Editor's note: The following article is part of HP's
July issue, which is the 90th anniversary of the magazine. As
part of the anniversary, HP reflects on the evolution of the
industry over the past 90 years to see what clues
history may offer to its future. The full issue, both digital
and print, will be released next week.
between the military and the petroleum industry dates back to
the years before World War I (WWI), when the US and British
navies started to switch from coal to oil as a fuel source.
Military dependence on oil only increased as WWI progressed,
since the military innovations of the time (airplane, tank,
submarine) all needed oil to run. By World War II (WWII),
militaries around the world were hooked on the hydrocarbon.
The intertwined relationship between oil and military is not
just a story of gasoline and jet fuel, though. Other uses of
the hydrocarbon molecule were parsed by
military men in the 20th century, leading to rapid innovation
in chemicals, explosives and rubber.
Militaries in the modern era are still vast consumers of oil
and a variety of refined products, although there has been
increased military investment and interest in the possibilities
of biofuels and alternative fuel
sources like wind, solar and tidal power.
An example of a military with a thirst for fuel is the
US defense forces. The US Department of Defense (DOD)
consumes upward of 1% of the petroleum products refined in the
US annually. The majority of the DODs bulk fuel purchases
are for jet fuel, which averages about 100 million bpy.
The DODs top four fuel suppliers operate a combined 31
refineries in the US, representing 6 million bpd of refining capacity. The Defense
Energy Support Center (DESC) purchases fuel for all DOD
services and agencies, using fixed-price contracts with
economic price adjustments. DESC typically awards fuel
contracts based on the lowest cost to the point of delivery,
typically for lengths of one year. DESCs fuel procurement
categories include bulk petroleum products, ship bunker fuel,
into-plane (refueling at commercial airports) and post camp and
station. Although DOD may represent the largest US consumer of
refined products, its primary fuels are Jet Propellant 8
(JP-8), Jet Propellant 5 (JP-5) and diesel.
Oil became important for militaries in the years before WWI,
as many of the leading navies of the time began switching from
coal to oil to power their ships. During WWI and pretty much
ever since, having access to large amounts of oil resources was
a key indicator of a countrys and a militarys
Once again, WWI offered a key indicator, in that Britain and
France could depend on oil supplies from the Middle East and
North America, while Germany was solely reliant on Romania.
This caused the Germans to suffer oil shortages at inopportune
moments during the war, and these shortages should certainly be
considered contributing factors to their eventual
The end of WWI did not cause Germany to stop obsessing over
oil. When Adolf Hitler took control of the country in the
1930s, he was keen to develop a domestic synthetic fuel
industry. When WWII started, synfuels refined from coal were a
significant contributor to Germanys energy needs. The one
problem with this was that getting oil from coal requires a
complicated, expensive and labor-intensive process. The process
also needed large steel structures, which then made these
synfuel refineries susceptible to air raids.
Hitler was undeterred, though. Under an agreement in 1939,
Germany began receiving big shipments of oil from Russia. This
wasnt enough for the German industrys (military and
otherwise) thirst for oil, so Hitler had to look to exotic
lands (like the Caucasus) to get his oil fix. Once Hitler found
out about the vast oil reserves in the Caucasus, he decided to
show what a swell guy he was, and commenced with an invasion of
Russia in 1941, a mere two years after the Russians began
generously allocating oil to him.
Post WWII, one of the often overlooked reasons for the
Soviet Unions lack of saber rattling and belligerence was
the simple fact that it did not have access to enough oil to
fight another war. The US worked hard to keep the Soviet Union
out of the Middle East, and, for the most part, the scheme
worked. Not only did this allow the US and its allies access to
the oil reserves of countries like Saudi Arabia (thus
preventing the Soviets from doing so), but it also gave the US
and the West a strategic boost in global positioning, should
another conflict break out.
During WWII, US Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King
uttered a succinct order that became a rallying cry for the
Allies. Oil is ammunition, Admiral King said. The
propaganda arm of the US military ended up using this statement
for promotional posters as you can see in Figs. 1 and
Fig. 1. US Chief of
Naval Operations Ernest
King uttered a succinct order that became
rallying cry for the Allies.
Fig. 2. A US military
promotional poster from
One way that ammunition was distributed was via an explosive
chemical compound by the name of trinitrotoluene (TNT).
TNT. Invented by a German in 1863, TNT was
used by Germany and other militaries starting in the early
1900s. The breakthrough in source material for the explosive in
the US did not happen, though, until 1933. Thats when the
researchers at Standard Oil Development (the company that later
became Esso and then Exxon) told the US Army about the
detection of toluene in product streams from thermal reforming
experiments on a petroleum-based naphtha. This first discovery
later led to a significant new source of pure toluene,
something that would help the Allies immensely when they were
looking to blow things up.
These samples did not come up to the nitration-grade
requirements, but Esso continued the research. Eventually, the
scientists decided to give catalytic reforming a try. This
process gave much improved results over the thermal route, and
a pilot plant was built in 1938. Ultimately, a 99+% toluene
stream was produced that could be nitrated.
With war pending, the Armys interest in toluene
became grave and they ordered a first batch amounting to 20,000
gallons, said G. T. Westbrook, an expert on the subject
of petroleum refining during the WWII time
period. A logistics nightmare existed at that time, as
seen in the steps taken to fill this contract. The naphtha feedstocks were refined in Texas.
They were then shipped to New Jersey for reforming. This
reformate stream was returned to Texas in 22 tank cars for
aromatics recovery. Next, the aromatics (benzene, toluene and
xylene) were shipped to Louisiana for recovery and purification
of toluene. Finally, the toluene was shipped to Maryland for
Such a far-flung production network meant that Esso did not
make not make any money on its 1940 contract with the US
military. Business did improve dramatically after that, and
Humble Oil ended up building the Baytown Ordinance Works, a
plant that, during WWII, produced more than half of the total
toluene supply extracted from oil.
Aviation gasoline. The Allies
aviation gasoline (AGN) program was tasked with producing a
rather complex mix of fuels. AGN is a high-octane,
controlled-vapor-pressure fuel for propeller-based planes. In
1939, with motor gasoline at about 75 octane, AGN requirements
would range from as low as 87 for a simple reconnaissance plane
to 100 octane for high performance fighters and bombers.
According to Mr. Westbrook, in 1939 the US AGN capacity was
about 17,000 bpd. Early in 1941, forecasts were at 35,000 bpd,
but, after Pearl Harbor, those jumped to 190,000 bpd. AGN
capacity finally crested at over 600,000 bpd in 1945.
To produce the right fuel at the right octane for military
planes, it was decided that a major refining construction initiative would be
accompanied by tweaking existing refineries. Over 300
refineries were targeted for this effort, which consisted of
implementing blending policy and operational changes.
As Mr. Westbrook was keen to point out, operational changes
included searching refineries for high-octane, straight-run
blendstocks; coordinating interplant blendstock moves;
maximizing cracked gasoline output for an AGN base, and
allocating more feedstock to alkylation units for
more alkylate output.
SBR. Along with fuel, WWII created a vast
demand for styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). When the natural
rubber supply from Southeast Asia was cut off at the beginning
of WWII, the US and its allies faced the loss of a strategic
material. With US government sponsorship, a consortium of
companies involved in rubber research and production united to
produce a general purpose SBR on a commercial scale. These
companies, in collaboration with a network of researchers in
government, academic and industrial laboratories, developed and
manufactured, in record time, enough synthetic rubber to meet
the needs of the US and its allies during WWII.
Rubber was a commodity of great military importance. The construction of a military airplane
used half a ton of rubber; a tank needed about one ton. Each
person in the military required 32 pounds of rubber. Tires were
needed for all kinds of vehicles and aircraft.
By the late 1930s, the US rubber industry became the largest
and most technologically advanced in the world. During this
time, the industry was using half the worlds supply of
natural rubber, most of it coming from Southeast Asia.
Shortages of natural rubber caused by the advent of WWII led
the US government to embark on a program to produce a
substitute for this essential material quickly and on a very
large scale. There was a real danger the war would be lost
unless US scientists could replace almost a million tons of
natural rubber with a synthetic substitute within 18
To work this industrial and scientific miracle, the US
government joined forces with rubber companies, the young petrochemicals industry and
university research laboratories. The resulting synthetic
rubber program was a remarkable scientific and engineering
achievement. The partnership expanded the US synthetic rubber
industry from an output of 231 tpy in 1941 to an output of
70,000 tons per month in 1945.
Onto the future. While the relationship
between the military and the hydrocarbon has been a good one, there
are some military folks out there advocating for dialing down
the militarys reliance on oil. A group of retired US
generals recently put out a report (issued by CNA Analysis and
Solutions) in which they advocated for a 30% reduction in the
US use of petroleum.
A 30% reduction in our use of petroleum would
significantly improve our national security, the report
said. We chose our reduction target based on a specific
military challenge. CNA analysis shows that if America used 30%
less oil, our economy would have enough resilience to sustain
the effects of a complete shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz, or
any other major shipping choke point, with little
The report argues that if the US achieves this 30%
reduction, any terrorist attack or action by a rogue nation
that would significantly disrupt the global flow of oil would
cause little, if any, first order economic impact to the
The US spends billions of dollars each year on military
operations in the Persian Gulf region. In a 2010 CNA report,
the organization noted that the average estimate for the annual
military cost of protecting oil traffic in the Arabian Gulf was
It is our view that there are several other
strategically important reasons for maintaining a significant
military presence in the Middle East beyond protecting oil
routes, the report said. However, it is clear that
by reducing US demand for oil, and thereby reducing US economic
vulnerability to supply and price shocks, the US would increase
its options in military presence, operations and costs in that
The retired generals believe that making the US less
sensitive to interruptions from overseas oil supplies also
reduces the potential urgency of a military response to
closures of critical ocean chokepoints. For example, projections indicate that, in the
next 15 years, China and India will be increasingly reliant
on oil imports, including imports from the Persian Gulf
If we begin to act now to make the US economy less
sensitive to turbulent oil prices, our leverage will increase
when asking other countries to supplement, or cooperate with,
US forces in assuring the flow of oil through the region,
the report said. The US will, in our view, be relieved of
some of the military and economic burden of protecting those
sea lanes, and be able to focus resources elsewhere.
So if the US economy and military are to reduce
reliance on oil, how will they do it? The answer could be biofuels.
Ethanol and biodiesel have, for
years, been produced and consumed around the world as fuel
additives and, less often, as stand-alone fuels. In the US
today, most light duty vehicles are burning gasoline blended
with up to 10% ethanol.
At present, the US and Brazil lead the world in the
manufacture and use of ethanol. France, Sweden and Germany
are major producers of biodiesel. These technologies continue
to advance in efficiency, raising the possibility of future
mass production of fuel from cellulose (like grasses, wood and
sawdust), algae, manure and municipal or industrial waste.
In 2008, biofuels accounted for less than 2% of the
worlds transportation fuels, but their use is growing
dramatically. Part of their attractiveness is that the
processes of their conversion into portable forms of energy
generally emit much lower levels of CO2 and other
greenhouse gases than result from the conversion of gasoline.
The other key aspect in the growing use of biofuels is
government mandates and subsidies.
Under the US Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,
the US government has defined a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)
that mandates, out to 2022, the increasing use of renewable
fuels as gasoline additives in the US. The trend in these
standards is to keep the volumes of corn-based ethanol and
biodiesel roughly constant, while increasing the level of
cellulosic ethanol and, more slowly, advanced non-cellulosic ethanol.
Complicating factors. There are many
variables to consider when advocating one alternative fuel over
another. Are there economic or geopolitical security issues to
consider? Are there unforeseen consequences to the environment? What are the military
implications? Even if a replacement fuel is found that
addresses all of these concerns in a satisfactory manner,
technical or economic challenges to the full ramp up of the
fuel source must be considered. Table 1
presents the pluses and minuses of an assortment of alternative
Crude oil and the refined products derived from it has been
a key cog in military operations from the years before WWI all
the way to present day. Finding, defending and maintaining
access to oil supplies has also been a key military activity
during the last 100 years and one that promises to
However, there is the possibility of change on the horizon,
as arguments are growing in volume that such reliance on the
hydrocarbon is unhealthy and unsustainable. A variety of biofuels exist in all forms of
development, but it remains unclear if any of them have the
staying power or the energy dependability to replace the
hydrocarbon and take militaries and the
globe on which they reside into the next century.