Energy debate raises Jewish concerns

A 1969 oil spill from this platform covered Santa Barbara’s harbor with sludge and spurred an end to offshore oil drilling in California. (Doc Searls / Creative Commons)

A 1969 oil spill from this platform covered Santa Barbara’s harbor with sludge and spurred an end to offshore oil drilling in California. (Doc Searls / Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – For Jews, the energy debate is a case where tough-minded hawks and feel-good liberals are in agreement.

Whether one views the presidential candidates’ ideas to solve America’s energy problems through the lens of national security or the environment, Jewish organizational leaders say, neither aspirant’s proposals look very good.

National security hawks say the quick fixes touted by the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, and his Republican rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), miss the bigger picture: America needs a comprehensive plan to wean itself from Middle Eastern oil, and fast.

McCain advocates allowing states to open up offshore sites previously closed to drilling. Obama wants to reduce replenishment of the strategic oil reserve, the Energy Department’s emergency stash.

Both candidates also tout more comprehensive policies, but they back these interim solutions as a way to address painful gasoline prices hovering at $4 per gallon.

Such salves are meaningless without planning, Jewish organizational officials say.

“We are not interested in interim solutions,” said Neil Goldstein, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, a group that has taken a leading role among Jewish organizations in energy advocacy and independence. “The long-term position has to be to become independent; we must get off of this dependence on foreign oil.”

The AJCongress says the first priority should be to enact legislation to require America’s eventual transition to the manufacture of cars that run on alternative fuels.

Continued dependence on foreign oil subjects the United States to the potential threat of a cut-off in supply. An Iranian blockade of the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the Middle East’s oil must travel, would have immediate and catastrophic consequences.

Likewise, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela could follow through on threats to stop oil sales to the United States, though the prospect is unlikely given that Venezuela is as reliant on America’s oil purchases as America is on Venezuelan oil sales.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs faulted both major U.S. political parties for politicking instead of working out a comprehensive plan.

“Congress is still dithering about drilling, refining and building nuclear power plants,” JINSA said. “‘We can’t drill our way out of this,’ they chant. No, we can’t. But we can drill, refine, generate, reuse, reduce and recycle.”

Another proposal, touted by JINSA and the American Jewish Committee, is to remove a tariff of 54 cents per gallon on importing sugar ethanol from South American and Caribbean nations. The tariff satisfies American farmers producing corn ethanol, but sugar ethanol has proven much more efficient to manufacture, as well as less damaging to the food supply.

The tariff makes little sense given the exigencies of petroleum security, said Ami Greener, the AJCommittee’s energy policy specialist. Brazil, which is friendly to the United States, is a major sugar producer while Venezuela, which has cozied up in recent years to Iran, is a major oil supplier.

“I’d rather see our money going to Brazil than Venezuela,” Greener said.

The number of alternatives, including tax credits for using alternative fuel, research into more efficient coal use, the use of windmills and natural gas, and the development of electric cars – an area in which Israel is leading – are vast, Greener said.

That doesn’t necessarily count out drilling off-shore or in Alaska, he said, but it must be done in context.

“We have 2 to 3 percent of the oil reserves, and we use 25 percent, and it won’t come down from drilling or political pandering,” he said.

While AJCongress and AJCommittee take environmental issues into account when formulating energy policies and considering which energy-related legislation to support, some groups have made environmental concerns the determining issue.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, a collection of about a dozen national groups that includes the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious movements, issued a statement last week calling for an emphasis on climate change and natural resources in creating energy policies.

“It is the responsibility of every human, from every walk of life and every religious background, to protect the environment for ourselves and for the generations to come,” said the statement from the coalition, which operates under the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The statement cited the “need for promoting domestic energy security, increasing fuel economy and supporting the development of new methods of renewable energy.”

The JCPA has long opposed drilling in Alaska’s wildlife refuge, said Hadar Susskind, its Washington director.

“It’s been used as a political straw man, throwing it out there knowing it’s not going to happen,” Susskind said.

He cited government figures showing that the drilling would have a negligible impact on prices.

“It wouldn’t have any real impact,” Susskind said. “It’s bad and ineffective.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has been especially aggressive in opposing Alaska drilling.

“Jewish tradition insists that we care for the earth and preserve the goodness of God’s creation,” the center said in a backgrounder published last year. “We are instructed in the Torah not to destroy (bal tashchit). Rather, we are to become stewards and protectors of the land.”

Most Jewish communities have yet to tackle the question of offshore drilling because it is a relatively recent proposal, Susskind said.

In Florida, one of the states that could authorize offshore drilling should it receive congressional sanction, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared her opposition in a recent mailing to constituents. But the Democratic lawmaker, a leader on Capitol Hill on Jewish issues, suggested she was open to persuasion.

“I am interested to know what you think about this topic, especially now that energy prices are increasing,” she wrote.

Edwin Black, whose book on the topic, “The Plan,” is due to be published in September, said the key is a better educated public.

“We have a confused public and an uninformed media that doesn’t know what questions to ask and politicians delivering malarkey and false promises,” he said.

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