Leon Panetta: Time to stop governing by crisis on energy policy

WASHINGTON — Oil supply disruptions and other emergencies involving crude have long driven U.S. energy policy, but it’s time to break that cycle, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insisted Wednesday.

“We’ve got to get ahead of that,” Panetta said, during a day-long summit on energy security pegged to the 40th anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo. “We can’t simply wait for the next crisis to happen.”

Panetta, who also directed the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama and was a White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton, said the key is making sure Americans have a gut sense of how important U.S. energy supplies and policy are to them.

“Somehow, you have got to make this issue something that impacts every family in this country,” Panetta said at the event organized by Securing America’s Future Energy. “If there were another OPEC shutdown — or a major crisis that really sent the price of oil skyrocketing — and it got a lot of attention . . . it would be a front-burner political issue.”

Public land: Environmentalists threaten lawsuit as drilling continues despite shutdown

Beyond politics, oil and energy remain critical national security issues, four decades after OPEC cut off the United States in response to American Middle East policy. Former defense leaders said concerns about energy and oil supplies are a current running through every national security decision, including use military force.

It’s important not to lose sight of that, despite surging U.S. oil production, said former national intelligence director Adm. Dennis Blair. Spare oil capacity dipped to frighteningly slim levels at times last year, Blair noted.

“We were in a thin situation,” Blair said. “If there had been a hurricane in some part of the world on top of what was happening in the Middle East, prices would have shot up again.”

Securing America’s Future Energy and other groups that want to pare U.S. dependence on oil are using the embargo anniversary to highlight the nation’s continued vulnerability to price spikes and supply disruptions. Because oil is a fungible commodity that is traded globally and the U.S. is still heavily dependent on it, volatile prices can ripple from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico, no matter how much crude the U.S. is harvesting within its own borders, the group said in a report Monday.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served as national security adviser to former President Richard Nixon, said the oil embargo forever shifted the U.S. view of crude. No longer was oil just “an economic entity,” Kissinger said. Suddenly, it became a “strategic” one.

Kissinger emphasized that the notion of oil-producing states using oil as a strategic tool was so novel, Americans were caught off guard. That would not be the case today, he said.

“We had not systematically studied oil . . . as a political tool of the government,” Kissinger said. “I think we are better prepared now — by far — than we were then.”