An interview with geo-green James Woolsey, former head of CIA
Former Pentagon heavies are not known for their breezy candor, so it’s a rare treat to come across one who voluntarily describes himself as a tree-hugger, do-gooder, sodbuster, and cheap hawk, all rolled into one. There you have R. James “call me Jim” Woolsey, in a nutshell. Sort of.
Over the course of a dozen years, Woolsey held presidential appointments in two Republican and two Democratic administrations, including one stint as undersecretary of the Navy and another as director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Clinton, from 1993 to 1995.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, he’s become one of the most influential advocates of energy independence, and one of the few security hawks to champion the environmental benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels. He’s argued his opinions in the pages of such prominent publications as The Wall Street Journal, and played key roles within the Energy Future Coalition and the National Commission on Energy Policy, two nonpartisan groups of experts in business, labor, the environment, and national security that are pressing for a more forward-looking energy strategy, and, most recently, trying to convince senators to add stronger fuel-economy and renewable-energy provisions to the fossil-fuel-friendly energy bill.
Woolsey spoke to Grist‘s Amanda Griscom Little by cell phone late last month about the clean technologies that get him fired up, the downsides of dependency on Saudi oil, and life on his solar-powered farm.
Hello, Mr. Woolsey, it’s a pleasure t–
Please! Call me Jim. (Chewing sounds.) I’m in the airport scarfing down my chicken tortellini lunch, so please forgive the munching.
Not a problem, sir. Let’s start with the origins of your energy-independence advocacy. Tell us how you began focusing on the combined issues of energy, security, and the environment.
I’ve been involved in environmental issues for decades, especially renewable fuels. My friend Bill Holmberg is the intellectual granddaddy of most of us on the security side who got involved in these issues over the years. In about 1980, just after I got out of the Carter administration, Holmberg introduced me to Amory Lovins, who now runs the Rocky Mountain Institute. Amory was then writing his book called Brittle Power about the strategic vulnerabilities of the American energy system and asked me to write the foreword. It’s been an intellectual passion of mine ever since.
You’ve been working with the Energy Future Coalition to get measures into the energy bill that would accelerate the development of next-gen energy technologies. Can you give an overview of the technologies you’re pushing for?
We want substantially better fuel efficiency from vehicles and alternative fuels that can be used in the current infrastructure. As for cars, we are advocating modern diesels, flexible-fuel vehicles, hybrids, and a plug-in adaptation for hybrids. We’re also pushing for the development of cellulosic ethanol and biofuels. Almost all of these are here and now, compatible with the existing infrastructure, and can be worked on by your average mechanic. It’s not like trying to put hydrogen reformers into every filling station in the country.
High-grade diesel technologies have just now caught up with our emissions standards. Flexible-fuel vehicles can use any mixture of gasoline and ethanol — up to 85 percent ethanol. The cars most of us drive now use a maximum of 10 percent ethanol. It’s a simple conversion — just a slightly different kind of plastic in the fuel line and a differently programmed computer chip.
Plug-in hybrids would be a simple adaptation of existing hybrid technology by adding a battery that can recharge from the grid. You’d charge your hybrid at night and drive about 10 to 30 miles on the overnight power before you start using liquid gas, which means your 50-mpg Prius now becomes a 100- to 150-mpg Prius. Based on current electricity prices, you would get the functional equivalent of 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline.
What are you advocating from a policy standpoint to get these technologies into the mainstream?
I’m not deeply involved in the policy side — I focus on technology. I tend to think tax credits are the simplest, but whether it’s production tax benefits or credits to purchasers or CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards or all three, I don’t really care that much. I just believe strongly in the technologies and want them in play using whatever method works.
Is it your opinion that the federal government needs to use both carrots and regulatory sticks — such as CAFE and renewable portfolio standards [RPS], or the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act — to propel these innovations?
I’m on record supporting CAFE. And, yes, an RPS I think could be useful. I think McCain-Lieberman has got a lot of positive features to it, but I think there are also merits to the approach I helped develop at [the National Commission on Energy Policy], which is less numerically demanding than McCain-Lieberman.
What is your position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
I have concerns about the vulnerability of the trans-Alaska pipeline and, moreover, that [drilling in the Arctic Refuge will] reduce us from 68 percent imported oil to 65 percent oil in 10, 20 years — well, that’s a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t begin to compare to the strides we could make with alternative fuels and vehicles.
What are your opinions of the House-passed energy bill?
It needs substantial improvement, starting with the fact that it’s so focused on increased incentives to the oil industry to explore for more resources when the president has said it’s really not necessary at $50-a-barrel oil. And the fact that they’re focused on hydrogen fuel cells when there’s not going to be any substantial effect on oil use by moving toward hydrogen fuel cells for some 20 years, because the infrastructure changes are so huge. I hope these and other issues will be corrected in the Senate version.
There seems to be an increasing sense of urgency to mobilize the shift away from fossil fuels on the one hand, but then continued resistance to implementing the necessary policies from folks like Sens. James Inhofe [R-Okla.] and Pete Domenici [R-N.M.]. Do you think lawmakers — particularly conservatives — are becoming divided or united on the energy issue?
I’m extremely encouraged by the spirit of cooperation that’s happening in Washington and beyond. I call the growing consensus a coalition of the tree-huggers, the do-gooders, the sodbusters — as we call farmers in Oklahoma — and the cheap hawks, people who would like to see the president’s objectives of democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East move forward, but with as few wars as possible. I consider myself part of all these groups. As oil prices rise, you can add gasoline consumers to this list, which is pretty much everybody. There’s no question in my mind that increasingly we are seeing different groups unifying around a broad set of objectives that will eventually manifest itself in legislation.
What are your opinions on the Bush administration’s energy and environmental policy?
I think the major mistake that the Bush administration has made has been for the last four-plus years putting so much emphasis on hydrogen fuel cells as the wave of the future, when it’s so far off. When the administration cancelled some of the work that was happening on things like cellulosic ethanol and focused on hydrogen fuel cells, I think they made a big mistake.
That said, I am encouraged by what the president said down in Virginia a few weeks ago when he talked about the importance of ethanol, biodiesel, hybrids, and modern diesels, and the importance of moving away from oil. The president mentioned a $4,000 tax credit for [“clean”] diesel and hybrid purchases, among other incentives, so that’s great.
But do you think that he and Dick Cheney — former oilmen — will actually walk the talk?
I think that speech was a big step for the president, and I think the world looks a bit different to them now with today’s oil prices than it did at the beginning of the administration. First of all, the technologies have developed substantially in the last five years, and the fact that 9/11 has occurred and oil prices are as high as they are, and tech development has occurred — in part what’s happening is that the president and VP and others have noticed that. I take the president at his word.
When do you think the world will either hit peak oil or encounter geopolitical barriers that will spell the end of the cheap-oil era?
I think risk of terrorism in the Middle East is much more likely to drive oil prices up than our running out of oil. Yes, it’s true that a number of the world’s fields are peaked out and production costs are going up and people are forced to rely much more on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, who have two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. It’s also true that you have India and China coming online and building middle classes and that will keep prices up. But the biggest threat to our economy in terms of oil dependence is the possibility of a terrorist strike against the oil and pipeline infrastructure in the Middle East.
If we completely eliminated our need for foreign oil, how would our foreign policy change? What would a clear-eyed, non-oil-based foreign policy look like?
If we aren’t dependent on Saudi oil, we could be more insistent that the Saudis stop funding the hideous Wahhabi teaching of hatred of Shiites, Sufis, Jews, Christians, women, and democracy. They fund it massively — between $80 billion and $90 billion have been spent in spreading this filth around the world — and almost all of that is oil money.
Tell us about your personal environmental commitment.
It’s very much a part of the way I live. My wife serves on the board of the Rocky Mountain Institute. We have a Prius and just got a new Lexus hybrid SUV, which will get close to 30 miles per gallon — twice the mileage most SUVs get. We live on a farm south of Indianapolis and sometimes need to haul stuff around, and my feeling is if people need to have an SUV they ought to be able to have an SUV, so long as it’s as fuel-efficient as possible. We have solar on our farmhouse and solar-thermal panels for the hot water.
I understand you are working with the government of Bangladesh to help them develop sustainable rural communities and a self-sufficient energy future.
Yes, it’s very expensive for countries like Bangladesh to import oil — they’re under a lot of debt because of it — so the ability to have homegrown energy sources like biofuels will change their economic future.
I’ve been involved in encouraging rural development and energy sufficiency for small towns and farms and so forth for 25 years. I was just in India for two weeks and learned a powerful lesson about Gandhi. We think of him as the father of independence and modern India and nonviolence, but at the center of his teachings was local self-sufficiency. If you have energy sources from agricultural or animal waste, there’s an even better chance that the rural Indians or Bangladeshis are going to be able to lead decent and reasonable lives. We don’t want hunger and anger and unemployment in countries like Bangladesh. That’s going to produce more terrorists. So I feel very strongly that all of this business of encouraging local self-sufficiency and production of agricultural fuel is in the service of peace.