Fighting Terror with Hypercars

April 13, 2007 at 1:31 pm
Contributed by: Chris


Here is my latest for Energy and Capital, about the intense lobbying for alternative vehicle designs (“hypercars”) and alternative liquid fuels, by a slew of former statesmen and CIA heads. These security hawks are all about renewable energy. Since I now find myself allied with some members of the neo-con rogues gallery, I think it’s a fascinating movement…especially as contrasted with the foot-dragging approach of the administration.

Fighting Terror with Hypercars


By Chris Nelder

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the way so many former CIA and State Department officials, once freed from their jobs, have gone to work lobbying for energy security.

While on the government payroll they mostly behaved like good soldiers, stuck to their talking points and didn’t say anything that might upset the apple cart.

But once out on their own, they’ve been blunt about how energy policy has everything to do with a sound national security strategy and a successful foreign policy.

Among them are former CIA heads James Schlesinger and John Deutch and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

But the most outspoken of these ex-officials is James Woolsey, former director of the CIA under President Clinton. He’s been traveling the world since 9/11 to champion renewable energy and educate the public about the intimate relationship between oil dependence and terrorism. (He also walks the talk, driving a hybrid and powering his farm with solar.)

He has held leadership roles in two nonpartisan groups, the Energy Future Coalition and the National Commission on Energy Policy, comprising experts in business, labor, the environment and national security, which are actively lobbying to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and increase conservation, fuel economy and renewable energy.

Back in December, I wrote about another of his projects, chairing a special task force on energy for the Council on Foreign Relations, an extremely influential think tank. The report that group produced, "National Security Consequences of Oil Dependency," was startlingly frank about the futility of seeking energy independence, the absolute necessity of energy conservation, and the pressing need for investment in R&D for alternative energy and next-generation vehicles.

In other words, it was a prescription for facing the peak oil challenge.

So it was with great interest that I recently read a policy paper from 2005 by Woolsey and Shultz titled "Oil and Security," which they published via their antiterrorism lobbying group, the Committee on the Present Danger. I found it to be a remarkably clear-headed assessment both of our oil addiction and our best options going forward.

First, it is candid about recognizing that our whole transportation infrastructure is completely wedded to oil-based products, and that only alternatives that can work with that infrastructure are tenable and worth pursuing. Hydrogen, for example, would need an entirely new infrastructure, from the source all the way to the destination, so it’s written off as impractical – a sound bit of analysis that has been heard all too little amid the clamor of pie-in-the-sky promises about "the hydrogen economy."

It also offers a clear-eyed picture of global oil supply. It nimbly sidesteps the phrase "peak oil," but admits that demand growth from China and India, combined with the fact that enhanced oil recovery and deepwater drilling cannot change the basic oil production curve, means that we will continue to be – quite literally – over a barrel and beholden to Middle East oil producers who sit atop most of the world’s remaining oil reserves.

And it pulls no punches about how the money we spend on oil directly fills the coffers of the terrorist groups we’re fighting. To me, this is a hugely significant, if obvious, admission. None of that "they hate us because we’re free" nonsense for these national security professionals. They point out that the U.S. borrows about $13 billion per week, principally from Asian states, to finance its debt-fuelled consumption, and that $2-3 billion per week of that is just to pay for imported oil.

That’s right: two to three billion per week, just for oil, and some of it goes directly to those who strap explosives to themselves and set them off in public places from Baghdad to Jakarta.

I am in full agreement with Shultz and Woolsey that I’d much rather be spending that money at home on next-generation transportation technologies.

They propose several objectives for developing a sound national energy policy:

Improve fuel economy. In Europe, the average economy of private vehicles is 42 mpg, nearly double the U.S.’s 24 mpg, largely due to their reliance on efficient, next-generation, clean-burning diesel engines. They also see a bright future for hybrid cars (as do we!). And they point to the work done by Amory Lovins et al. at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which demonstrated that by building car bodies out of super-strong and super-lightweight carbon fiber instead of metal, with advanced engine designs and aerodynamic contours (so-called "hypercars"), we could double the efficiency of today’s hybrids, achieving 100 mpg or better.

Encourage cellulosic ethanol. They don’t pay any attention to corn-based ethanol in this paper, perhaps because they know that it runs quickly into competition for food production and has a very low EROI. They believe that biofuels will play a role, but probably a minor one. And they believe (quite correctly, I think) that liquid fuels produced from coal, tar sands, or oil shale will remain bit players in the overall fuel mix. But they project that at least half of the U.S.’s oil demand could be met by cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass grown on unused land in the "Conservation Reserve Program" soil bank, and that the fuel could be produced for as little as 67 to 77 cents a gallon when the industry is mature.

Push for plug-in hybrids (PEHV). Since most personal vehicle trips are under six miles, and since driving a car on batteries charged by grid power is less than half the price of driving on a tank of gasoline, hybrid cars with enhanced battery packs that can be charged up overnight from the grid could put a major dent in our liquid fuel demand. Accordingly, Shultz and Woolsey would make R&D on battery technology a top priority, as well as increased investment in the grid to make it more reliable and secure.

With the contribution of modern diesels, flexible-fuel vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, they believe that we could achieve a substantial reduction in our oil imports–and do it fairly quickly.

And by putting some of these technologies together, they say, à la Lovins’s "hypercars," "the reduction could be stunning." For example, a PHEV with next-generation lithium batteries, constructed with carbon fiber, charged overnight from the grid (preferably from domestically generated renewable energy), and running on E-85 cellulosic ethanol or biodiesel, could squeeze 1,000 mpg from the petroleum it uses.

Stunning indeed!

Seeing these bold and sweeping proposals, I’m reminded of one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on television. It was a C-SPAN broadcast in 2005 of a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee on the proposed takeover of Unocal by China Oil. Woolsey testified before the committee on a panel that included prominent neo-con Frank Gaffney and Richard D’Amato of the U.S.-China Security Review Commission.

It was some of the most unflinching, candid talk about energy, peak oil, security, trade deficits and China that I’ve ever heard from anyone in the U.S. government. Their top recommendation? To heavily invest U.S. tax dollars in renewable energy production in China, because they have a chance to build their burgeoning economy on renewables from the beginning, whereas we are trapped by our fossil-fueled infrastructure and they will only compete with us for those diminishing resources.

Woolsey, Shultz, Schlesinger, Deutch and Gaffney are all veterans of government, each of them having spent several decades in a variety of key roles under both Republican and Democratic administrations. And all are old friends and colleagues of other prominent neo-con defense hawks such as Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle.

I never thought I’d find myself aligned with the likes of them, but when it comes to peak oil, I’m allied with anybody who has real solutions to offer. And these solutions are real.

And if heavy hitters like these guys thought this way but kept quiet while they were still taking a paycheck from Uncle Sam, what other unknown allies might we have in government today? Might they not be emboldened by the recent GAO report admitting that peak oil is a serious threat?

Until next time,

chris signature

– Chris

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