Launching a war against oil dependence

 

This man ran the CIA, fought the cold war and averted nuclear Armag eddon. Now, he says that if you want to beat bin Laden, buy a Prius, writes Ben Oliver.

ROBERT JAMES Woolsey Jr - Jim to his friends - is not your typical Prius driver. Educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale, he was facing down the Russians in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the late 1960s before he was out of his twenties.

He held a series of senior Washington posts; the walls of his office bear signed photographs and messages of thanks from every American president since Nixon. In 1993, Bill Clinton made him his director of Central Intelligence, giving him control of the CIA's $30 billion annual budget and its network of tens of thousands of spies, and a brief to run covert operations against America's enemies, whoever and wherever they might be. His diaries must read like a Tom Clancy novel.

Since he stepped down, he has become one of Washington's most hawkish figures, agitating early for the removal of Saddam Hussein, pointing the finger at Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and calling for the bombing of Syria. Woolsey ought to have the Stars and Stripes emblazoned across the hood of his Hummer, but instead he drives a Prius, and he says that if you live in a country dependent on imported oil, it is your patriotic duty to do the same.

His argument is simple: that it is a bad thing for transport to depend on oil when the great majority of that oil lies in volatile parts of the world whose governments are hostile to the West. More controversially, he argues that by making the Middle East so wealthy, we are indirectly subsidising terror; for Woolsey, the cash register in your local petrol station is a collecting-tin for al-Qaeda. "We're paying for both sides in this war and that is not a good long-term strategy," he says. "I have a bumper sticker on the back of my Prius which reads, 'bin Laden hates this car'."

Woolsey is the best-known proponent of this school of thought - that pumping so much petrol makes America less free - and a leading light in several organisations that seek to promote it. It means this hard-headed cold war warrior ends up sharing a platform with a bizarre assortment of activists who share his desire to cut our use of fossil fuels, but for very different reasons; environmentalists, most obviously.

Many of Woolsey's co-campaigners disagree violently with his other beliefs. But together, they are creating a radical shift in American opinion, and it is Woolsey's economic security argument that resonates most strongly with the public. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of Americans considered buying a more fuel-efficient car to be patriotic.

When public opinion moves, big business moves with it. When General Motors launched its E-Flex hybrid technology, due to go on sale in 2010 in the Chevrolet Volt, Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz sold it not on its environmental benefits, but on its ability to cut America's addiction to oil. And now, the same arguments are being heard in Europe; European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso spoke specifically of the danger to our economic security of being dependent on imported oil when he launched the EU's proposed integrated energy policy last year.

Asked to compare the threat to our general wealth and happiness to that of the Soviets, Woolsey is clear. "The difference between this and the cold war is that the Soviets were a stodgy, bureaucratic and fairly cautious totalitarian power and resisted direct military confrontation with us.

"We could contain and deter them and we did, and eventually their system collapsed. The current situation among oil exporters in the Middle East and elsewhere is more chaotic. It's hard to figure out how to deter and contain Iranians who have threatened the destruction of Israel, presumably with nuclear weapons, and don't seem to care if there was retaliation against them. If you're that fanatical, you create a very unpredictable situation." So how bad could it be? "The heart of the matter is that although we have other vulnerabilities in our infrastructure - the electricity grid needs changes made, for example - those things are at least under the national control of each country.

"The oil infrastructure is the only one that is worldwide and much of it is located in the extremely volatile Persian Gulf, and as a result, you could have a terrorist attack that could take six or seven million barrels a day offline for a year and send prices well over $200 a barrel.

"There isn't any other commodity like that. Transportation is 97 per cent dependent on oil and so much is dependent on transportation, and that means our Western, oil-importing society has an Achilles' heel sitting out there in the most volatile part of the world. We could wake up and find that overnight, the costs of transportation have doubled. That's a shock for the economy, but a disaster for people who have to drive places for a living and don't have much money."

Woolsey doesn't believe we can wait for a hydrogen infrastructure to develop and fuel cells to become practical and affordable. He believes the answer is already here in plug-in hybrids, which can be charged overnight to give a range of up to 40 miles on electricity alone, covering the needs of 78 per cent of drivers on GM's figures, with a conventional engine as back-up.

Woolsey believes there should be tax breaks for the companies developing these technologies and the customers who buy them, and he is an enthusiastic advocate of cellulosic ethanol - a method of producing the petrol replacement which is still being developed, but which could allow us to make it in much greater quantities from a much wider range of plants and waste, rendering the food-versus-fuel debate, currently raging, irrelevant.

By combining plug-ins with flex-fuel engines able to run on a high proportion of ethanol, Woolsey believes that you can quickly and radically reduce the demand for oil. GM says that its new E-flex plug-in technology has a total range of over 600 miles. It will cover 40 miles solely on electricity. Drive 60 miles - with the petrol engine helping for the last 20 of your journey - and you'll get an average of 150mpg.

But run that engine on E85 - 15 per cent petrol and 85 per cent ethanol - and Woolsey points out that the miles per gallon of gasoline, or what he terms mpg, skyrockets.

"Once [plug-in hybrids] start showing up in dealer's showrooms and once people realise that by driving 20 or 40 miles a day on electricity, they are driving on fuel that is one-tenth to one-fifth the cost of even our relatively inexpensive gasoline over here. I think you'll see people standing in a line outside GM dealerships."

Woolsey doesn't believe that battery development will take shape in the "very few years", but he warns that government intervention, such as the EU's proposed legislation to limit car-maker's corporate average CO2 emissions, could prove a dangerous distraction.

"Cars aren't the problem. The problem is the fuel. A simple carbon cap or tax doesn't make a big difference. We assume that we'll mainly be driving with petrol or diesel engines so we focus on how to wring out another one or two miles per gallon . . . we should be dead; we should be asking how we replace petrol altogether, and we shouldn't tie the car manufacturers down like Gulliver."

Until then, Woolsey is happy to go on sharing platforms with what he terms "a coalition of the tree-huggers, the do-gooders, the sodbusters, the evangelicals, the cheap hawks and the venture capitalists, and I'd add Willie Nelson in there too.

But does he have any time for the environmentalist's arguments?

"Some of us are in more than one group. They are just different kinds of threat. If you're a three-pack-a-day smoker and you're looking out of your bedroom window having a cigarette and you see a burglar climbing into your basement carrying a gun, you have two problems not one.

"You can't solve all your problems by saying I ought to stop smoking. Yes you should, but you also have to drop a flower pot on the burglar's head or call the police or something. Conversely if you just deal with the burglar and keep smoking, you're not going to be around for a long time.

"Our European friends tend to focus on the three packs a day, and we focus a little more on the burglar, but it's pretty stupid not to deal with both."