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At AAAS Forum, Ex-CIA Chief Finds Common Ground Between Greens and Hawks
R. James Woolsey
Tree-hugging environmentalists and national security hawks may share more common ground than generally acknowledged, says R. James Woolsey, a national security specialist and former CIA director who spoke at the recent AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
After noting that climate change and terrorism are two of what he called the "existential challenges" facing the United States in the 21st century, Woolsey outlined some steps to help combat climate change and also provide the nation more resilience against terrorism.
In making his case, Woolsey did a little role-playing in which he channeled the ghosts of John Muir, an ardent environmentalist, and General George S. Patton, a tough-as-nails military hero.
"What might Patton and Muir be able to come up with together?" Woolsey asked in his 9 May talk. Speaking as John Muir, he ticked off energy policy proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also lessen U.S. reliance on foreign oil, particularly from the volatile Middle East.
The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy is regarded as the premier event of its kind in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. The 33rd annual Forum, held just a few blocks from the White House on 8-9 May, attracted more than 500 policymakers from government, education, industry, and other fields, plus more than two dozen journalists.
The reasons for the concerns outlined in Woolsey's talk are well-known. The United States remains heavily reliant on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East that are vulnerable to a few well-placed terrorist bombs. Woolsey cited the Abqaiq oil field in Saudi Arabia, which already has been the site of one unsuccessful attack. If sulphur-clearing towers at the facility were struck successfully, he said, it could cut Saudi oil production by 6 or 7 millions barrels a day for well over a year.
Such vulnerability puts the U.S. transportation system at risk, Woolsey said. "What can you say about a society that lets the infrastructure for the substance that monopolizes 97% of its transportation be located in the Middle East?" he asked. "I don't think you'd say anything very flattering about such a society." He also said Saudi oil revenues are helping support fundamentalist Islamic schools in Pakistan and elsewhere that have proved to be sources of Al-Qaeda recruits.
"We have a whole slew of malevolent problems associated with oil," said Woolsey, who served in two Republican and two Democratic administrations and is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
There are some energy-related issues in the United States as well, Woolsey said, notably the need to modernize and provide better security for the nation's aging and balkanized electricity distribution grid. But those problems are "not technologically insurmountable," Woolsey said. "It's an organizational and political problem."
So what solutions might a modern-day John Muir offer for energy-related problems, both foreign and domestic? And how might a George Patton react?
In character as Muir, Woolsey began with a nod toward Wal-Mart, the supermarket giant. He said the company's program to save energy—including use of skylights, more efficient light bulbs, and more efficient food freezers—has been reducing energy costs by 25 to 30%, with projections of even more savings in new stores. Since buildings account for 70% of global electricity use, Woolsey said, such steps are essential.
He also praised California—the home state for both Muir and Patton—for a decision two decades ago by the state's Public Utility Commission to require that profits by utilities be tied to investment rather than sales. The result has been more investment in energy-saving technology, he said, and a flat growth in electricity demand for the last 20 years in California compared to a 60% increase in the rest of the country, where utility commissions still tend to emphasize the construction of new power plants.
Woolsey, speaking as Muir, also praised Denmark for deriving more than one-third of its electricity by using waste heat from factories and buildings to generate power. The result has been a distributed power grid and little need to build large new power plants.
He also applauded the use of the new generation of more efficient solar cells on rooftops to produce electricity. A new solar cell system on a parking garage at Caltech produces electricity for about 13 cents per kilowatt hour, less than the cost charged by the power grid when tax credits are taken into account, Woolsey said.
Putting on his George Patton hat, he welcomed the idea of saving energy by relying on smaller, independent units of production. "It's the small units that matter," Patton said, noting that he relied on the resourcefulness of his small combat units during World War II battles.
Speaking as Muir, Woolsey also acknowledged that there also will need to be some new power plants, preferably using renewable sources such as wind. But he did not rule out use of nuclear plants, which emit no greenhouse gases.
Patton was a bit testy on the prospect of adding new central generating capacity that might also serve as a source of nuclear materials that could be diverted to military use. "You can't start spreading that stuff around the world," he said.
"I can understand that," Muir replied, and moved quickly on to his next proposal: wide use of plug-in hybrid electric cars, a development now on the horizon. As long as the cars plug in for recharging during off-peak hours, the existing electrical generating capacity should be able to handle much of the load, Woolsey said. He cited a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which found that 70% of the 220 million cars on the road today could plug in for off-peak recharging without the need to build a single new power plant.
Finally, Woolsey-as-Muir reluctantly broached the possibility of building coal liquefaction plants—a technology that has been around since the days of Nazi Germany but one which he admitted is expensive and polluting. Muir said he hoped Patton would balk at the idea, but Patton was intrigued. "I do kind of like it because it's not oil, and it's here," he said, available for use within the United States. Still, Patton told Muir he'd put it "really far down on my list." And Patton noted that except for coal-to-liquid, "we pretty much agree" on the proposed list of energy solutions.
Woolsey imagined Muir and Patton doing a little political bargaining in the end—Patton asking Muir to support a push for more armored divisions in the Army; Muir agreeing if Patton will back creation of a new national park for each new armored division. But in a "Casablanca" moment, he envisioned the two agreeing that it could be "the start of a beautiful friendship."
21 May 2008