For retired Navy Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, Osama bin Laden’s death was personal. McGinn was working at the Pentagon on 9/11, and his office was just 50 yards away from the spot where the hijacked plane eventually crashed. Had he not recently moved into an office with shatterproof glass, McGinn might have ended up as one of the more than 100 people killed at the Pentagon. “We lost a lot of good shipmates at the time,” McGinn told me in an interview today. “So yesterday [when bin Laden's death was announced] was a good day.”
But McGinn—who spent 35 years with the U.S. Navy as an aviator, aircraft commanding officer and eventually Commander of the Third Fleet—knows that the story behind bin Laden, terror and security goes well beyond what happened on 9/11. As the new president of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE)—a non-profit dedicated to advancing renewable power in the U.S.—McGinn is better equipped than most to understand how our dependence on foreign oil has fed the terrorist threat, and that the war won’t be over until that addiction has been broken. “As good as the news of bin Laden’s demise was, if we can’t change our oil dependency we’ll still be threatened by terrorism and instability.”
Just in case concerns over national security aren’t enough, the U.S. is faced with the third major oil price spike—2005 post-Katrina, 2008 and 2011—in recent years, and a growing realization that increased global demand and dwindling reserves mean that high prices may become the norm, however painful. McGinn supports oil exploration here in the U.S., but he also knows that drilling won’t do much to change prices at the pump. “Oil is a fungible, global commodity,” he says.
The only answer, then, is to get serious about supporting alternative energy and energy efficiency. Of course, we’ve heard all that before—McGinn is the first person to acknowledge that America has tried over and over again in the past to get off foreign oil, only to become ever more dependent. The hope is that this time things really will be different—and that an effort to truly end the war on terror might help give our country’s politicians the push they need. “I think the level of pain and the level of risk has increased,” says McGinn. “That’s going to get people’s attention, this sense of vulnerability to events that are beyond our control, whether that’s extreme weather, or terrorism.”
Just exactly how we’ll finally kick-start this transition still remains a fertile debate, and McGinn isn’t taking sides on specific policies. But as someone who spent more than three decades in the military knows, the true cost of energy is far higher than what we pay at the pump. “We may pay $4 a gallon for gas, but that doesn’t count the money and the lives we spent defending our energy system,” he says. As we celebrate the end of one front in the war on terror, it might be time to redouble our efforts on another, for the sake of everyone who has already sacrificed.