Reducing U.S. oil appetite This is one cause that could be helped by smart mandates and taxing.

Posted: January 31, 2008

Free heating oil for the poor!

That's what Joe Kennedy II has been peddling on TV recently. Sounds great, right? What's not to like about free? Of course, the devil's always in the details when it comes to "free," and this time the devil is more than a metaphor. This heating oil to our poor neighborhoods is flowing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez, whose poor are poorer and greater in number, percentage-wise.

The same Fidel Castro disciple who traveled to the United Nations to call our president the devil. The same dictator who along with radical Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has created a $2 billion fund to sow anti-United States seeds throughout Central and South America. And the thug who is working with the narco-terrorists in Colombia to take out our democratically elected ally.

Offers of free heating oil from his kind aren't as heart- or home-warming as they sound.

It's hard to blame low-income Americans for trying to find help heating their homes. Some recipients have even been recruited for free trips to Venezuela to learn about the virtues of the socialist revolution there and are being encouraged to spread them back here. As for Teddy Kennedy's nephew Joe, he has obviously been recruited, but I don't think he's shilling for Chvez to keep the Hyannisport mansion warm.

Joe's pitch to the poor fails to mention the production limits Chvez and his pals at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel, or OPEC, use to keep prices artificially high. I guess when Chvez and Ahmadinejad say they are willing to use oil as a weapon to destroy the Great Satan, this is part of what they had in mind.

Sadly, our energy policy is providing ammunition for their weapons.

It's been two years since President Bush admitted we are "addicted to oil." This expensive addiction has taken a toll on our economy while funding major sponsors of the jihadis and other terrorists that seek to harm us.

We have been told the only way to break this addiction is to reduce consumption, as in the recently passed mandate to increase fuel efficiency. I am all for conservation and improving fuel economy, as with hybrid cars, but even if everyone drove a hybrid it would just slow the rate of growth in our consumption of oil. Those savings will be more than offset by our reduction in national oil production because we are unwilling to drill in Alaska and offshore. In other words, the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela have us over a barrel.

I suggest that in the short term, we dig our way out of this problem. The United States is the "Saudi Arabia of coal," and Pennsylvania is sitting on hundreds of years of this affordable and accessible resource, which, with innovative technologies - spearheaded by Pennsylvanians - we can use cleanly and right away.

Pennsylvania coal already generates most of the electricity in this state. The industry is in the process of doing it more cleanly through clean-coal technologies, such as gasification of coal into methanol, a form of alcohol that can be burned in internal combustion engines directly or used to manufacture synthetic gasoline and chemicals. These technologies can lead to a whole host of new clean uses that can help us reduce oil imports.

Just two hours up the road from Philadelphia, the nation's first coal-to-gas-to-diesel facility may soon be developed in Schuylkill County; word was expected today on a U.S. Department of Energy loan of $100 million to help enable construction. This fuel, which is currently being used in another coal-rich country, South Africa, can be used to power jets, heat your home, and run diesel engines.

Across Pennsylvania, farmers are also digging and planting corn and other crops that will be turned into ethanol that can replace gasoline in our cars. Most cars in America can't run on ethanol, however, so who is going to install ethanol pumps at the gas station without the cars to run on it? At this point I would say to all of my hard-core conservative friends: Hold on to your hats.

What we need is a government mandate! We need to mandate that all cars sold in the United States, starting with the 2010 model year, be "flex-fuel vehicles" - that is, they should be able to run on a blend that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (the so-called E85 blend), or even a coal-derived methanol/gas mixture. This mandate would cost a fraction of the new fuel economy standard with the added benefit of saving barrels more oil.

What would Chvez and company do in response? Jack up production to kill this industry off before it gets off the ground. So - hold on again, conservatives - let's put a temporary tax trigger on imported oil if the price hits $50 per barrel. Anyone think it will go that low without this idea?

Finally, Congress should immediately repeal the protectionist $26 per barrel tax on imported ethanol. So while we may have a tax increase if oil prices drop, we offset that with an immediate tax cut on ethanol. That's a net win for taxpayers and our energy security. Ethanol will begin to flow into this country from poor third-world countries that don't have oil or much in the way of terrorists. U.S. popularity would soar in the third world and help the poor of those countries as well as ours. I wonder if Joe would do an ad on that?

E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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