If there is one consensus issue that unites an increasingly frayed American Jewish community — and is also overwhelmingly supported in both Jerusalem and Washington — it is the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and energy, particularly from Iran and OPEC.
But the gap between recognition of the problem and active efforts to solve it is frustratingly wide, even as the vast oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominates the headlines and demands our attention.
After a decade of false hopes, like the belief that a conquered Iraq would solve our oil problems (when in fact the country produces less oil today than when Saddam Hussein was in power), there is wide agreement that the U.S. is “dangerously dependent on oil, and our way of life is unsustainable,” says Gal Luft, a leading expert of the energy independence movement. He notes that the discussion now is focused on how best to cope with the crisis, which he describes as not just environmental or economic, but rather a matter of national security.
“You can’t solve the problem as long as you put cars on the road that only run on oil,” according to Luft, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. He is also the author, with his colleague, Anne Korin, of “Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice,” a 2009 book that compares the need to end the oil monopoly with the centuries-old effort to end the monopoly that salt once enjoyed over food preservation.
Luft and Korin argue the case for making oil just one of many energy options, as a way to end our energy dependence, improve our economy and defeat radical Islam.
The first step to solving the current stranglehold, according to Luft, is fairly simple and straightforward: have Congress pass legislation mandating that all cars produced in the U.S. allow engines to run on a variety of fuels rather than just oil.
Such a move, says Luft, would help “strip oil of its strategic status” and would cost car manufacturers only about $100 per car. Within three years, with more than 50 million of these flexible gas cars on the road, he estimates that the car industry, though reluctant to institute change, would have to adjust to accommodate the new reality, just as it did — also reluctantly — to introduce now-mandatory features like seat belts and air bags.
“I see the role of government as breaking monopolies, not enabling them,” says Luft, who points out that the current mandate allows an oil monopoly for cars, which is just what OPEC wants.
And he argues that if Congress can step in, as it did last year, to give citizens a choice on television reception, it certainly should act to advance an energy strategy that would ease the grip of countries exporting terrorism as a result of their great oil wealth.
“I am in this business because it is essential for the survival of the Jewish people,” says Luft, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces with a doctorate in strategic studies from Johns Hopkins University.
“I’m not in it for climate change or environmental issues,” but because the current geopolitical situation results in an “existential threat to Israel and the civilized world.”
But he warns that the issue of energy independence is complex, and that even the organized Jewish community, as keenly aware as it is of the dangers of Iran and the Arab oil monopoly, has not grasped the issue sufficiently.
The Jewish world’s involvement has been “quite disappointing” because it has done little to advance the issue beyond slogans and ads, Luft charges.
He points to an advertisement that appeared in The Jewish Week this past week, and has been published in The New York Times and other major publications. The ad urged the end of America’s reliance on foreign oil as a way of stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons and funding terror.
According to Luft, the overall message is on target, asserting that “a comprehensive energy strategy that cuts our addiction to foreign oil … is absolutely vital to our national security, to Israel’s safety and to the fight against terrorism.”
But the ad (see www.dontfundterror.org), sponsored by 17 major Jewish organizations, advocates a petition urging Americans to address climate change as a means of hurting Iran economically.
“Unfortunately,” Luft wrote in a letter to the Jewish groups, “the link between climate security and energy security is more tenuous than one may think, and the assertion that climate policy can somehow weaken Iran or even address U.S. oil dependence is erroneous. Energy security and greenhouse gas reduction have some complementarities, but there are even more tradeoffs between them. It is incorrect to contend that we may be able to achieve both reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and improvement in energy security with one strike. In fact, too much emphasis on one could compromise the other. More importantly, not only would the proposed climate legislation have no impact on America’s oil dependence, it would actually strengthen Iran both strategically and economically.”
His letter concludes: “If stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the motivation behind your organization’s endorsement of the ad, the current climate legislation will not address this threat, rather the opposite.”
The response from the Jewish groups? “One thanked me for the clarification,” Luft says, “three said they had nothing to do with the text, that they just signed on because they were asked to and that they do not support the climate legislation. Most people conveniently ignored” the letter.
Luft says Jewish organizations are more comfortable dealing with foreign policy issues than domestic ones, and find the energy situation complicated and nuanced. Very little Jewish philanthropic money has gone into energy independence, and few Jewish organizations focus on energy security, he adds, citing the American Jewish Committee as a welcome exception.
“Most Jewish groups say they’re in favor of everything” aimed at reducing energy dependence “because they don’t want to upset anyone.”
But that’s not helpful, insists Luft. And he charges that many politicians and government officials, including President Obama, lag behind on up-to-date information or conflate talk of climate change, fossil fuel, coal, nuclear and solar power with energy security.
“They talk of our dependence on oil and then slide into discussion of fossil fuels,” Luft says, “as if we’re in the 1970s.”
Such arguments are “intellectually dishonest” and designed to appeal to environmental activists, he asserts.
“We have an oil dependency problem” and need open fuel standards, but “that has nothing to do with global warming. It’s a game politicians like to play.”
Luft says electric cars are a promising but long-term solution, decades away.
When we spoke the other day, he was in Israel, meeting with a “very attentive and supportive” minister of energy and infrastructure, Uzi Landau, and seeking to convince government leaders to pursue new levels of cooperation internationally, especially with China and India.
Luft points out that one of three people in the world are from those two countries, both of which want to be less dependent on others for energy.
He has little hope of Israel making progress with Europe. But the fact that the Gaza flotilla blockade story was hardly covered in the Chinese and Indian press, he said, indicates how alliances can be forged based on mutual interest.
Israel’s recent discovery of natural gas under the Mediterranean gives it energy security, and could produce an economic boon if Jerusalem becomes an exporter of gas to Asia and Europe.
In the meantime, Luft and his colleagues continue to wage an education campaign at home, with an emphasis on Congressional legislation.
They face a resistant auto industry, “and a lot of ignorance,” he says, but he is determined to keep plugging away.
“It’s a bit like trying to break out of prison with just a spoon,” he notes wryly. “You need to do it every day, with a full spoon.”
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