We Need a Commitment to Energy Alternatives

Published November 1, 2006

Consider this proposition: The next time you fill ‘er up at the gas station, you’ll be contributing a couple of bucks to Iran’s nuclear arms program. Or helping fund the network of fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics, mosques, and schools that foment hate of the West. Or kicking a few dollars into a pipeline that eventually end up in the hands of terrorists hoping to kill Americans.

Funding America’s Enemies

No, we don’t buy petroleum from Iran. Islamist clerics don’t pump oil. Terrorists get funding any way they can.

Still, the money you and I spend on gasoline and our demand for ever more of it push the price of petroleum ever higher, enriching oil-producing states that are our adversaries or those who claim to be our friends but where oil wealth gets passed on to Islamist fanatics.

America imports nearly 60 percent of the more than 20 million barrels, or 840 million gallons, of oil and petroleum products we use daily–half of it gasoline.

Stop griping about Exxon’s “excess profits,” and start worrying about Iran’s oil profits. Or those of Saudi Arabia, home of Wahhabism. Or revenues raked in by Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, uses oil money to stir up anti-Americanism in Latin America.

Alternative Fuel Needed

Escalating energy prices send money to people who wish us ill. That’s why we should have a Manhattan Project effort to develop an alternative to petroleum, or at least a supplement that can depress our demand for it.

If starving the treasuries of our foes is the goal, a comprehensive campaign could include drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge and coastal seas, mandating higher gas efficiency for cars, and encouraging hybrid vehicles. That could be a start on a campaign that says we as a nation are willing to do what it takes.

But it could be a false start. More oil drives down prices–and drives up demand. More efficient cars seem to encourage us to drive more.

All that means we would soon find ourselves back in the same position, helping shovel money into the furnace of anti-American hatred.

Which brings us back to alternatives to oil.

Coal Supplies Alternative

Brazil is reported to be coping well today because it responded to the 1970s oil shortages by pushing use of ethanol from sugar cane in flexible fuel vehicles, autos with engines that can run on gas or alcohol.

President Bush proposes greater use of biomass fuel as well, but his plan would only slightly more than double ethanol use from 3.4 billion gallons a year to 7.5 billion in 2012.

Writing in The American Enterprise magazine earlier this year, Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineering and research executive, cited another source for alcohol–coal, of which he says America has enough to fuel our cars with methanol for 500 years.

Obviously, shifting from petroleum to alcohol poses tremendous hurdles. Government would have to mandate all new cars be flexible fuel vehicles. Since it takes energy to make ethanol or methanol, Washington might at the start have to subsidize power for it, perhaps by building nuclear plants near coal fields or in major agricultural areas.

Coal mining raises environmental issues. Massive aid might also be needed to jumpstart the infrastructure of the new energy source.

Commitment Required

Maybe those proposals are too much. Maybe alcohol is not the answer. Perhaps a scientist somewhere has another answer. But the only way to find out is through a Manhattan Project-like effort. Past failures at energy independence are no reason not to try again in extraordinary times.

But as much as we need a Manhattan Project on energy, we won’t get it. That kind of monumental undertaking comes only from a nation on a war footing. Though, after the 9/11 attacks, the president took the nation to war, he didn’t take American society to war.

Not much in the way of sacrifice was asked of the public. No draft was activated. Taxes weren’t raised to pay for the war. Americans were mostly asked only to put up with the irritation of increased security at public places.

Indeed, far from asking for sacrifice, Bush called on Americans to, well, shop.

That was perhaps understandable given the shock 9/11 administered the economy, but it certainly didn’t instill a sense of our society gripped by the crisis of war, essential for the commitment required for any Manhattan Project.

Enemies Determined

Our enemies, on the other hand, are committed to total war. People who fly planes into buildings believe in merciless conflict.

Witness Iraq. People who cut off heads care nothing for the Geneva Convention. They seek victory at any cost. Witness Hezbollah using civilians as human shields.

Moves toward peace are seen as weakness; Israel withdraws from Lebanon only to be plunged into war by terrorists. Islamist clerics who rail endlessly about the sins of the West and exalt martyrdom are dedicated to perpetual jihad.

The solution to high energy prices we hear touted most often is that of free markets. In ordinary times, that’s the only approach. But a commitment to markets shouldn’t turn into something akin to a suicide pact.

A society enriches its foes at its own peril.

Steven Huntley ([email protected]) is a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. This article was first published in the August 4 Chicago Sun-Times, and is reprinted with permission.