The home front

I walked down the block to my neighbor Andy Lipkis’ house last Sunday to try out the latest weapon in the war to defend the home front.

Andy raised his garage door, and there it was: a Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt goes 40 miles on its electric battery before its gas engine kicks in, enabling longer trips by recharging the battery. Technically, it’s a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, but the groundbreaking design allows for largely gas-free driving, since most Americans drive fewer than 40 miles each day. 

Andy, the visionary founder of the urban forestry group TreePeople, is an environmental leader with juice. Chevy picked him to be one of 15 Americans to try the Volt pre-release.

“Want to drive it?” he asked me.

“I want everyone to,” I said.

Two headlines from this past week only underlined the importance of the Volt.

The fires that raged across Northern Israel last week, killing 42 and ravaging more than 12,000 acres, were tragic enough in their own right. But they also serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us how quickly even a Start Up Nation can crash down unless it is prepared for the worst.

America has known since the 1973 oil embargo that our economy is fatally dependent on oil imported from some of the world’s least stable, most autocratic, least democratic, most anti-Israel countries. About 25 percent of our oil comes from the Gulf. And our oil imports from there have grown since 1973. We’re not preparing for the worst, we’re guaranteeing it.

And that brings me back to Andy Lipkis’ garage.

Currently, our transportation sector is 98 percent petroleum dependent, and 66 percent of our oil consumption is in the transportation sector.

If we change our fuel, we change our fate.  

Last week, a fresh batch of WikiLeaks revealed — as if we needed more evidence — the utter insanity of our oil addiction. In a New York Times report on a series of internal State Department cables from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s chief oil suppliers, emerges as duplicitous as ever.

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” the Clinton cable says. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

As long as we, and the rest of the world, aren’t technologically set up to replace Saudi oil, they, not we, call the shots.

“Think how different our conversations with Saudi Arabia would be if we were in the process of converting to electric cars powered by nuclear, wind, domestic natural gas and solar power,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote of the cables. “We could tell them that if we detect one more dollar of Saudi money going to the Taliban then they can protect themselves from Iran.”

Just 2 percent of our electricity generation comes from oil. Electric vehicles like the Volt, which Motor Trend selected as its 2011 Car of the Year, are — finally — Detroit’s way of telling the Saudis to shove it.

Story continues after the jump.

A 220-volt charger that Chevy mounted inside Andy’s garage plugs into the car’s side, where it “fills” the batteries at off-peak hours at about a tenth the cost of gasoline, and at a tenth the carbon footprint.

I climbed behind the wheel. The Volt starts, like a Prius, with the push of a button. The dashboard lights up like a video arcade.

I punched the accelerator. Aside from the ignition, the car is clearly the anti-Prius. It takes off like a beast. Small on the inside, with barely room for four, it has the zoom and handling of a muscle car. It’s not cheap (around $33K after a federal tax credit), or even practical for a family of four, but it will rebrand green for the Camaro class.

Chevy understands that, for most Americans, “alternative” means “sacrifice.” With the Volt, you get all the power, all the handling, and all the bells and whistles of a gas-guzzler. I mean, in park, the dashboard screen will play DVDs.

I drove around the neighborhood, racing down Venice Boulevard, doing some doughnuts at Glyndon. It’s a fast car, with everything but the noise. In fact, there’s a secondary horn to push when you want to warn pedestrians a car is approaching. It sounds like a choked goose.

When we pulled back into Andy’s garage, the dashboard calculator calculated our miles per gallon: 235.

235 MPG. Now, that’s the future.

That gas pump is a giant Saudi tzedakah box

The 5767 High Holiday tallies are in from synagogues around the country, and it appears that U.S. Jewry has topped all previous pledge drive records. It is estimated that this year,

American Jews will send approximately $660 million to Saudi Arabia.

Yes, you read that correctly. You didn’t fold a piece of cardboard or stuff an envelope, but the commitment was as good as a pledge. Maybe even better. After all, the Saudis won’t have to harass you to pay up.

The United States imports about 1.5 million barrels of Saudi oil every day. At $60 per barrel, that comes to about $33 billion per year.

Of course, we Jews are a mere 2 percent of the U.S. population, so the Jewish community is only sending about $660 million. With 6 million Jews here, that’s $110 per head.

My guess is the average Jew did not give that much to all the Jewish charities combined. I hope I’m wrong. But that gas pump? It’s a giant Saudi tzedakah box.

To break it down a little further, Saudi Arabia supplies 1.5 million barrels per day — about 7.5 percent of U.S. daily oil consumption. But only about half the price of every gallon of gasoline comes from oil; the other half comes from refining, transporting, storing, marketing and taxes. So, every time you fill up your car, you’re sending about 3.75 percent of the tab — or 11 cents of every $3 gallon — to Saudi Arabia. If you drive 15,000 miles a year and get 15 miles per gallon, you buy 1,000 gallons of gasoline, and Saudi Arabia collects $110 -will that be cash or credit?

Of course, not all Saudis are funding Hamas or Al Qaeda. Still, the Los Angeles Times quotes a senior Al Qaeda operative telling a subordinate, “Don’t ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia’s money is your money.” The New York Times has reported that at least half of Hamas’ operating budget comes from people in Saudi Arabia. And the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Treasury testified that Saudi Arabia is “the ‘epicenter’ of financing for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.”

So, there is little doubt that every time we fill our gas tanks, some of our money finds its way to people who want Americans and Jews dead, and who work to achieve that goal every day.

We’ve also pledged money to Venezuela and its dynamic President Hugo Cha A¡vez. You remember him. He’s the charismatic leader who, last year, railed against “some minorities … the descendants of those who crucified Christ [and] took possession of all the planet’s gold.”

Later, he called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and himself a “great alliance of brothers.” This year, he’s supporting Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear “capabilities.” The American Jewish communal pledge to him? Another $600 million-plus.

I first did this rough math exercise last year, when my Lexus lease was coming to a close. I figured out that with my nice car, which was (realistically) getting about 15 miles per gallon, I was

sending more than $100 per year to Saudi Arabia, $100 to Senor Cha A¡vez and still more to Arab Gulf states and Iran.
It made me sick. So, with the lease coming due, I unloaded the Lexus and purchased a Toyota Prius. My license plate holder now reads: “My car $tarve$ Terrorist$,” although, as a friend told me — from her bike — that’s not exactly accurate, even if it does get 45 miles per gallon. Party pooper.

Still, I feel pretty good. If everyone did this, there’d be no U.S. need for petroleum from despots.

I realize for some, the transition to a hybrid may not be easy. Really, I do. It’s that irksome status factor: “Will my clients bolt when they see me in a Prius rather than my usual Bentley?” you ask yourself.

Relax. In addition to its eco-chic, the beauty of a hybrid — especially the Prius, with its UFO-like styling — is that it screams: “You have no idea how much money I have, but you do know I care about the world we live in.” And you don’t have to feel sheepish when you’re seen driving only a Lexus, Mercedes or Beemer, or — heaven forbid — a lesser car.

I’ve also heard many otherwise-smart people pooh-pooh the economics of hybrids. Assuming the authoritative tone of investment bankers advising on a big IPO, they tell anyone willing to listen that spending extra money on a hybrid “just isn’t cost-effective; it’ll take years to pay for itself.” To which I respond, “What’s the payback on your moonroof? How about those plush leather seats; how long do they take to pay for themselves?”

Why do some people who consider themselves patriots, environmentalists, lovers of peace pull out green visors and their sharpest pencils when evaluating a vehicle that can dramatically cut their oil consumption and thereby reduce terrorism and Islamic extremism, military spending, air pollution and global warming?

Sure, my seat may have been a bit more comfortable in the Lexus, but my head rests a lot more easily in the Prius. Figure that into the price of your car and your gasoline. And then get a hybrid and welch on that pledge.

After all, the Saudis won’t be harassing you to pay up.