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Might as well face it - we're addicted to oil
The first step in cleaning up the environment is plugging in our cars, said Clintonista-turned-Brookings-scholar David Sandalow during a recent campus visit

| 28 November 2007

When it comes to climate change, David Sandalow says the political climate has changed for the better since his days as a high-ranking environmental adviser in the Clinton administration. Now a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, he's on the stump to promote his first book, a sort of 12-step program for a nation addicted to oil. And from a self-help perspective, at least, the state of the union is good: After decades of denial, we finally admit that we have a problem.


David Sandalow (Lorie Mariano photo)
 

"I've been doing everything from Fox Radio to progressive radio to small-business radio to events in Texas, Michigan, Iowa, New York, D.C.," he said by phone from the nation's capital before heading to California for a recent campus lecture. "And what's hitting me is that from all different points on the political spectrum, people are quite positive about what I'm saying. And what I'm hearing validates one of the key points of the book, which is that this is a bipartisan agenda, and it's something that we can move forward on."

As its title suggests, Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction is a call for political leadership at a time, in Sandalow's view, when America is eager for solutions to oil dependence and global warming - a refreshing contrast to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore had the wheel of the executive branch but were unable to steer a new energy course. Exhibit A in the case for consensus is a telling bit of anecdotal evidence Sandalow recounts in the book, and that he cited again in his Berkeley talk, which was co-sponsored by CITRIS, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, and the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative.

While doing research in 2006, Sandalow had lunch with Newt Gingrich, the former House GOP leader whose "Contract With America" undid the Democrats' congressional majority in 1994. He followed that up a few weeks later by having dinner with Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic Central Committee. Both men, fierce partisans from opposite ends of the Beltway political spectrum, agreed that (a) oil dependency is a pressing national-security issue; (b) ethanol is a key part of the solution; and (c) America needs a Manhattan Project-type program to develop new technologies to help kick our oil habit.

Sandalow attributes this hands-across-the-aisle harmony to three things. First, he told the Berkeleyan, is "9/11 and the way the Iraq war has played out." He concedes that the reasons for going to war are complex, and that debate on that topic continues. "But I don't think it's any accident that we've had two wars in the past two decades in a region of the world that has half the world's oil," he said. "And I think Americans understand that we need to break our addiction to oil in order to protect our national security."

Then there's the "rising awareness of global warming," for which he gives much of the credit to Gore, whose work as a climate-change guru recently won him the Nobel Peace Prize. And, finally, Sandalow points to even faster-rising oil prices - currently flirting with $100 a barrel - which brings him to what he views as Job One: ridding the nation of the internal-combustion engines that power most of America's cars, run almost exclusively on petroleum, and spew some 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every gallon of gas they burn.

"The most fundamental issue we face is the lack of substitutes in our cars and trucks. When gas prices go up, drivers have two choices - pay more or drive less," Sandalow said, noting that petroleum generates an estimated 96 percent of the energy consumed by the nation's cars and trucks. "It seems normal to us - we grew up with it, our parents grew up with it. But it's actually very abnormal to have the entire world's transportation depend so utterly on one fuel."


Freedom From Oil, which takes the form of recommendations from presidential aides and Cabinet members for a speech from the Oval Office, offers a mix of initiatives ranging from better mass transit to increased telecommuting to government support for research on ethanol and other alternative fuels. But more than any other single recommendation, Sandalow advocates a switch to plug-in hybrid cars and trucks.

"I think there's a basic human impulse toward mobility," he explained. "When people are driving cars, they need to be driving the cleanest cars, cars that don't rely solely on petroleum."

He's been driving a Toyota Prius that's been converted to plug into an extension cord in his garage, and now goes about 120 miles per gallon - roughly half of what he says it will get once he gets the hang of driving it. Notwithstanding the fact that coal is the largest component of the nation's electric grid, Sandalow argues that a transition to plug-ins is the highest priority.

"The most important point is that even when you connect a car to a coal plant, you're still producing fewer greenhouse gases than if you run a conventional car on oil," he explained. "That fact astonishes lots of people when they first hear it."

The reason? The higher efficiency of electric motors as compared to internal-combustion engines. "Even from the dirtiest source out there, connecting to the grid is still an improvement," said Sandalow. "The question then is, can we get the grid cleaner over time? And hopefully, yes, we can."

As for how to do that, Sandalow calls himself a "cautious optimist" on biofuels, especially the potential for producing ethanol from switchgrass and agricultural residues. "Not all biofuels are created equal in terms of their environmental impacts," he noted, "so it's very important to make sure we're using fuels that are promoting sustainability."

He's far more bullish on the capacity of government to effect change, however, even as he acknowledges that "I've heard both Clinton and Gore say publicly that they wish they'd been able to accomplish more on this agenda" while they were in office. And he's sensitive to the suggestion that Gore, in particular, has been far more vocal as a private citizen than he was during his two terms as vice president.

"I had the experience several times in the '90s of working within the White House on a global-warming event," recalled Sandalow, whose résumé includes stints with the EPA, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "And then it got at most three-sentence coverage in the inside section of the newspapers, because the press would say, 'Al Gore giving a speech on global warming? That's not news.' And then a month later I'd hear, 'Why isn't Al Gore saying anything on global warming?' So I think the perception of silence on his part in the '90s is sometimes overdone."

In any case, the Clinton era was "a very different time," when the likes of Newt Gingrich and Howard Dean found very little to agree on. "I think now is a moment when presidential leadership can really make a difference, and I think you need a president who's respected by the American people, and who can command respect across the aisle," he said. "And in January 2009 we have the prospect of having a president like that, and I think there's really a possibility of getting something done starting then."

As for what citizens can do -aside from buying plug-in hybrids and making consciousness-raising documentaries like Gore's An Inconvenient Truth - Sandalow advises making oil dependence and global warming an issue in the 2008 presidential race.

"Tom Friedman [of The New York Times] had a good line about how changing your leaders makes more difference than changing your lightbulbs," he said. "My own view is that both are important. But as we enter the political season, I'd recommend to everybody to keep focused on the impact that our political system can have, if done right."