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The High Costs of Our Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Medill study of U.S. energy security policy finds significant vulnerabilities

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May 9, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a three-month investigation, a team of graduate student reporters from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication has found that the United States’ unquenchable thirst for oil has shaped nearly every aspect of the country’s domestic and foreign policy for more than five decades, often in controversial and dangerous ways.

The graduate student team today (May 9) begins publication of its findings on the national security implications of U.S. energy policy. The project will run on a website created by the team, and an overview story linking to it will be featured in Global Post, the award winning online international reporting network. The Washington Post also featured and linked to the students’ work in its Wonkblog section yesterday.

The innovative series of print, video and interactive stories is titled, ``Oil Change: The World's Most Precious Commodity and the Future of U.S. Security.’’

“The students reported from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, from Ecuador and the Philippines, from throughout the United States and especially from the corridors of power here in Washington, D.C.,’’ said Josh Meyer, lead instructor and director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative. ``They have delivered a well-reported and well-told examination of an issue that, while largely neglected by the government and the media, is of huge and growing importance to all Americans.’’

(Read a Q&A about the project with Meyer here)

The nine Medill graduate students interviewed more than 100 current and former national security officials and experts and reviewed scores of official documents and reports.

Among the project’s findings:

• With the resource boom of natural gas, the U.S. seems to be more energy secure than ever. But this can be deceptive, as America’s energy security is intertwined with that of other nations. As the U.S. becomes less reliant on foreign oil and the appetite for oil grows in China and elsewhere in the east, the balance of energy -- and power -- relations will shift dramatically.

• Despite seven successive U.S. presidential administrations calling for the country to be energy independent, none have succeeded. The complexity of energy geopolitics means the U.S. will remain invested in the global market even if the domestic energy boom continues. With oil a globally traded commodity, unrest and disruption anywhere in the world has the potential to impact prices and supply everywhere. 

The U.S. military has used force or the threat of force to protect its energy interests around the world, primarily in the Middle East, for more than five decades, safeguarding foreign oil sources and the sea lanes through which they pass.

• More than half of the world’s oil is transported by sea, making maritime security one of the most crucial factors of energy security. Before getting to U.S. consumers and industry, oil leaves ports and harbors around the world and passes through global choke points. These narrow sea lanes are often highly vulnerable to disruption, including piracy, robbery, and mining by hostile nations.

• Protecting U.S. energy interests also means ensuring that important domestic oil and petroleum infrastructure remain safe. U.S. domestic sources, like the Port of Houston, remain vulnerable to threats such as natural disasters, cyber and terrorist attacks.

• The balance of power is shifting way from the U.S. and the West. The burgeoning economies of oil-hungry countries like China and India are driving oil imports to the East and changing the global political landscape in the postmillennial era.

The U.S. builds close relationships with oil-rich countries to help secure our energy supply, sometimes turning a blind eye to corruption, human rights abuses and other problems in those countries that can also undermine global security. Many experts and security officials say that only if the U.S. becomes less dependent on foreign sources of oil can it firmly and effectively promote reforms in many of these oil-rich countries.

In addition to traditional print and online pieces, the project allows audiences to explore the impact of energy security through creative multimedia and interactive graphics that: 

• Map out how oil travels by sea around the globe -- focusing on the key “choke points” where that oil supply is most vulnerable to attack; 

• Use video to show the empty rhetoric of U.S. presidents promising, and not delivering, on energy security and independence;

•  Use interactive maps and multimedia to show the rise and fall of production and consumption oil and how it affects geopolitics, as well as how the oil supply is vulnerable; 

•  Use interactive maps and multimedia to show how the secretive U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is used as a hedge against oil shortages

“The imaginative use of interactive technology highlights Medill students’ advanced skills in presenting in-depth reporting in creative and entertaining ways that engage people and keep them informed,” said Professor Ellen Shearer, co-director of the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and William F. Thomas Professor of Journalism. 

The students learned sophisticated interactive storytelling approaches with the help of Kat Downs and Greg Linch of The Washington Post. 

The Oil Change Project -- the third in a series of annual investigative reporting efforts -- was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation as part of Medill’s broader National Security Journalism Initiative. Established in January 2009, that initiative provides journalists-in-training and working journalists the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately and with context on issues related to defense, security and civil liberties. The first project, on the national security implications of climate change, was the recipient of a national award given by the Online News Association.

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