Clash Looms Over Energy Independence

Groups Fight About Focus: Environment or Cutting Arab Oil?

By Jennifer Siegel

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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A major debate over energy and the environment is poised to erupt among national Jewish organizations at an upcoming public policy conference.

According to communal insiders, several groups belonging to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy coordinating body made up of 13 national Jewish organizations and 125 local Jewish communities, are wrangling over a proposed resolution on energy independence that is expected to be considered at its annual plenum later this month. The confrontation pits advocates favoring strong action to promote energy independence — potentially even at the expense of the environment — against others that see environmental issues as one of the most pressing items on the American agenda.

Energy independence, long a high priority for some of the most influential Jewish groups because of its connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict, has catapulted to the forefront of the American consciousness in recent years, as the country has grappled with the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the ongoing war in Iraq. At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats are paying increased attention to the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, which were spelled out in last week’s much anticipated report on global warming from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While the security and environmental causes often dovetail, their respective partisans have sometimes differed on key issues, including domestic oil drilling, nuclear power and new coal technologies. Those differences are at the heart of the recent debate among Jewish organizations, and of similar debates in Congress over a slew of competing energy bills.

“In the long term, we’re going to serve both our environmental interests and our national security interests by intensive attention to efficiency, to alternative fuels and to renewable fuels,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the AJCommittee. “There can be some divergence in the short term if, in the interest of national security, we urge — as we do — that we continue to look into domestic drilling as part of a comprehensive package. I don’t doubt that there will be those who say, ‘Let’s not even go there.’”

The AJCommittee, which authored the proposed draft resolution on energy independence to be considered at the JCPA’s upcoming conference, first raised the issue in the late 1970s. While the AJCommittee has also framed its advocacy in environmental terms over the years and did not back previous proposals to open Alaskan wilderness to drilling, Foltin said the group is open to domestic drilling, as well as nuclear power, as part of a comprehensive plan for energy independence.

While the JCPA has passed several resolutions about global warming and the environment over the years, this is the first time that the umbrella group will consider a draft resolution specifically addressing American dependence on foreign energy sources, according to its Washington director, Hadar Susskind. The current energy resolution is co-sponsored by B’nai B’rith, the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism and five local Jewish Community Relations Councils.

According to several people familiar with the document, its original version called for increased investment in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, but also for nuclear power, which raised the hackles of several JCPA member groups. During a February 5 conference call, participants revised the draft to advocate, in general, for renewable and alternative energy sources, and also to support “exploring nuclear energy with appropriate safeguards,” according to Susskind.

In interviews with the Forward, several officials said that clarification of the resolution’s general language and its call for nuclear exploration could become a topic of debate at the JCPA plenum, which is known for its lively floor debates. Alan Respler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said he was concerned about the inclusion of nuclear energy in the draft.

Both Respler and leaders at Hadassah told the Forward they had already successfully proposed revisions to the draft resolution that heightened its emphasis on the environment.

“There was a feeling that conservation is important, and it should come at the beginning, rather than the end, of the resolution,” said Marla Gilson, director of Hadassah’s Washington Action Office. “We don’t want energy at any cost; we don’t want drilling in Alaska or other things we think are damaging to the environment.”

According to a recent poll from the AJCommittee, 99% of American Jews believe achieving energy independence is important, with 74% saying they feel the goal should be achieved through developing energy sources. This was in contrast to the 5% who call for increased energy production. Only 9% cite energy conservation as the best way to address the issue.

Last week’s report from the International Panel on Climate Change called global warming “unequivocal” and said that human activity has “very likely” caused most of the rise in temperatures since 1950. While the panel — the leading international network of climate scientists — has released four assessments since 1990 on the causes and consequences of global warming, it is the first time that the group has asserted with near certainty that greenhouse gases produced by humans have been the main causes of warming in the past 50 years.

In the current Congress, energy issues occupy a prominent place on the Democratic agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised legislation by the July 4 recess, and last month she announced the creation of a select committee on climate change.

On Tuesday, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who has long opposed heightened fuel-efficiency standards as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, ended several weeks of feuding with Pelosi over the new committee, which he saw as a threat to his authority as the energy chair.

Already, a number of competing energy bills are making their way through the new Congress. Environmentalists have lauded a bill that would enact the most stringent caps on carbon emissions, sponsored by Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, in the Senate, and a similar measure expected to be introduced by Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, in the House. Other lawmakers, however, have been criticized for offering bills that would expedite American independence from foreign oil but not go as far in addressing environmental concerns.

Senators Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have reintroduced a bill, also sponsored by fellow senators and presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, that includes nuclear power in its package of recommendations. When the nuclear provision was inserted during the last Congress, several religious organizations, including the JCPA and the National Council of Churches, backed off in their support for the legislation. This term, environmental criticisms have been leveled at Obama, too, for reintroducing, with GOP Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, a bill to promote coal-to-liquid fuel technology. While several lawmakers from coal-rich states, like Obama’s Illinois, have backed coal liquefaction, environmentalists say the technology would contribute to global warming.

Obama’s spokesman, Tommy Vietor, told The Washington Post last month that the new coal technology would put Illinois’s vast energy resources in the service of American energy independence.

“Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Vietor reportedly said.

Several Jewish advocacy groups told the Forward that they were still evaluating the myriad bills emerging in Congress. According to the AJCommittee’s Foltin, his organization currently supports only the Drive Act, a measure co-sponsored by Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, and Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, that provides incentives for manufactures to increase production of hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles but does not mandate higher fuel-efficiency standards.

Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said her group had backed the Waxman bill in the last Congress but was waiting to see what “traction” the measure now gets.

The AJCongress plans to focus solely on lobbying for the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act, which was passed by the House in the last session of Congress. The bill would provide $20 million in yearly grants to American and Israeli researchers studying alternative energy technologies.


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