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Get Off Oil

1st November 2010 - Foreign Policy

Americans borrow $1 billion a day to import oil. This is a huge share of the U.S. trade deficit and a major factor in weakening the dollar. Hundreds of billions a year go to the Middle East and end up funding improvised explosive devices and Wahhabi schools, which teach hatred of other religions, the stoning of women, death to apostates and homosexuals, and the need to work toward a worldwide caliphate. It is not an accident that 8 of the 10 largest oil exporters are dictatorships or autocratic kingdoms whose rulers profit massively from oil's gigantic economic rents.

Oil also causes terrible environmental problems. Not only are its carbon emissions nearly as much as those of coal, but the so-called "aromatics" (benzene, toluene, and xylene) that constitute about one-quarter of what's in our gasoline tanks are highly carcinogenic. Careful and authoritative studies put the cost of dealing with the aromatics' damage to our health and consequently shortened life spans at well over $100 billion annually.

For too long, American politicians have said that "foreign oil" is a problem and then gone on to propose ineffective or impossibly expensive solutions. Barack Obama needs to move away from oil, period. "Drill, baby, drill" can help some with the U.S. balance of payments, but will do nothing to undermine OPEC's control of the oil market. Nor are expensive nuclear power plants or wind farms the answer -- only 2 percent of U.S. electricity comes from oil. Cap and trade? The only major environmental policy measure that Obama has seized on is possibly a useful tool, if done right, for discouraging high-carbon electricity generation -- but it has almost nothing to do with oil's use in transportation. And besides, Obama hasn't been able to get it passed by Congress -- nor will he.

Obama should not devote resources to solutions, such as hydrogen, that will take many years to develop and have high infrastructure costs. Instead, he should turn to a portfolio of steps that can move the United States off oil in the near term. Here are five things he can do now: 1) Create incentives for the large-scale production of plug-in hybrid cars and all-electric vehicles; 2) Mandate that fleet vehicles, such as city buses and some interstate trucking, be fueled with natural gas; 3) Follow Brazil's lead and move to an open-standard, flexible-fuel vehicle requirement so that alcohol fuels can compete with gasoline; 4) Require drastic efficiency increases for internal combustion engines; and 5) Encourage auto companies to move toward carbon composites, which will lighten automobiles and require smaller engines to propel them.

Even if each of these solutions reduced oil transportation demand by only about 10 percent over the next decade, Obama could shatter oil's transportation monopoly -- now about 95 percent in the United States. If the president doesn't take such steps immediately, Americans face a grim future: falling ever more heavily into debt, funding terrorism, empowering dictators, contributing to climate change, and giving themselves cancer.

R. James Woolsey, chairman of Woolsey Partners, is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.


energy-security, obama, oil