A Republican loyalist and canny political strategist, C. Boyden Gray has been quite busy lately. The former White House counsel to the first President Bush heads up the Committee for Justice, an advocacy group that has worked closely with the White House to push Bush 2's most controversial judicial nominees through the Senate. John Podesta has been busy too. The former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who today leads the liberal Center for American Progress has worked hard to foil Gray. Yet even as the two party generals square off in a battle that has roiled the Senate, they manage to find common cause: energy policy. "Boyden and I agree on virtually nothing," says Podesta, "but we do agree on this: the security of the country depends on a whole new generation of vehicles and fuels."
What does alternative energy have to do with national security? Gray and Podesta are part of an unlikely alliance of neoconservatives, farmers and union and environmental leaders who want to wean the U.S. of its oil habit--some for purely green reasons (to stave off global warming), but others for the sake of cutting U.S. dependence on the volatile Middle East. And they have some radical ideas about how to do it. "We live in a world in which a terrorist attack in the Middle East could push oil well over $100 a barrel and send the world economy into a tailspin," says former CIA Director James Woolsey, now a vice president at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. One organization he belongs to, the Energy Future Coalition, shot off a letter last month to Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, calling for a federal investment in alternative fuels and advanced automobile technology. But it's another arm of this movement, the Set America Free alliance (which also counts Woolsey among its members), that has identified a Holy Grail of sorts. Co-founded by Frank Gaffney, the neoconservative chief of the Center for Security Policy, the group is touting the idea of a car that gets 500 m.p.g. of gasoline.
As oil prices have soared in recent years, there has been increasing attention on renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar power. But even if those sources are expanded, they would not change the U.S.'s fundamental dependence on foreign oil and its derivative, gasoline, to which our car-obsessed culture is addicted. Unless we could plug in our cars and charge them off the electrical grid instead of filling them up at the pump, all those options would leave us as hooked on gas as ever. And while pure electric-car technology has been around for years, it is plagued by a crucial problem: a lack of range.
Gaffney and his cohorts have envisioned a clever solution: a hybrid car that combines gas-free plug-in technology with the boost of made-in-the-U.S., ethanol-based fuel to give it range. The plug-in hybrid could run for short distances on batteries charged by the same grid that powers our home appliances. On longer drives, it would use a fuel mix of 80% ethanol--alcohol, in the U.S. made mainly from corn--and 20% gas. Given that half the cars on the road travel fewer than 20 miles a day, such hybrids would travel mostly on grid-charged battery power. The rest of the time, those plug-in hybrids would run primarily on alcohol, not imported gas.