Jewish Journal


June 30, 2010

Oil as a Jewish Issue


The greatest Jewish issue of our time is unfolding not in Gaza or Washington or our own communities, but in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a direct line between the flotilla of propaganda that took to the Mediterranean at the behest of Hamas and the floating oil that has poisoned the Gulf of Mexico at the hands of BP.

The link is, of course, our dependence on this 19th century fuel source.

Because we will still pay a premium for the stuff, companies will extract it with reckless disregard for the consequences; government regulators will cheerlead their recklessness; foreign nations will channel our endless gusher of cash into funding for despots and terrorists; and a grateful, thirsty nation will go on gulping it down, pausing every few years to wring its hands when the true underlying costs of the pump price are painfully revealed.

And here’s the single most frustrating thing about this crisis: We all agree on the solution.

Left and right, religious and secular, socialist and capitalist, Democrat and Republican, The Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones: There is a broad, deep consensus around the need to reduce or end our dependency on oil.

The environmental consequences have been evident for years, from pollution to spills to the game-ending threat of climate change.

The political consequences are now just as apparent. In 2005, Saudi Arabia made $160 billion off its oil exports and sent billions abroad to fund the most radical and militant form of Islam, Wahhabi.

“The underlying beliefs that are being taught around the world in those Wahhabi institutions are essentially al-Qaeda beliefs,” former CIA Director James Woolsey writes. “The result is that the war on terror is the only war the United States has fought, with the obvious exception of the Civil War, in which we pay for both sides.”

On “Meet the Press” June 27, David Gregory asked Thomas Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Afghan expert, to sum up how the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan will end.

“I don’t think it does,” Ricks said. “I think we have landed in the middle of the Middle East, for better or worse, in a way that none of us expected us to. I think the war in Afghanistan was made much worse by the distracting war in Iraq, which never should have happened. But we are dealing with phenomena in the Middle East that are going to be crucial to this country as long as we’re dependent on Middle East oil. So the best exit strategy I can think of is to emphasize alternative fuels.”

The same goes for money that flows from Iranian oil fields directly into the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas. To see who is supporting Israel’s enemies, look in the mirror.

True, we don’t buy our oil from Iran. But the stuff is a fungible commodity: As long as the demand is high, the price is high, and demand, thanks to developing economies in India and China, is growing.

So reducing our demand is important but not enough: We must work to replace oil. Woolsey and Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, have compared this to Napoleon’s push to find a technology that would replace salt. For thousands of years salt’s key importance as a food preservative made it a strategic commodity: Wars were fought, fortunes built and lives lost over it. Napoleon launched a competition to do away with it, and the result was canning. Overnight, the value of salt plummeted.

Because it takes years to replace a country’s automobile fleet, Korin sees plug-in hybrids, combined with flex-fuels combustion engines, as the quickest way to reduce oil’s utility.

She and Israeli energy expert Gal Luft want Jewish groups to push Congress to pass legislation mandating that all cars produced in the United States allow engines to run on a variety of fuels, rather than just oil. The cost to car manufacturers of such a small innovation is about $100 per car. The result would be about 50 million more cars on the road that could run on nonpetroleum fuel in three years’ time.

That’s a good start. And Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who has been prophesying and number-crunching this problem since the early 1970s, points out that there are even more quick replacements available through co-generation, efficiency and conservation. Some 28 percent of the electricity we generate is lost through waste heat, Lovins writes in his energy vision, “Reinventing Fire.”

But the deeper fix must come from technology that makes oil valueless.

“Our experience convinces us that the world is short not of oil but of innovation, not of gas but of gumption, not of coal but of courage,” Lovins writes.

In Israel, 7,000 miles from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP doesn’t stand for British Petroleum, it stands for a Better Place. That’s the innovative company founded by two Israelis that seeks to replace the internal combustion engine with a grid of battery-powered smart cars. It is far along: Last week, a group of American Jewish Committee leaders from Los Angeles actually got to test drive a Better Place prototype near Tel Aviv.

For Israel to emerge as the leader in this field makes sense on so many levels: As Lovins pointed out to me almost a decade ago, no other country has as much high-tech experience, as good an infrastructure for building hardware quickly, as compact a market and as much obvious self-interest in crippling oil’s monopoly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of launching a half-billion-dollar fund that will spur innovation in alternative fuels. This is an effort we all must support, an effort as important and as immediate as a war — and one Israel could win on behalf of the whole world.

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