe our energy infrastructure and energy supplies are reasonably secure, we’re shirking our responsibility if we fail to conduct a candid self-examination. For example, how susceptible is our pipeline and fuel storage infrastructure to acts of terror? Can nuclear reactors truley withstand the impact of commercial jetliners and, if not, is it worht the extra expense to account for this possibility? Should the nation once again re-examine its reliance on oil imports in light of the gas station rush on September 11?

I’m not advocating a panicked, knee-jerk reaction that would close our borders, lock down our power stations and institute price controls. We will continue to function in a global economy. The reactions of many energy companies and regulatory agencies, however, indicate that the scope of the attack at least met and may have exceeded the worse case scenarios ever considered by the energy industry.

The nuclear industry is probably more sensitive to, and more prepared for, terrorist threats than any other industry, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission still sent out advisories to all 103 nuclear power plants and fuels facilities on September 11 urging them to implement heightened security measures. The Houston offices of many of the industry’s leading energy companies reportedly closed their doors or allowed employees to go home early. And the Bonneville Power Administration continued normal operations, but took “special steps to protect its employees and to assure the continuing reliability of the Northwest’s transmission grid.” BPA evacuated all but essential personnel from the Federal facilities it operates and cancelled planned maintenance outages on the transmission system.

Energy security comes in two main forms: (1) Safeguarding the physical infrastructure that fuels the economy, be it electricity generation, transmission and distribution or hydrocarbon fuel acquisition and delivery; and (2) Maintaining a balanced mix of domestic and foreign fuel resources that ensures energy security without endangering the economy. Safeguarding the physical infrastructure requires investment. Neglect, operation close to the margin, lack of maintenance – hallmarks of the current situation – cannot continue. A balance requires investment in domestic energy and power options, chiefly coal and nuclear.

There are obvious limits to the protections that can be afforded to the physical energy infrastructure, and terrorists repeatedly demonstrate that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but a sustained effort aimed at planning for the unthinkable – and then designing against it to the extent possible – is required.

Similarly, there are limits to the energy mix issue. We cannot be isolationists and embark on a path to complete fuel self-reliance. This would cripple world markets, hamper our own economy, and damage our image as the land of the free and the home of the brave capitalist. Still, in conjunction with the President’s proposed energy plan, we need serious debate regarding the issue of domestic versus overseas fuel supplies and its impact on energy security.

Don’t wait for Federal government officials to lead these efforts, though. While their involvement and oversight is important, it is not necessary to initiate the effort. Begin or renew the dialog with local and regional emergency response officials, initiate or reinforce educational programs aimed at explaining to the public the need for a balanced energy mix.

I started this column lamenting how difficult it would be to find meaning in the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I think I found some. At the least, it was a wake-up call. At the most, an energy call to arms.

Power Engineering would like to express its condolences to the victims, families and friends of those who died in the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001; its thanks to those who risked their lives and gave so selflessly of their time and resources in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts; and its wholehearted support of the people and institutions of the U.S. – and the world – in their battle against terrorism.