November 5, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Oil Junkies

In World War II, it was mostly up to Americans to fund the Allied war effort. Imagine if we had been obliged to fund the Axis effort, too.

Actually, that shouldn't be hard to imagine because right now we are indeed funding both sides in the War on Terrorism. We finance the defense of the Free World against its sworn enemies through our tax dollars. And we support the terrorists every time we go to a gas station and fill up the tanks of our cars.

It's not only the specific acts of violence that we underwrite. It's also the funding of schools that teach hatred, mosques that preach intolerance, scholars and ex-diplomats who act as apologists for Militant Islamism. The ways extremism is spread around the world are many and varied.

America today is more dependent than ever on energy from parts of the world ruled by what James Woolsey pungently calls “vulnerable autocracies and pathological predators.”

Thirty years ago this month, responding to the Arab oil embargo that created the most severe economic disruption since the Great Depression, President Nixon launched Project Independence which, as the name suggests, was intended to make the US self-reliant in energy. It was a bust.

President Carter donned a sweater but his initiatives fared no better. As energy expert Daniel Yergin notes: “At the time of the embargo, the United States was importing about a third of its oil; today it's almost 60 percent.” And the trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.

But here's the good news that has received little attention: Over the last few decades, innovative research has made energy independence a realistic possibility. As was discussed in depth at a conference last week sponsored by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (the think tank where I cogitate) solutions have been found.

So what's the problem? I just told you: There are solutions – there is no simple solution. Yes, it would be nice if we had a Bill Gates of energy, someone who would do to oil what the computer has done to the typewriter. But we don't. Instead, the most energetic energy experts have come to the conclusion that instead of a silver bullet we need a salvo — a grapeshot of technological advances and policy changes.

“We urgently require diversity,” said Ambassador Woolsey, who has served as Director of Central intelligence and was the keynote speaker at last week's conference. “We need to add other sources of petroleum — and we need energy sources other than petroleum.”

For example, American coal can be mined and used to generate power in an environmentally friendly way. (The US has a quarter of world coal reserves. Developing that resource would mean spending at home more of the billions we now send abroad; and that would mean more jobs for Americans.)

France and Japan provide most of their electricity using safe and clean nuclear power plants. So could the U.S.

Hybrid vehicles that dramatically increase gas mileage are already being produced. Soon, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles — think of them as electric cars with an auxiliary fuel tank – will be able to dramatically reduce gasoline consumption by mostly running on electricity but without the range limitations of previous electric-only vehicles. Technologically, it also is now possible to run cars using non-petroleum energy sources such as those made from waste products – AKA garbage.

In other words, the key obstacles to progress are no longer technological. But that doesn't make them any less formidable. For example, foreign oil remains relatively cheap and a developed oil-economy infrastructure is in place to supply it to customers. As a result, the risk/reward ratio for investors in new technologies doesn't look promising in the near term.

Then there's the chicken-and-egg problem. Do you equip cars to run on non-petroleum fuel before filling stations are selling such fuel? Or do filling stations offer such fuels before many cars that can utilize it are on the road?

Environmental groups are another obstacle. They reflexively — and effectively — oppose any technologies that involve coal or nuclear energy.

In times of peace, such challenges would be overwhelming. But in a time of war, there should be a chance to develop a consensus for change. “Freedom from dependence on foreign oil ought to be a bi-partisan goal,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), a member of House committees on both energy and international relations said in remarks closing the energy conference last week. “It's a matter of American's national security. It's part of the War Against Terrorism.”

Ambassador Woolsey echoed that, noting that were it not for the power of oil, the Militant Islamist movements would be “a few thousand crazy people in the middle of the desert.” Instead, of course, they are the force that is driving vicious acts of mass murder from Bali to Tunis to Mombassa to Baghdad to Jerusalem to Washington and New York.

To be sure, we need to fight the terrorists wherever we find them. But isn't it time we stopped sending them the money to fight us?

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.