Facing America's Energy Challenge

Republican presidential hopeful Arizona Sen. John McCain speaks at the Hudson Institute's New York Briefing Council, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
This column was written by Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

America's dependency on foreign oil is a major strategic vulnerability for our nation. One element in al Qaeda's war against us is to target the U.S. economy by driving up the price of oil in the hope that severe recession and higher inflation will follow. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists have spoken many times about the need to "mount … operations accordingly" in order to hit energy supply points in the Middle East and other regions to spike oil prices. Moreover, while most of the world's known reserves are in the Persian Gulf, oil supplies are no more secure elsewhere on the globe. In Russia and Venezuela, Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez have rolled back democracy and utilized oil and gas as foreign policy weapons. Nigerian supplies - our fifth-largest supplier - are endangered by internal strife. Oil's availability is uncertain and its price at the mercy of countries where our values aren't typically shared and our interests aren't their first priority.

We must not leave the "lifeblood" of America's economy in the hands of foreign cartels, or bet our future on a commodity located in countries in which authoritarians repress their people, and terrorists find their main support. Terrorists understand the seriousness of our vulnerability. A little over a year ago, a suicide attack at a major Saudi Arabian oil refinery came close to disabling its target. Had the attack succeeded, some price experts speculated that it would have driven the price of oil above $150 dollars a barrel and kept it extremely high for some time.

The flow of oil has many chokepoints - pipelines, refineries, transit routes, and terminals - most of which are outside our jurisdiction and control. Our enemies understand the effects on America of a significant disruption in supply - a crippled transportation system, gasoline too expensive for many Americans to purchase, and businesses closed. As we sacrifice blood and treasure, some of our gas dollars flow to the fanatics who build the bombs, hatch the plots and carry out attacks on our soldiers and citizens. Iran made over $45 billion from oil sales in 2005, and it is the number one state sponsor of terrorism.

The transfer of American wealth to the Middle East helps sustain the conditions on which terrorists prey. Some of the most oil-rich nations are also the most stagnant societies on earth. As long as petro-dollars flow freely to them, these regimes have little incentive to open their politics and economies so that all their people may benefit from their countries' natural wealth. The Middle East's example is spreading to our own hemisphere. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is using his country's oil revenues to establish a dictatorship, bully his neighbors and succeed Castro as Latin America's leading antagonist of the United States.

National security depends on energy security, which we cannot achieve if we remain so dependent on imported oil from Middle Eastern governments who support or foment, by their own inattention and inequities, the rise of terrorists or on swaggering demagogues and would be dictators in our hemisphere. Additionally, by mid-century there will be three-and-a-half billion cars worldwide - over four times the number today. As world demand for oil soars, higher prices, severe economic volatility, and heightened international tensions follow. These unpredictable forces could seriously circumscribe our future if we let them.

As president, I won't let that happen.

I'll implement an energy plan that won't be another grab bag of handouts, a full employment act for lobbyists, nor another round of tax breaks and other subsidies to big oil. It will recognize the fundamental truth that our oil problem is an automobile fuel problem and break the dominance of oil in our transportation sector just as we diversified away from oil use in electric power generation 30 years ago.

America's electricity production is, for the most part, petroleum free, and the existing electric-power grid has the capacity to handle the added demand imposed by plug-in hybrid vehicles. We can add more capacity and improve its reliability in the years ahead. Nuclear energy, renewable power, and other emission-free forms of power production can expand capacity, improve local air quality and begin to address climate change. I'll work to promote real partnerships between utilities and automakers to accelerate the deployment of plug-in hybrids.

With some of the savings from cutting subsidies for industries that can stand on their own, we can establish a national challenge to improve the cost, range, size, and weight of electric batteries for automobiles. Fifty percent of cars on the road are driven 25 miles a day or less. Affordable battery-powered vehicles, that can meet average commuter needs, could help us cut oil imports in half. The reward will be earned through merit by whoever accomplishes the task, whether it comes from a laboratory in the Department of Energy, a university, a corporation, or an enterprising young inventor who works out of his family's garage.

Breakthroughs in high-tech materials can also greatly improve fuel efficiency in the transportation sector. We can provide fuel options and improve the fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet by making them out of high tech materials, which will improve their strength and safety. We are doing that very thing right now to beat our foreign competitors in the aerospace industry.

Alcohol fuels made from corn, sugar, switch grass, and many other sources, as well as fuel cells, biodiesel derived from waste products, natural gas, and other technologies are all promising and available alternatives to oil. I won't support subsidizing every alternative, or endorse tariffs that restrict the healthy competition which stimulates innovation and lowers costs. But I'll encourage the development of infrastructure and market growth necessary for these products to compete, and I'll let consumers choose the winners. I've never known an American entrepreneur worthy of the name who wouldn't rather compete for sales than subsidies.

Energy efficiency by using improved technology and practicing sensible habits in our homes, businesses and automobiles is also a big part of the answer, and is something we can achieve right now. New advances will make conservation an ever more important part of the solution. Improved light bulbs can use much less energy; and smart-grid technology can help homeowners and businesses lower their energy use.

There is much we can do to increase and diversify our own oil production in ways that protect the environment using advanced technologies, including those that use and bury carbon dioxide, those that recover the oil below the wells we have already drilled, and those that tap oil, natural gas, and shale economically with minimal environmental impact.

The United States has coal reserves more abundant than Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. We found a way to cut down acid-rain pollutants from burning coal, and we can find a way to use our coal resources without emitting excessive greenhouse gases.

We have in use today, a zero-emission energy that could provide electricity for millions more homes and businesses than it currently does. Yet it has been over 25 years since a nuclear-power plant has been constructed. The barriers to nuclear energy are political not technological. We've let the fears of 30 years ago, and an endless political squabble over the storage of nuclear spent fuel make it virtually impossible to build a single new plant that produces a form of energy that is safe and non-polluting. If France can produce 80-percent of its electricity with nuclear power, why can't we? Is France a more secure, advanced, and innovative country than we are? Are France's scientists and entrepreneurs more capable than we are? I need no answer to that rhetorical question. I know my country well enough to know otherwise.

I want to improve and make permanent the research and development tax credit. I want to spend less money on government bureaucracies, and, where the private sector isn't moving out of regulatory fear, to form the partnerships necessary to build demonstration models of promising new technologies such as advanced nuclear power plants, coal gasification, carbon capture, and storage and renewable power, so that we can take maximum advantage of our most abundant resources. And I'll make it a national mission to develop a catalyst capable of breaking down carbon dioxide into useful chemical building blocks, and rendering it a new source of revenue and opportunity.

I also believe that strengthening our energy security goes hand-in-hand with addressing global climate change, which I believe is real with human activity contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I oppose carbon taxes and I have joined with Joe Lieberman to pursue a market-based, cap-and-trade system to achieve appropriate limits on greenhouse gas emissions as efficiently and effectively as possible. I will ensure that such a system is harnessed as a means of diversifying the nation's energy mix, which in turn will make us less dependent on foreign oil, and will place America at the forefront in the development of the energy and environmental protection technologies the world will demand for many years to come. I will also ensure that these efforts meet several key tests, including protecting consumers and the economy, preventing other countries from dodging their responsibilities, promoting the development and deployment of advanced technology, and prioritizing the America's economic, environmental, and national-security interests.

America competes in a global economy where innovation and entrepreneurship are the pillars of prosperity. The competition is stiff and the stakes are high. We have the opportunity to apply America's technological supremacy to capture the export markets for advanced energy technologies, reaping the capital investment and good jobs it will provide. Our innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs, and workers have the knowledge, resources and drive to lead the way on energy security, as we have in so many other world-changing advancements. The race has always been to the swift, and America must be first to the market, with innovations that meet mankind's growing energy and environmental needs.

Answering great challenges is nothing new to America. It's what we do. We built the rockets that took us to the moon - not because it was easy, but because it was hard. We've sent space probes into the distant reaches of the universe. We harnessed nuclear energy, mapped the human genome, created the Internet, and pioneered integrated circuits that consolidate the computing power of the Apollo spacecraft onto a barely visible silicon chip. If we can do all this, we can surely solve our oil-dependence problem, and strengthen our security.
By John McCain
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online