Offshore drilling is a threat to national security

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Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Dec. 28 edition of The News Virginian of Waynesboro, Virginia.

Over the next few weeks, our elected officials in Congress could vote on legislation (H.R. 4239) that would encourage the expansion of dirty and dangerous offshore drilling activities to the East Coast, while also eliminating commonsense safeguards to protect our state's most valuable coastal resources. And while some might see this as strictly an environment-versus-energy debate, we must also consider how offshore drilling in the Atlantic could impact a variety of activities that are critical to military readiness and our national security.

You might be surprised to learn that most of Virginia's waters are used by every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.

From Naval Station Norfolk to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia is home to a majority of our military's East Coast training exercises. Department of Defense spending in our state amounted to $53 billion in 2015 alone.

So why is that important? According to information from DOD, approximately 94 percent of the waters off Virginia's coast are largely incompatible with offshore drilling due to longstanding military operations.

I retired from the Air Force as a colonel after 24 years of service. I love my country, and I have fought proudly to protect it.

That is why I find it absurd that our members of Congress are willing to risk our defense training, which has never been more important, for a paltry amount of oil and gas.

In fact, Virginia's endowment of economically recoverable offshore oil would only meet domestic demand for 18 days at current consumption rates.

Let me be clear - any interference with our military training operations is a threat to our national security.

Drilling off Virginia's coast is not only going to disrupt our military training, but it also directly contradicts the military's efforts to move toward true energy independence - a future which will ultimately be shaped by renewable technologies including offshore wind and solar.

Is this a radical environmentalist idea? No. This is the pragmatic sentiment coming from the military's top brass.

In his confirmation testimony, Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis said that the "tether of fuel" makes us vulnerable to exploitation by the enemy.

DOD should "explore alternate and renewable energy sources that are reliable, cost effective and can relieve the dependence of deployed forces on vulnerable fuel supply chains to better enable our primary mission to win in conflict. The purpose of such efforts should be to increase the readiness and reach of our forces," Mattis said.

That this has become a partisan issue boggles my mind. It is simple: Drilling leads to burning more fossil fuels, which drives destabilizing climate change, which will put more of our men and women in uniform in harm's way.

Rightfully ignoring the misinformation and political confusion sown by oil interests, the Pentagon examined the evidence and reported in 2015 that "it is clear that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.

"These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time." Less stability equals more conflict, which equals more combat boots on the ground.

As a patriot and veteran, I care about our national security. But as a native and citizen of Virginia, I also care about our precious coastal resources and tourism economy in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. The bottom line is that Virginia's coastal way of life does not mix with oil, and coastal Virginians overwhelmingly agree. Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Accomack County and Northampton County, all cities in Rep. Scott Taylor's 2nd district, joined over 141 East Coast municipalities in formally opposing offshore drilling. Rep. Rob Wittman, representing Virginia's 1st District, has already voted to pass H.R. 4239 out of the House Natural Resources Committee. His district, which includes the western coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, would be one of the first to feel the impacts of expanded seismic exploration and offshore drilling, along with Virginia's 2nd District.

Rep. Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, claims to understand the importance of protecting our coast and the Chesapeake Bay, but his votes have not followed his words; he voted to cut the budget for Bay protection and cleanup. Now he has a chance to put his money where his mouth is and champion our coast by voting against H.R. 4239 and protecting Virginia's economy and our country's national security from the threats of offshore drilling. We cannot allow oil and gas companies to be prioritized over the people and economies that sustain our coastal regions. Fossil fuel profits are not worth more than the lives of the brave men and women who protect us at home and abroad.

Retired Air Force colonel Dave Belote, a native and resident of Virginia Beach, is an energy and defense consultant who was recognized in 2013 by the Obama administration as a White House Champion of Change: Veterans Advancing Clean Energy and Climate Security. He can be reached at dave@darestrategies.com.