Natural Resources and National Security

Natural Resources and National Security


The ability of a nation to grow and defend itself is controlled in large part by the availability of natural resources.

Nations that do not possess sufficient mineral, energy, agricultural, and water resources within their boundaries must obtain them on the international market, where prices can be volatile and supplies unreliable. In times of war, all or part of the international market may be inaccessible and critical resources unavailable for import.

Mineral and energy resources have become increasingly important since the advent of mechanized warfare. Even before that, however, other natural resources played an important role in the growth of nations. A seventeenth-or eighteenth-century ship of the line in the British Navy may have required 400,000 board feet of lumber, much of which came from Britain's colonies in North America. A typical suburban home in the United States, in comparison, might require about 2000 board feet of lumber. Timber and, in later years, coal and iron resources helped the British Empire to become a dominant world power in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

The word resource refers to a naturally occurring concentration of minerals or fuels, whereas the word reserve refers to the portion of a resource that meets minimum criteria related to its extraction and processing. An accumulation of gold, for example, may be a resource but not a reserve if it cannot be mined and refined using existing technology. Resources can become reserves over time as technology improves and the economics of extraction and processing change. Therefore, the distinction is one of economics and engineering rather than geology. Resources are described as being measured, indicated, or inferred depending on the degree of certainty with which they are known. A measured resource is one for which the size has been established by geologic mapping, test drilling, and sampling. An inferred resource is one for which there is a reasonable amount of geologic evidence, but that has not been verified by drilling or sampling. Reserves are similarly described as being proven, probable, or possible.

Energy resources. The ability of a modern nation to defend itself or, should it be aggressive, to expand its territory depends on a reliable source of energy. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, this meant coal. Although coal remains an important energy source that is used to generate most of the electricity used in the United States, it has been joined in strategic importance by petroleum and nuclear fuels. The United States currently imports more than 3 billion barrels of oil per year from countries ranging from neighboring Canada and Mexico to Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iraq, and Angola. Although the United States contains significant petroleum reserves, they are not large enough to satisfy the long-term demand. It is, in most cases, also more expensive to produce oil from domestic reservoirs than to import it from countries that have abundant and easily recovered petroleum resources. The federal government maintains a Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help offset the potential effects of an oil embargo or other supply interruption. President George W. Bush ordered the first ever emergency withdrawal from the reserve in an attempt to stabilize world oil prices that were fluctuating in response to the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Although the United States and Canada contain significant uranium reserves, the currently depressed price of uranium on the international market generally makes it less expensive to import this energy source than produce it domestically.

The worldwide distribution of energy resources such as coal, petroleum, and uranium ore is controlled by geology and is far from uniform. Some nations, therefore, have an abundance of resources whereas others have little or no domestic supply of strategically important materials. A lack of petroleum reserves forced Nazi Germany to embark on an ambitious synthetic fuels program during the 1930s. The raw material for the German synthetic fuel program was coal, of which Germany had abundant supplies and which had satisfied its industrial and military energy needs until the beginning of the 20th century. Two synthetic fuel processes were employed by the Germans. One process produced automobile and aviation fuel and the other produced lubricating oil and diesel fuel. Twenty-one synthetic fuel plants, some of them using forced labor, had been constructed in Germany by the end of World War II.

Other countries, most notably Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have petroleum resources that are disproportionately rich in relation to their geographic size and, just as importantly, inexpensive to produce. Some of these countries have been able to form strategic alliances with larger nations that depend on their petroleum. In addition, cartels such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) can strongly influence prices by increasing or decreasing their production, as was proven by the 1973 oil embargo.

Another potentially important energy resource is hydroelectric power, which requires large rivers as well as the ability to construct technologically sophisticated dams and hydroelectric power plants. The production of both aluminum for aircraft and fissionable plutonium for weapons requires large amounts of electricity. Inexpensive and abundant hydroelectric power was therefore an important strategic asset to the United States during World War II. During that time, dams along the Columbia River provided electricity to aluminum smelters throughout the Columbia River Basin and Manhattan Project facilities at the Hanford Site in Washington.

Mineral resources. Mineral resources include the ores of base metals such as copper, iron, and lead as well as strategic and critical metals such as chromium, titanium, platinum, cobalt, manganese, indium, palladium, and others. The latter are metals that are used in nuclear reactors, jet aircraft engines, missiles, computers, and industrial machinery, but of which the United States has little or no domestic supply. Therefore, they must be imported from countries that include the former Soviet Union, Zaire, and Zimbabwe. Guerrilla warfare in Zaire during the 1970s caused the worldwide price of cobalt to increase from $6 to $45 per pound, and a United Nations trade boycott of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) made it impossible to legally obtain chromium mined in that country.

The importance of critical and strategic metals to the security of modern nations was recognized by the United States during World War I, when tungsten, tin, chromite (chromium ore), optical grade glass, and manila fiber for ropes were all in short supply. The War Department subsequently prepared a list of 28 materials that had been in short supply during World War I, and since then Congress has funded stockpiles of strategic materials that are essential for national security. The United States Geological Survey began its strategic minerals program in 1939, first concentrating on seven strategic metals and then expanding the program to include base metals and petroleum. Even with strategic minerals programs in place and stockpiles established before the war, conservation and recycling were essential during World War II. After the war, the Defense Minerals Administration was formed in 1951 to promote mineral exploration and development in the interest of national security, and its successor agencies were eventually merged into the Geological Survey.

Agricultural land and water. A third class of natural resources that is vital for national security includes agricultural land and water. As is the case for other resources, food or water that cannot be produced within a nation must be imported. Therefore, countries with large amounts of arable land, favorable climates, and fresh water can be less dependent on outside supplies than nations that lack one or more of those resources. In cases where technological solutions do exist, for example desalinization of seawater to produce drinking water in arid coastal areas, they can be too expensive for all but the wealthiest of nations.



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Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Youngquist, W. L. GeoDestinies. Portland, Oregon: National Book Company, 1997.


Cartwright, M. R. "Mineral Resources/Reserves in Appraisal." March 21, 1999. < > (14 December 2002).

Energy Information Administration. "Imports of Crude Oil into the United States by Country of Origin, 2001." June 18, 2002. < > (14 December 2002).

Energy Information Administration. "25th Anniversary of the 1973 Oil Embargo." March 7, 2000. < > (14 December 2002).

Stranges, A. N. "Germany's Synthetic Fuel Industry 1927–45." October 26, 2000. < > (14 December 2002).

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Bush Administration (1989–1993), United States National Security Policy
DOE (United States Department of Energy)
Energy Technologies
Petroleum Reserves, Determination

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