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Know the West

In Washington, a broad-based effort aims to kick the oil habit


At a Georgetown theatre one December evening, a special, invitation-only screening of a new movie took place. Unlike most such events, though, the intent was neither to promote the movie nor to raise money, but to make a point.

The movie was Syriana, the fast-paced if somewhat hard-to-follow George Clooney-Matt Damon flick about skullduggery from the District of Columbia to the oilfields of Arabia and back. The point was that since dependence on oil can lead to foreign policy complications, not to mention murder, maybe everyone ought to use less of the stuff.

A sound environmental stance, so it was no surprise that two of the organizations sponsoring the showing were the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and that the bottoms filling many of the seats belonged to some of Washington’s green-group staffers, a bunch of liberals if ever one existed.

So what was Frank Gaffney doing there?

Gaffney, for those who have something better to do than watch talking heads snarl at each other on TV chat shows, is a regular on those programs. He reliably argues the point of view usually described as neo-conservative.

But there he was, sharing cinematic vibes, and perhaps even popcorn, with folks from environmental organizations and labor unions. Politics makes strange seatmates.

The official sponsor of the screening was the Set America Free Coalition. This new organization includes political operatives as conservative as Gaffney and Gary Bauer, who briefly ran for president in 2000 as a candidate of the religious right, and as liberal as Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Bracken Hendricks of the union-financed Apollo Alliance, an offshoot of the left-leaning Campaign for America’s Future.

And just what has brought these disparate parties together? The conviction that the United States needs an alternative to oil, much of which comes from the Middle East. As the Coalition’s Web site puts it, "We believe that by spearheading a global effort to transition the transportation sector to next-generation fuels and vehicles that can utilize them, the United States can deny its adversaries the wherewithal they use to harm us."

Apart from the barbaric use of "transition" as a verb, hardly anything in that statement would offend anyone on the left or right. And the alliance of foreign policy hawks and environmentalists may be poised to do some good.

"It’s a very fruitful and productive collaboration," says NRDC’s Lovaas. "We’ve not only come to agreement about the threat, but also on ways to break the addiction to oil."

Which is not to say that the motivations on each side are identical. Lovaas says he and the other greenies agree that legitimate foreign policy reasons exist for using less oil. But the group that took the lead in setting up the coalition — a little-known organization called the Institute of Analysis of Global Security — proclaims that it is "exclusively focused on global security."

Foreign policy conservatives established the institute after the September 11 attacks. Its motto is not, but could be, "It’s the oil, stupid." Unlike so many conservatives, those at the institute and at Set America Free seem to have shed the delusion that the U.S. can drill its way to energy independence (HCN, 12/12/05: The Final Energy Frontier).

"The oil companies are running to stay in place," says Anne Korin, the institute’s co-director. "They’re unable to discover enough oil."

In other words, whoever is funding these folks, it is not the oil industry.

Which does not answer the question of who is. Korin says the institute takes no corporate or government money, surviving on contributions from foundations and individuals, but she will not elaborate. The institute apparently doesn’t need much money. Its 2004 federal tax return showed revenues of $111,564, of which $100,000 went for the salaries of Korin ($55,000) and co-director Gal Luft ($45,000).

What it lacks in wealth, the institute makes up for in big-name support. Among its official advisors are James Woolsey, CIA director under President Clinton, and Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s national security director.

Right now, Set America Free’s purpose in life is to support the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act, sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., both of whom, perhaps not incidentally, are thinking about running for president in 2008. The bill would mandate reducing oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day in the next decade, and by 10 million barrels a day by 2031. Currently, the U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels each day.

Because the bill does not say how these cuts would be made, most environmental organizations remain neutral about it. But the generally liberal Consumer Federation of America has endorsed the bill.

And Set America Free is not the only sign of collaboration between foreign policy conservatives and environmentalists. Another alliance includes greens who have begun to reconsider their longtime opposition to nuclear power.

Among those urging another look at nuclear power are Fred Krupp, executive director of Environmental Defense; Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute; and James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale University’s school of forestry and environmental studies. Stewart Brand, the legendary founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued in an article in Technology Review that shifting to nuclear power — which, despite its other drawbacks, does not produce greenhouse gases — might be the only way to stave off global warming.

This particular incarnation of the conservative-green coalition does not yet have an organizational structure. Nor has it yet hosted a movie screening. If and when it does, however, it’s not likely to show The China Syndrome.

The author writes about the doings in Washington, D.C., from a safe distance — Vermont.