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Kerry to assert foreign oil, national security link

In his much-anticipated acceptance speech tomorrow night, John F. Kerry is expected to call on the nation to support a multibillion-dollar project aimed at ending America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil as a way to reduce its entanglement with authoritarian regimes and the Islamic terrorists who are trying to topple them.

Generations of Democratic candidates have called for reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, but usually with an environmentalist rationale. Kerry's strategy aims to recast that familiar domestic issue in an international security mold so that it will resonate in the debate over how the United States can win the war on terrorism.

"No American soldier should ever have to die for Middle Eastern oil," Kerry has said from the stump repeatedly in recent months, as he has developed the energy-independence theme, making it one of his most successful applause lines.

This theme will also function as a central thread that will tie together the high prices voters are paying for gasoline, the need for a comprehensive way to avoid war in the Middle East, and the criticism of the Bush administration for its environmental policies, its ties to energy companies such as Halliburton Co., and its handling of the Iraq war.

Rand Beers, Kerry's national security adviser, said the public may be more receptive to bold proposals to reduce energy dependence than it has been since the OPEC crisis of three decades ago.

In 1974, President Nixon announced Project Independence, styled as a new Manhattan Project, to end the grip of foreign-produced energy on the American economy. But the effort faltered, and today the United States consumes about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day from the Middle East.

"I think Americans get it much more than they have in a long time," Beers said. "It's 9/11 and it's the price of gasoline and it's questions about what's happening in Iraq and it's questions about what's happening in Saudi Arabia. And, for those who look deeper at the international scene, it's questions about what could happen in Venezuela and Nigeria."

The proposal includes an offer to automakers of $10 billion over the next decade to alter plants to build a new generation of more fuel-efficient vehicles. It includes incentives to consumers who purchase energy-efficient cars and appliances. It would also raise mandatory fuel-efficiency standards and launch an institute for developing hydrogen-based fuel.

By insisting that any automaker that receives the subsidies keep its new or renovated plants in the United States, the campaign aims to blunt any opposition from automakers, especially in the swing state of Michigan, over possible job losses under the plan. Automakers earn a major portion of their profits from their lines of sport utility vehicles, which have not had to meet federal fuel-efficiency standards because of a legal loophole that classifies them as trucks rather than cars.

"John Kerry believes we do need to become independent of Middle Eastern oil for our security, and also he believes there are great opportunities in alternative energy to create jobs and improve our environment at the same time," said Sarah Bianchi, the campaign's national policy director.

"These are tax incentives to help jump-start the future, because he believes that the cars of the future ought to be built in the US by American workers," she said.

The Kerry plan's emphasis on curbing the demand for petroleum stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration's alternative, a sweeping energy package now pending in Congress that focuses on increasing energy production.

The Bush plan would provide billions to encourage oil and gas exploration and would finance a natural gas pipeline in Alaska and a new nuclear power plant in Idaho.

The Republican energy bill, however, also would provide some tax credits for consumers who purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles. And Bush has pushed the idea of putting government resources behind hydrogen fuel cells, proposing $1.7 billion for research over five years.

Charli Coon, a senior policy analyst for energy and environmental issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is critical of Kerry's plan. She argues that even if all new vehicles have greater fuel efficiency, it will take many years for the current fleet on the road to be replaced.

In the meantime, the United States will continue to need greater supplies of oil and natural gas while global competition for purchasing the fuel is rising in such countries as China. But the Kerry plan does not call for new exploration in places like Alaska and on the continental shelf surrounding the United States, where drilling is currently forbidden.

"It plays well, and I think it's politically correct to say we are all going to be energy independent," Coon said. "But energy is a global commodity now, and I think that's naive."

But Chuck Porcari of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental activist group, said that increasing fuel efficiency standards is only "a piece of the mosaic in reducing our dependence on foreign oil."

The long-term solution, he said, is Kerry's companion proposal for a nationally focused and concentrated effort to develop technology that will derive energy from nonfossil resources.

"It is not an idea that is new, but there just hasn't been the political will to follow through," he said. "A national tragedy like 9/11 certainly does bring it into more focus."

Whether the policy is also good politics remains to be seen. Democrats are clearly hoping that it will exploit the perception that the Bush administration is so beholden to energy companies that it is short-changing the war on terrorism, the issue that generates Bush's strongest poll numbers.

Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media consultant and former Clinton administration aide, said the policy is smart, but it may not be the issue to convince undecided voters when simply presented in a speech.

"I fear it will only resonate with people who already know how they're voting, he said.

"Only in a public debate will there be an opportunity to show just how different and how much smarter this policy is than anything the Bush administration is putting forward." 

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