At R. James Woolsey’s farm in southern Maryland, solar panels on the roof of his house send electricity back to the utility grid when his family is not using much power. And he drives a Toyota Prius hybrid with a conversion kit that enables him to recharge the car’s battery pack using an extension cord and household current.

Woolsey isn’t the average citizen who has gone green. As the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995, Woolsey warns that the U.S. faces a grave national security threat from its dependence on energy derived from oil. “I think we need to go right for oil’s jugular vein,” he says.

The peril to national security arises from a variety of concerns, such as the vulnerability of the oil infrastructure and the consequences of funneling enormous sums of money to regimes unfriendly to the U.S. Although some experts focus on increasing the supply of domestic oil to lessen dependence on foreign sources, Woolsey believes that slashing demand for oil in transportation is the more promising approach.

Woolsey, a lawyer for the firm of Goodwin Procter, works with a number of groups involved in energy issues, including the National Commission on Energy Policy. Scientific American interviewed him in his Washington, D.C., office.

In the interview, Woolsey made clear that merely lessening America’s dependence on foreign oil would not solve the national security problem.
“It’s not just foreign oil. It’s oil. I think one thing that’s been wrong about the debate is that people assume everything would be fine if we just had more domestic oil and relied on foreign sources for a smaller share. I think that’s entirely wrong. In my view, since we’re not going to be the low-cost producer—the Middle East is—we’re going to end up with a jury-rigged structure of tariffs and subsidies that won’t work. So I talk about independence from oil, not foreign oil.

“That doesn’t mean that, if it’s affordable and ecologically sound, we shouldn’t do some offshore drilling. I’m not troubled by that. But our major effort ought to be to do to oil what refrigeration did to salt at the end of the 19th century—to destroy its monopoly. Once refrigeration did that to salt, it stopped mattering whether your country had salt mines. Countries didn’t go to war over salt mines anymore. Salt was just a useful commodity, as it still is. We want to do that to oil.”

Woolsey sees the threat to national security coming from many directions.
“It’s the possibility of an oil cutoff such as the Saudis did in 1973. It’s the possibility of terrorism against infrastructure in the Middle East, such as the attack on Abqaiq [the oil refinery in Saudi Arabia] two years ago. It’s the possibility of regime change, either violently or by succession. It’s if [Saudi] King Abdullah is succeeded by Prince Nayef, who is the interior minister, his half brother and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Prince Nayef is a fanatical Wahhabi. We might have a much more difficult time getting along with him than we do with King Abdullah.

“It’s current regimes like the Iranian regime, fueled by high oil prices and developing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map. It’s borrowing well over a billion dollars a day to import oil, which weakens the dollar and has all sorts of negative economic effects. Some of that finds its way through the Saudi government and wealthy individuals to the Wahhabi institutions of the world of Islam.

“So when a Wahhabi madrassa in Pakistan is teaching little Pakistani boys the virtues of becoming a suicide bomber, you and I are paying for that through our gasoline purchases.”

Woolsey worries about how vulnerable the nation’s energy infrastructure is to attack by terrorists.
“I think it’s mainly the electricity grid and the fact that it’s so balkanized. Its management structure means that it’s very difficult to take the steps needed to improve security. It was put together by essentially 50 separate sets of engineers and regulators without a single thought being given to intentional interference. The substations are well designed to keep some crazy person from wandering in and electrocuting himself but not well designed at all to deal with a terrorist or [other] intentional interference.

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“To use one example: four years ago when a tree branch fell in Cleveland during a storm, instead of just taking out part of Cleveland’s electricity ... it took 80 gigawatts off-line within nine seconds in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. Terrorists are a lot smarter than tree branches.

“I would also focus on the vulnerabilities of the trans-Alaska pipeline. People can put that thing out of operation with a rifle shot.”

Reducing the national security risk, Woolsey argues, begins with the rapid adoption of plug-in hybrid vehicles that can get hundreds of miles to the gallon. These cars are recharged overnight by their owners, using a regular plug and wall outlet, and can go up to 40 miles between charges—farther than the average car is driven in a day. They rarely need to switch over to gasoline or to an alternative liquid fuel. A nation driving such automobiles would vastly decrease its need for oil.
“There are two consequences to that. One, if you don’t drive much above average ... you may go for weeks and weeks without needing any more liquid fuel than you have in the tank. Your gasoline tank or ethanol tank is basically your insurance policy for long trips that you don’t normally take.

“And two, since it is so efficient to drive on electricity, especially start-and-stop driving, you are doing the equivalent of charging your battery ... and then driving on what you’ve paid for that, which in much of the country would be two cents or so per mile. Gasoline today would be 15 cents a mile, headed up.”

Of course, more advanced battery technology for plug-in hybrids, and better alternative liquid fuels, would hasten a vastly diminished role for oil in transportation. Although it is long awaited, Woolsey is optimistic about such progress.
“For about 150 years batteries essentially didn’t change. Bright new graduates of Caltech and M.I.T. weren’t starting battery companies. Now they are. What has happened is that laptops and cell phones and so forth have given a big boost to increasing energy storage because nobody wants to plug in those things all
the time.

“What that has done to the opportunities for electric vehicles, including plug-ins, is quite remarkable. Electricity is easy—you need an extension cord. Alternative liquid fuels are a little harder because the cars have to be flexible-fuel vehicles; one needs pumps for them and filling stations, but these are not deal killers. We made these kinds of changes getting lead out of gasoline.”

The final step to getting the country off oil, Woolsey notes, is that regulators have to prompt the transition by providing incentives for saving energy.
“If you change the rules so that people have an incentive to do what you want them to do, which is to save energy instead of waste it, they’ll respond. In California, utilities have done a very good job over the years of innovating. And a lot of that had to do with a public utility decision 20 years ago that said if you innovate and save energy and introduce new technology, we’ll give you a return on your investment, not on your sales.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "For Security, Get Off Oil".