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Environmentalists make a plea for 'patriotic' energy conservation

November 12, 2001

By Jennifer McNulty

World War II poster promoting gasoline conservation
The message of conservation resonated with the American public during World War II. Courtesy of Daniel M. Kammen, UC Berkeley
Two of the most patriotic actions Americans can take in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks are investing in alternative energy and reducing their consumption of fossil fuels.

That was the message last week as faculty members Alan Richards and Brent Haddad of the Environmental Studies Department discussed the energy implications of the crisis with a crowd of about 75 people.

The teach-in, one of several offered on campus last week as part of a "Week of Reflection on the Crisis," focused on the national security and environmental benefits of a "greener" U.S. energy policy.

"The best way to be safe is by being green," said Richards, a professor of environmental studies who specializes in the political economy of the Middle East. "In this crisis, we face both real dangers and we are also being presented with some real opportunities."

The country's dependence on Persian Gulf oil, much of which comes from Saudi Arabia, is problematic in four ways, said Richards:

  • Oil price shocks impact the entire U.S. economy.

  • Saudi Arabia, which has reaped great wealth from the oil market since 1973, supports a very narrow interpretation of Islam and funnels large amounts of money to charities and schools that "produce warriors for the Taliban."

  • The centralized system of energy production in the U.S. makes it a "target-rich environment" for terrorists, with 103 nuclear reactors and 155 oil refineries in the country.

  • Oil consumption levels in the U.S. make the nation the world's largest contributor to global warming.

But the good news is that history shows the United States is capable of changing its ways, thanks both to technological advances and conservation efforts, said Richards.

"Politically, this is a great opportunity to say very clearly, 'Energy efficiency is patriotic,'" said Richards, who donned an Easy Rider-style flag-motif bandanna and proclaimed: "So, folks, get a bike!" to audience applause.

Richards and Haddad, associate professor of environmental studies, urged the audience to put pressure on President Bush and other state and federal officials, acknowledging that the Bush administration is unlikely to support the development of alternative energy sources without strong public pressure.

"Nothing will ever happen politically if there isn't an aroused citizenry," said Richards. "This is an opportunity to link environmentally sound policies with patriotism at a moment in the United States when Americans are feeling hugely patriotic. We must use this opportunity to generate as much pressure as possible and to prevent them from doing something egregiously stupid like drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

The United States, as the oldest producer of oil in the world, has drained U.S. reserves. "It's nuts to focus on expanding the supply of domestic oil," said Richards. "We drained America first. The amount we would get would be peanuts compared to what we could save on the demand and technology side."

The price of petroleum, which is currently about $22 per 42-gallon barrel, vastly exceeds the cost of production, which ranges from a high of about $4 per barrel for North Sea oil to between $1 and $1.50 per barrel for Persian Gulf oil. The rest is "pure profit," said Richards. Saudi Arabia, which boasts about 25 percent of the planet's oil reserves, is one of the largest producers in the world, generating about 10.5 million barrels per day. The United States consumes 18 million barrels per day.

Tracing the flow of oil money to terrorists, Haddad explained that Saudis are directed by Islamic tenet to donate a portion of their wealth to charity. Although most Saudi charities are probably legitimate, he noted that some money is channeled to radical Islamic groups, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.

"Imagine making the case for energy independence by saying, 'Some portion of the money you pay for gas goes toward anthrax'?" said Haddad. "That's a compelling reason not to spend that money."

U.S. dependence on oil has "forced us into too close a relationship with a country that is really different from the United States," said Haddad, noting that Saudi Arabia is a country in which dancing, music, and movies are forbidden, women are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles on public roads, and some fast-food restaurants refuse to serve women who are unaccompanied by a close male relative.

Moreover, discontent is growing in Saudi Arabia, where half the population is less than 20 years old and job opportunities are limited. The official unemployment rate is 15 percent, but unemployment among young Saudi males runs as high as 40 percent, according to some estimates, said Haddad. The per capita gross domestic product has fallen during the past decade to about $8,000 a year. And the future is problematic given an educational system that focuses on religion and a technology-based economy that requires skilled workers.

Any strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on Saudi oil must focus on automobiles, said Richards, because two-thirds of the nation's oil is used in transportation, and 40 percent of that fuels passenger cars.

Since 1975, fuel economy has improved dramatically, jumping from an average 16 miles per gallon (mpg) to 28 mpg in 1987, and backsliding a bit to 24 mpg today, he said. New hybrid engines that run on gasoline and electricity get 48 to 55 mpg. Strict federal and state regulations for new-car fuel economy and higher gasoline taxes could dramatically reduce the nation's oil consumption, said Richards.

Gains in efficiency in other areas are similarly impressive, said Richards, noting that refrigerators today are three times as efficient as those made 30 years ago. Steel production requires 25 percent less energy than it did in 1973.

"It is possible to reduce our dependence in not a very difficult way," said Richards. "What really has to happen is political action."

On the "homeland security" front, Haddad emphasized the environmental benefits of reducing the U.S. contribution to global warming and the security rationale for reducing the number of possible terrorist targets.

Of the 3,600 vessels that pass through the San Francisco Bay each year, 1,100 are oil tankers, said Haddad. "Think about the potential that poses for a massive environmental disaster. It would be devastating to the Bay Area's economy and the Bay Area's environment." Solar and wind facilities that generate electricity would be vastly less attractive targets for terrorists, he added.

And oil will not last forever. At current rates of consumption, the Saudi oil fields will be drained in about 70 years, said Haddad. Technological advances are aiding the transition away from fossil fuels.

"We are already in transition away from an oil-based economy," said Haddad. "We're saying, let's put it in hyperdrive."

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