Tuesday, December 9, 2008


To paraphrase the Bard, there is a road-trip in the life of a nation when everybody decides to get on-board, whether or not they know or like the destination.

With the successful humiliation of the formerly high-flying executives of the formerly Big Three U.S. car makers (“the autos”) - who were forced to drive hybrids from Detroit to Washington to obtain a multi-billion dollar rescue package from Congress, it seems we have reached such a moment.

Faced with alarming new unemployment numbers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly dropped her objections to a deal that would free up $15 billion approved earlier this year for the autos. Gone will be the condition that Detroit use the money to retool so as to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. Based upon the auto executives’ testimony last week, the money will be gone almost immediately, as well. My guess is that so too will be the Big Three’s top executives.

If we are to allow a massive raid on the Treasury in the hope of providing a speed-bump on the certain road to reorganization and downsizing of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the least we can do is get for the country something of lasting value in exchange. Here’s a modest proposal: Set America free from its enslaving addiction to oil.

As Robert Zubrin, author of “Energy Victory” has observed, what is really “addicted to oil” are our cars. The vast majority have to use gasoline or diesel fuel derived from petroleum, the preponderance of which must be imported from places that are, at best unstable and at worst downright hostile to us.

Perpetuating this arrangement would only translate into more money in the hands of governments like Saudi Arabia’s, which exploits it to wage what Robert Spencer calls “stealth jihad” against the Free World; like Iran’s, which exploits it to build nuclear-armed ballistic missiles with which to threaten us, Israel and its neighbors; and like Venezuela’s, which exploits it to destabilize our hemisphere, notably by facilitating the strategic penetration of Latin America by Russia, China and Islamist terror organizations.

Fortunately, we have a ready alternative. By making new cars sold in America capable of running not only on gasoline but on ethanol or methanol, we can offer consumers fuel choice and wean ourselves from our present, dangerous dependency on foreign oil. Such cars are called Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs). Detroit knows how to make them cost-effectively (for less than an extra $100 per car): There are more than 6 million of its FFVs on America’s highways now and many millions more that it has sold to Brazil where they are required.

As it happens, even before their present crisis, the Big Three had already agreed to ramp up production of Flexible Fuel Vehicles, pledging to make 50 percent of their new cars FFVs by 2012. All it takes is a chip in the engine with the algorithm needed to adjust the burn rate in response to the mix of fuels in the tank, and some corrosion-resistant fittings in the fuel line.

Last summer, bipartisan groups of legislators in both the Senate and the House introduced what is known as the “Open Fuel Standard Act of 2008” (S. 3303 and H.R. 6559, respectively). It would simply codify the U.S. automakers’ existing commitment to manufacture FFVs, require they be able to burn methanol as well as ethanol (and, of course, gasoline) and set a higher goal for 2015, namely that 80 percent of new cars be FFVs.

Importantly, the Open Fuel Standard (OFS) would apply to all car-makers - foreign as well as domestic. This would level the proverbial playing field, although it would effectively translate into at least a short-term competitive advantage for Detroit, as its rivals have not produced FFVs for the U.S. market.

A further, compelling argument for integrating the OFS into this week’s rescue package is that, were America to adopt such a requirement here at home, it would amount to a global standard. Since our market is so huge, production efficiencies will dictate that the FFV feature also be integrated into cars intended for sale elsewhere. As a result, about 100 countries around the world will be able to “grow” their own fuel (using sources such as biomass, sugar cane, algae, kudzu, coal, wood pulp, etc.)

By creating such an immense market, the demand for alternative fuels capable of cost-effectively competing with gasoline - even at its present, much-diminished price, to say nothing of what will almost certainly be higher ones in the future - will grow dramatically. The free market thus created in place of that dominated by the monopolistic OPEC oil cartel will respond by offering alcohol-based ethanol and methanol in large quantities.

The effect will be, as energy guru Anne Korin says, to transform oil from a strategic commodity into just another product - in much the same way that salt has ceased to be so vital that nations went to war over it.

If Congress wants the American people along on its current road-trip with the autos, it had better have something to show for the ride other than throwing good money after bad. Adopting an Open Fuel Standard as part of the rescue package this week - and, thereby, helping to set America free from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries - would be a lasting achievement on the path we must take to energy security.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security and a founding member of the Set America Free Coalition (www.SetAmericaFree.org).

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