R. James Woolsey: Our Energy Future

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R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, spoke Thursday about the future of U.S. energy from the view of three iconic people throughout history: John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, George S. Patton, Jr., the World War II general, and Mohandas Gandhi, prominent figure of the Indian Independence movement and a proponent of peace and equality of all people.

Woolsey focused on two main forms of energy production and use. The first is electricity. Woolsey said the U.S. uses a system of energy transportation called the electric grid, which is divided into three main sections, but all are interconnected. Woolsey believes General Patton would worry about damage by malevolent enemies. In 2003, a tree branch fell on a main power line in Ohio and caused lasting blackouts in northeastern U.S., but more dangerous are terrorists.

“Terrorists are a lot smarter than tree branches,” Woolsey said.

When the system was designed, no thought was given to potential interference.

“[It is a] relatively fragile system, never put together with the idea that it could be attacked,” Woolsey said.

When it was initially computerized around Y2K, the Internet was a simple communications tool, Woolsey said. Few were worried about terrorists or hackers.

“But not everyone on the web is nice,” Woolsey said.

According to Woolsey, there are 18 essential processes in the United States (sewage, trash, traffic, etc.). The other 17 all depend on the energy grid. If the energy grid were to fail, the United States would  plunge back into the 1800s. Woolsey’s idea of Patton said he would be worried about the security of the energy grid.

In contrast, Muir would be worried more about how the U.S. produces energy, particularly, coal and nuclear power, Woolsey said. These methods can severely impact the environment.

Woolsey’s Gandhi worries about the poorest 2 billion people in the world who still essentially live without electricity. Satellite photographs of Africa look the same today as they did 40 years ago. At night, Africa is still dark.

“[Gandhi] has a real problem with big electrical grids that never get to villages,” Woolsey said.

One of his solutions is building many small power plants, making the U.S. less vulnerable to hackers and calming Patton’s fears. It would also let people generate energy locally.

“Anything that might be in the hands of villages is therefore in the hands of the people and of use to them,” Woolsey said.

Woolsey said the second problem is energy in transportation, a field entirely dominated by oil-based fuels.

Muir would be worried about the pollution and carcinogens produced by coal and oil. Medical expenses and shortened life add about $200 billion to the costs of the U.S., Woolsey said.

Patton would worry about the fact that we borrow $1 billion a day to import oil.

“Words cannot describe how Patton feels about that,” Woolsey said.

He also would worry about the risk that oil prices could be so much higher, the former CIA director said.

“Any morning you wake up and there has not been a terrorist attack on an oil drilling site in the Middle East is a good day,” Woolsey said.

Patton and Gandhi would also worry about the effect oil has on democracy, according to Woolsey. Eight out of the top nine oil producing countries are dictatorships or autocracies. Patton would worry specifically about Saudi Arabia, which has 1 to 2 percent of the world’s Muslims but 90 percent of the world’s Islamic schools so it controls the messages heard by future generations of Muslims.

Woolsey told a story of a fire at a girls school in Saudi Arabia. Firefighters responded and were rescuing the schoolgirls from the burning building and the religious police were the next to respond. They chased down the girls and threw them back in the burning building because they were not properly wearing their scarves.

“We are paying for that set of values,” Woolsey said.

Woolsey suggested other fuels as alternatives to the oil and democracy problem. He suggests electricity, natural gas, methanol and ethanol. According to Woolsey, an electric car costs about two cents a mile but is initially pricier. Natural gas is about a quarter of oil’s cost, but takes several thousand dollars to convert a vehicle to run on it. Ethanol is slightly cheaper than oil, but is involved in a food versus fuel debate. Methanol is Woolsey’s highest recommendation. It is a wood alcohol that is already used in washer fluid, and vehicles take only a few simple modifications to run on it.

Woolsey said he wants people to have the option of which fuel to use.

“If no one can tell you what to do, the cartel [of OPEC] is, by all practical means, broken,” he said.

He said this is not a problem the U.S. can take time to fix.

“When oil hits $125 a barrel, half of the world’s wealth is in the hands of OPEC,” he said.

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