Edward Epstein / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-04-09 09:10:43
WASHINGTON (April 7, 2005) — Take record high gasoline prices, add in fears of terrorist strikes against Middle East oil fields and a growing financial drain on the country, and you produce a band of national security conservatives who sound like environmentalists in urging President Bush and Congress to push for US energy independence by weaning Americans from oil use.
The conservatives, including some top national security figures from the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently sent the White House a letter saying it is time to raise the mandated fuel efficiency on autos and turn away from petroleum-fueled vehicles in favor of such alternative fuels as ethanol, bio-diesel or electricity and more hybrid cars and trucks.
While environmentalists who advocate the same ideas approach them from an ecological standpoint, the national security figures say they fear that America’s increasing reliance on foreign oil suppliers is a dire national danger.
“The implications are truly catastrophic,” said former Reagan national security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who signed the letter put together by the Energy Future Coalition. “The good news is the solution to getting off oil is at hand.”
Another signer was former CIA Director James Woolsey, who says he worries that al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups could seriously disrupt oil exports from Saudi Arabia or other major Middle East producers. Three of those producers, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, account for 45 percent of global proven oil reserves.
“Middle East turmoil could bring regimes to power that don’t want to send oil to the rest of the world because they want to live in the seventh century, ” said Woolsey, who headed the CIA under President Bill Clinton.
With the United States now relying on imported oil for 60 percent of consumption — a figure expected to rise to two-thirds of consumption by 2020 — oil prices are expected to stay high because of sharply increasing demand in nations such as India and China. That competition for tight supplies scares Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who organized the letter.
Need for Oil Could Mean War with China
“The Chinese are on the march trying to secure access to oil and choke points. This could be part of a medium-to long-term strategy to confront us or go to war with us,” said Gaffney, who was a Pentagon official under Reagan.
Because of increasing global demand, many economists say the current surge in oil prices could become permanent. They warn that further price spikes, perhaps topping $100 a barrel on the world market, are possible.
Americans now consume 21 million barrels a day, with estimates the figure will climb to 26 million barrels or more a day in 2020.
Whatever their reasons, environmentalists welcomed the conservatives’ support for such policies as continuing tax breaks for buyers of hybrids, encouraging development of domestically produced ethanol, or developing hybrids that can be plugged in to electrical outlets to recharge overnight and then run for a few miles on batteries.
“We will take our allies where we find them,” said Dan Becker, global warming program director for the Sierra Club’s Washington office. “These conservatives recognize our oil dependency causes major problems for the United States. We welcome them to the fight. “They’ll hit Congress from the right, and we’ll see if Congress finally gets it,” he said.
Action Is Needed Immediately
The letter comes as Congress renews debate over Bush’s long-stalled energy bill. It seeks to boost US oil and gas production through incentives, calls for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and seeks to ease the way for more refining capacity. It also contains Bush’s long- term plan for hydrogen-fueled vehicles to replace internal combustion engines.
It could take 15 to 20 years for the hydrogen-fuel system to be developed, and that’s too long to wait, Woolsey said. He said the key is to produce more efficient gas and diesel vehicles now.
The president remains committed to his bill, which has been hung up in a House-Senate disagreement over protecting makers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits. With bigger Republican majorities in both houses in the new Congress, passage looks more likely.
“I put forth a strategy to the United States Congress in 2001; they’re still debating it,” the president said at a news conference last week. “Now is the time to get a bill to my desk. This is the year.”
Gaffney said he hopes the administration comes around to supporting his ideas. “It would be folly for the administration to oppose this,” he said. “They should get out in front of the parade.”
The Clean Energy Coalition, whose board includes Republicans and Democrats, is one of a large number of groups that recently have proposed plans for weaning the United States from foreign oil.
The Sierra Club, for instance, is part of an alliance of other environmental groups and labor unions that advocates many of the same policies as the Clean Energy Coalition. But in nonpetroleum policy, the environmental- union coalition rejects increased reliance on domestic coal or nuclear power plants.
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