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Hybrid coalition

Energy | A new Congress adds momentum to an odd alliance of conservative "cheap hawks" and liberal "tree huggers"

Issue: "The surge is on," Feb. 3, 2007

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey owns a Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, with a bumper sticker on the back that reads, "Bin Laden hates this car."

His car makes a visual aid for his cause: that using less gasoline means Islamic terrorists and their supporting regimes such as Iran have less oil money to buy arms and explosives. He's also part of the Set America Free Coalition, a group that boasts "tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, cheap hawks, and evangelicals . . . and Willie Nelson."

The cheap hawks are the standouts in this motley crowd-pro-defense Washington insiders like Woolsey, Center for Security Policy president and columnist Frank Gaffney, and Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes. For the sake of fighting terrorists, they have made common cause with liberal environmentalists in advocating alternative fuels for energy independence.

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The coalition is not new, having formed two years ago and steadily lobbied Congress for laws to reduce U.S. oil consumption since then. But with Democrats now in control of Congress, the energy-independence-for-national-security argument is strangely gaining momentum in tandem with the Democrats' emphasis on the environment.

President Bush is the latest to jump on board. A year after proclaiming that America is "addicted to oil," he said in his Jan. 23 State of the Union speech that U.S. oil consumption "leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy."

To fight back, he proposed slashing gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next decade and replacing oil with 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017. The goal is a flying leap from the 4 billion a year currently mandated.

The oil-reduction target mirrors what Woolsey and company have recommended. But after 30 years of trying and failing to make bio-fuels affordable, what makes them a good substitute now? Woolsey says that two things have changed: technology and cheap electricity.

New technology has brought cellulosic bio-fuels. These fuels use the cellulose in plant matter such as trees, grasses, and even wood chips to produce ethanol. They reduce reliance on corn for ethanol, which swallows more fossil fuels and more land. Producing cellulosic ethanol , according to Woolsey, is getting cheaper, on a trend toward 70 cents a gallon.

The other innovation that could help boost alternative fuels, Woolsey said, is a potential teaming up between utility companies and manufacturers of hybrid cars. If car manufacturers adopt higher-density, more powerful batteries, the kind used in electronics, then utilities are likely to be more interested in selling off-peak electricity for these "plug-in" hybrids.

"The real kick-off into widespread interest is just now beginning," Woolsey told WORLD. A plug-in could get 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, and if it can use an alternative fuel with 85 percent ethanol, that figure could be 500. The gas savings comes from the grid-charged battery-25 to 30 miles a day purely on electricity. With that, he said, it's not hard to see why the energy-independence coalition also includes consumers, car makers, and utilities.

In the 1980s, when OPEC increased its production and drove down oil prices, it bankrupted federally funded Synfuels, which manufactured alternative fuels. Now, Woolsey argues, electricity can act as a cushion because OPEC producers could do little to stanch Americans' off-peak use of it. That, he believes, will encourage investment in alternative fuels without a need for federal subsidies.

Last year Woolsey rode around Washington with lawmakers in a car emblazoned with the figure "100 MPG" on its sides. He has driven one, too, and says it had "marvelous acceleration."

The problem now is that the benefits on saving energy could still be far off. Big automakers like General Motors and Toyota have prototypes of plug-in hybrids, but they are not ready for mass production. Nor have the crucial batteries for the cars been designed yet. Nonetheless, Ford unveiled the Edge last month, a $2 million experimental plug-in funded partly by the Department of Energy.

Ben Lieberman, an energy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said replacing oil consumption with electricity is a good idea, but one that depends on how economically viable the plug-in becomes. Cellulosic ethanol faces similar problems, he said, and would be expensive unless it overcomes technological and economic hurdles. "Second-rate fuels and second-rate vehicles aren't really going to solve anything," he said.

Other analysts are skeptical about the need for energy independence. Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, is one of the skeptics. "Most national security analysts who worry about energy independence don't understand enough about oil markets to realize their arguments are totally groundless," he told WORLD.

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