Monday, January 15, 2007

Last week, President Bush addressed the nation to describe a “way forward” in the War for the Free World and its Battle of Iraq. Next week, he will give another address, one that may ultimately prove even more decisive in determining our success in the global conflict of which the Iraq theater is but one part.

On Jan. 23, Mr. Bush is to report on the State of the Union. At the moment, it appears he is poised to make the main feature of that report his ideas for addressing what is, arguably, the most critical threat to that Union: the United States’ persistent and growing practice of purchasing vast quantities of oil from people who wish us ill.

In the same speech a year ago, the president declared America is “addicted to oil.” Now, he evidently intends to do something practical about it.

Gone will be the misplaced emphasis on “the hydrogen economy.” The promise of hydrogen remains just that — a promise. The solutions to our reliance on, at best, unstable regimes and, at worst, downright hostile ones for our energy supplies lie elsewhere. And, fortunately, they are closer at hand than hydrogen-related technologies and the infrastructure that will make them usable on a truly national basis.

The idea of obtaining more energy from off-shore and Arctic oil and gas deposits and accelerating the construction of a new generation of nuclear plants will continue to receive at least presidential lip service. But, if the president wishes to demonstrate real leadership and make tangible, near-term progress on energy security, his State of the Union address will also embrace other priorities.

Specifically, Mr. Bush will endorse key elements of bipartisan bills first introduced in the Senate and House last year. Now called the DRIVE Act, this legislation is expected to be resubmitted this Thursday by such leading lights as Sens. Joe Lieberman, Sam Brownback, Evan Bayh and Norm Coleman and Reps. Eliot Engel, Jim Saxton, Mike Ross and Jack Kingston. The proposed act focuses on the central impediment to energy security: Our transportation sector is virtually entirely powered by oil-derived products (gasoline and diesel fuels) and consumes two-thirds of the oil America uses.

This dependency means that our society and economy — inextricably tied to the free movement of people, goods and services made possible by our automobiles, busses and trucks — are at risk of grievous disruption if either of two things happen: (1) There are disruptions in the supply of oil from overseas sources and/or (2) the price of oil products goes through the roof.

Even without such untoward events, we know some of the hundreds of billions of dollars we transfer each year to various petroleum-exporting nations wind up in the hands of terrorists.

This is not simply an addiction. It is a death wish, an irresponsible invitation to disaster for America and other freedom-loving nations.

The solution is to provide something now missing in our transportation sector: vehicle and fuel choice. The former would involve affording consumers and businesses the opportunity to acquire vehicles powered not just by gasoline or diesel but by alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol. There are already some 5 million cars on America’s highways equipped with this “Flexible Fuel Vehicle” (FFV) capability. At a marginal cost of less than $150 per car, there is no reason why henceforth every vehicle sold in this country is not configured as an FFV.

To meet the increasing demand for such alternative energy, efficient production and widespread distribution of these fuels would need to be undertaken. The Vehicle and Fuel Choice bills would provide incentives to expand greatly the availability and access to such fuels.

Even more dramatic fuel savings can be achieved — both in terms of the costs and the consumption of foreign oil — if millions of Americans start driving not just fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, but FFV-capable plug-in hybrids (PIH) with 500 mile-per-gallon-of-gasoline (mpgg)performance. The latter’s batteries can be charged off the electrical grid (almost entirely powered by non-oil fuels) and operate for upwards of 20 miles without using a drop of gasoline, and for a fraction of the cost of oil-based fuels.

Another hugely promising development was unveiled by General Motors on Jan. 7: its Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid on steroids. The Volt’s battery would permit 40 miles of travel between charges — enough to allow most American drivers not to use gasoline at all. To enable this sort of performance, however, the United States must become self-reliant in another critical technology: production of advanced, high-performance lithium-ion batteries. Laying the groundwork for such an effort is another feature of the broadly supported DRIVE legislation virtually certain to become law this year.

The time has come for George W. Bush to take a page from one of the most famous addresses to the nation in our history: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address in 1961. Just as Kennedy called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” Mr. Bush must now urge our citizens to do something specific for their country — and its future safety and economic well-being: Help retool the U.S. automotive fleet on an accelerated basis, replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with new FFVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Do it not just out of self-interest. Do it for your country.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a member of the Set America Free Coalition, whose blueprint for energy security has been incorporated into the Vehicle and Fuel Choice legislation.

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