Correction: Due to an editing error, Rabbi Steve Gutow’s name was mispelled and Richard Foltin was misidentified in the print version of this story.
Washington — President Bush’s pledge in his State of the Union speech to develop alternative energy sources and to end America’s dependency on foreign oil struck a positive chord with the Jewish community.
Developing alternative fuel sources and achieving national energy independence have climbed to the top of the agenda of several national Jewish organizations in the past decade, because of geo-political concerns about Arab oil and because of environmental worries about burning fossil fuels. A recent poll commissioned by the American Jewish Committee suggested that the overwhelming majority of American Jews favor initiatives backed by environmentalists. Several Jewish groups, however, have attempted to find a middle ground between such an approach and that of the administration, which stresses expanded production to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Several centrist Jewish organizations praised the president after his speech Tuesday.
In a statement, the AJCommittee saluted “President Bush for declaring, in his State of the Union address, a commitment to reduce our nation’s gasoline consumption, and we look to the Administration and Congress to find common ground on concrete initiatives that will diversify our energy supply while protecting the environment.”
The American Jewish Congress also praised Bush for addressing energy issues. “It’s heartening that the President is recognizing the need for stable supplies of alternative energy sources,” said Matthew Horn, Washington director of the AJCongress, which has made energy a priority on its agenda. In his speech, President Bush set the issue of reducing America’s energy dependence as one of his main domestic priorities, along with slight reforms to the American health care system.
“For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil,” Bush said, “It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply, and the way forward is through technology.”
Among Bush’s goals: increasing the use of clean-coal technology, as well as solar, wind and nuclear energy production; conducting research into battery-powered hybrid vehicles, clean diesel, bio-diesel and ethanol, and searching for new technologies for energy production. On the specifics, Bush set the goal of reducing gasoline consumption in America by 20% in the next 10 years and called on Congress to require that 35 billion gallons of fuel will come from renewable and alternative sources by 2017.
The president also called for increasing the fuel-efficiency standards of cars; administration officials later said that the president would like to see a yearly one-mile-per-gallon increase beginning in 2010.
In the past, Bush stopped short of setting specific goals for fuel-efficiency standards in cars and trucks and only called for reforming the existing standards.
“America’s on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change,” Bush said.
Critics of the president acknowledged that his mere mention of global climate change represents a shift in his approach, which for many years rejected the idea that greenhouse gas emissions affect global warming.
Bush, according to White House advisers, will be asking Congress for $1.6 billion in funds for alternative energy research and another $2 billion in loans for power plants producing energy from alternative sources.
Bush’s energy plan, however, did not address industrial and power plants, which account for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions — the main cause of global warming, scientists say. The president did not set a cap for emissions and refrained from mentioning the need for new standards that would limit the industries on this issue. It has long been the administration’s view that limitations of this kind would damage America’s economy and give an edge to the country’s industrial competitors.
For Jewish groups and activists, the Bush speech represents a positive step on an issue that has united the Jewish community since the early 1990s. Though the motivation of groups in dealing with the energy issues varies, all agree on the final goal of reducing the use of fossil fuels. The AJCommittee, the AJCongress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee stress the need to free America from its dependency on foreign oil, while the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish environmental groups focus on the ecological aspects of the energy crisis.
“The national security aspect is the pressing need of the moment,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the AJCommittee. The group is lobbying for legislation that could turn the president’s pledge into law that would give incentives for the use of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, who heads the JCPA, a group that has recently launched an effort to push the use of energy-efficient light bulbs in American homes, said that both approaches to the problem are positive, as long as they promote the goal of burning less oil. “There is no wrong direction when dealing with the energy crisis,” he said.
Yet at least one expert thinks if America does stop its dependency on oil from the Middle East, as the president suggested and as Jewish groups are advocating, the effect on Israel’s national security might be negative. Gabriel Sheffer, a professor from the Hebrew University’s department of political science, said that a drop in the demand for Arab oil could lead America to decrease its overall interest in the Middle East.
“Until Israel solves its problems with the Palestinians, Iran and Lebanon, Israel’s interest is to have the U.S. involved in the Middle East,” said Sheffer, who is now teaching at Duke University. “Reduction of America’s oil purchases from the region would necessarily reduce its involvement in the region.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.