Rising call: Cut US oil imports

Security hawks, environmentalists forge a rare consensus on energy.

President Bush says he can't immediately bring down the price of foreign oil. But sixth-grader Savannah Walters of Tampa, Fla., has a plan. Her "Pump 'em Up!" website urges kids to bug their parents to check their tire pressure. Properly inflated tires on the nation's cars would save an estimated 4 million gallons of gasoline a day.

R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also has an energy plan. He's signed onto a 129-page blueprint from the newly formed Energy Future Coalition, which would use tax credits to push fast development of hybrid and other advanced vehicles and technologies that could make ethanol from corn stalks, prairie grass, or even sawdust.

Outside official Washington, which is laboring over an energy bill, energy-independence plans are popping up across the American political landscape. Liberals and conservatives, ecologists and former military brass have reached the same conclusion: The United States needs a radical change in energy policy. The way to do it, they agree, is through a mix of conservation and new-but-available technology that could quickly begin to reduce US reliance on some of the most volatile regions of the world.

These rumblings are the beginning of possibly the most radical rethink of energy policy since the 1970s.

"It's one of the great failures of American politics and policy that we are so dependent on oil from one of the most corrupt and unstable areas of the world," says former US Sen. Timothy Wirth, now president of the United Nations Foundation. "The world's in crisis and the US is doing nothing to limit our dependence and extraordinary vulnerability."

In some key areas, the situation has gotten worse since the first oil crisis of the 1970s. Then, the US relied on overseas sources for just over a third of its oil. Today, dependence has grown to 56 percent and, by 2025, would reach 68 percent, if nothing changes, according to the US Energy Information Administration. While the US economy overall is more energy efficient and, thus, less vulnerable to high energy prices, overall efficiency gains in the oil-reliant transportation sector have stagnated.

The nation's passenger fleet (cars and light trucks) gets virtually the same mileage today as it did in 1981 - about 25 miles per gallon, according to the Department of Transportation. Motors and drivetrains are generally more efficient, but vehicles - think SUVS and pickups - are far heavier than before. Also, fuel economy standards have not been updated by Congress since 1987. And pickups and SUVs are exempted from the fuel-economy standards that apply to cars, dragging down overall fleet mileage.

Of course, environmental-minded reformers have been pointing out these challenges for years. In the past year, at least half a dozen think tanks and labor and environmental groups have unveiled detailed plans to reduce oil imports. What's new is that security-minded conservatives have begun to jump on the energy-independence bandwagon too.

Last fall, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington think tank on energy, issued a plan called "Set America Free." In December, the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy released its strategy. Last month, a bevy of national-security "energy hawks," military brass, and industry officials, as well as prominent Democrats and environmentalists, published their plan under the name Energy Future Coalition.

"We believe that the United States' dependence on imported petroleum poses a risk to our homeland security and economic well-being," wrote EFC in a letter to President Bush in March signed by more than 30 military and security officials, including Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Many in Congress - and in the oil industry - argue that the US has a plan: the new energy bill. It spends: $2 billion on hydrogen fuel-cell research, $2.7 billion on nuclear energy research, $1.1 billion on improving the nation's electrical grid, and $2.9 billion on fossil energy research to foster exploration, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce says. It would also authorize more than $6.7 billion on energy-efficiency measures, mostly research into technologies and standards. Ethanol would get a boost with a mandate to produce 5 billion gallons by 2012, enough to replace 1.2 billion barrels of oil.

"The 2005 energy bill is the latest in a string of opportunities to get on with the business of making America energy independent," says a spokeswoman for US Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas and chairman of the energy committee.

"This bill absolutely addresses dependence on foreign oil from both the demand and supply side," says John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington trade organization. "You've got to look at the facts instead of the rhetoric. Drilling in Alaska would cut imports by five percentage points."

Such measures aren't enough, critics say. Even a package of energy- saving measures unveiled by the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy would cut oil imports by only 1.6 percentage points by 2025.

If this year's energy bill doesn't do enough to reduce oil imports, it may be because, with the exception of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), it is little changed from last year's version in most major provisions, says Navin Nayak, an analyst for the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups, a consumer group in Washington. And the impact of those provisions when they were part of the 2003 energy bill showed that the bill's long-term impact on US oil consumption, production, and imports was "negligible," according to a Department of Energy analysis last year.

One key change is that this year's bill eliminates most tax incentives for alternative fuels and fuel efficiency. Last year's version devoted about 65 percent to fossil-fuel exploration and nuclear research; this year's apportions about 95 percent of tax incentives to them, leaving just 5 percent for conservation and renewable energy, Mr. Nayak says. More than $3 billion in tax incentives for renewables were dropped, according to his analysis. The production tax credit for wind, solar, and other renewable industries expires in 2006. The House bill doesn't renew it.

"Our hope is that the Senate will continue to make renewable energy a priority," says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association.

Geothermal and solar do get research incentives, but no direct tax credits. Biodiesel tax credits were approved as part of a bill last year. The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, would receive $3.2 billion in tax breaks that would let the industry write off the cost of drilling - even in cases where oil is found, according to the House's Joint Committee on Taxation. The energy bill also includes a new section entitled "Set America Free," although its focus is limited mostly to research.

Even security-minded critics worry that not enough is being done. Like President Bush, Mr. Woolsey applauds research into futuristic hydrogen-powered cars, but that won't meet today's security concerns, he says. "Our transportation systems are so locked into oil now and the existing infrastructure, that there's a serious risk of terrorist interruption of that infrastructure in ways that could be catastrophic." He worries that a single terrorist attack on, say, a large Saudi refinery could cut 10 percent of the world's current oil supply - and send prices soaring.

"Even if prices got no higher, or even came down some, sending tens of billions of dollars overseas to people determined to destroy us is crazy, no matter the price of oil," says Frank Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank.

He's not against drilling in ANWR. It's just not enough, says Mr. Gaffney, former assistant secretary of Defense under Mr. Reagan and a signatory to the Energy Future Coalition. That plan pumps money into new technologies like alternative fuels, clean-coal electric generating technology, and a better electric grid.

"I believe we as a country are going to do every single one of the things on that laundry list," Gaffney says of the EFC plan. "The only question is do we do it before we have to - or afterward? The chances are we'll have to do it far sooner than we think. We're on borrowed time as far as people seriously disrupting oil flows."

Of course, Americans have heard all this before. In the 1970s, after the first oil shocks, President Richard Nixon pitched "Project Independence," which included, like Mr. Bush's plan today, an initiative for hydrogen-powered cars. President Jimmy Carter followed with a host of emergency energy-saving moves, declaring the push to address energy the "moral equivalent of war." The US also spent billions developing a synthetic-fuels program (later canceled by Reagan as gasoline prices began dropping).

The nation responded. It is far more efficient in usingelectrical energy than it was. Refrigerators, for instance, use just a third of the power they did in the 1970s.

America's weak point remains oil, which fuels the lion's share of its cars, buses, and trucks. Few believe the US can become completely energy independent. Among those who do is Amory Lovins, chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.

A proponent of carbon-fiber cars and hybrid technology, he says a melding of the two technologies combined with tax incentives to aid Detroit could arrest and even reverse the US automobile industry's decline. But the crucial point, Mr. Lovins notes, is that the nation has within its grasp the technology to change the picture entirely - if it can find the will.

"We can save oil faster than they can sell oil," Lovins says of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. "The last time we exercised that power in the late 1970s, it broke OPEC's market power for a decade. We need to adopt a plan and do it again."

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