How to meet the ‘other’ energy challenge

How to meet the ‘other’ energy challenge

Last month, President Obama presented a seminal speech on what the news media and the White House itself have termed “climate change” and “carbon control.” Whether you agree or disagree with what the president said and with the measures he announced, it is surprising that not a single word was said in that speech about how we can address the other half of the energy problem: the world’s addiction to oil. Oil helps fund the Middle East arms race and terrorism; enables Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions; finances the ambitions of despots; and draws Russia, the EU, China, and the United States into endless tension over the region. And, while climate change may lead to future destruction, Middle Eastern oil already has been the fuel for conflict, death, and destruction, and remains so today.

For the unsophisticated, averting climate change and reducing oil dependency may seem like two sides of the same coin, and both may seem subject to the same solutions. But, the relationship is actually far more complex. While solutions that reduce oil dependency will often also reduce greenhouse emissions, the converse is not necessarily the case. For example, because oil is hardly ever used for producing electricity, limiting power plant emissions and improving appliance efficiency — as the president proposed in his speech — will do nothing to reduce our dependence on oil. For much the same reason, switching from coal to natural gas or using more solar, wind, geothermal, natural gas, and nuclear energy (changes the president applauded) can do nothing to reduce our consumption of oil. Since it is transportation that consumes the vast majority of the oil we use, what are needed are carefully targeted strategies for reducing petroleum-based fuel in cars, trucks, and airplanes. It is these targeted strategies on oil that were missing from the proposals that the president set forth.

This issue of dependency on oil is so important that Israel has established a special branch in the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate its actions on the problem and to work with the rest of the industrialized world to find solutions to it. It established a 400 million shekel (over $100 million) fund to stimulate investment in companies that can produce substitutes for oil-based transportation fuels. The United States, too, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars finding solutions to the problem, including a $375 million research program at the Department of Energy to produce biofuels from feedstocks other than corn — such as algae or cellulosic waste.

Coincidentally, one of our own MetroWest leaders, Jack Halpern, has been a world leader in the effort to reduce the world’s dependence on imported oil. As far back as 2002, Jack financed a series of newspaper ads urging us to buy hybrid cars. In 2007 he led the successful effort to pass the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act to establish binational collaboration in this field. And, most recently, as the cofounder and president of The Israel Energy Partnership, Jack was responsible for bringing Israel’s top biofuels researchers to the United States to confer with their American counterparts and build collaboration in bioenergy between the two countries. The U.S.-Israel Bio-Energy Challenge was supported by the Prime Minister’s Office, by Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, and by five U.S. agencies (Energy, Agriculture, the Navy, Air Force, and FAA).

It is praiseworthy that the White House also was a supporter of this effort, helping bring the federal agencies together and then holding a formal briefing for the Israeli delegation. We agree with the president that “we need to act” in order to leave our children a cleaner, safer, more stable world. In order to do so, however, we need to reduce America’s and the world’s dependence on oil.

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