Former CIA Director James Woolsey: Make Oil Boring

Former CIA Director James Woolsey wants to turn oil into salt.

Speaking to an audience of about 250 at Temple Beth Jacob yesterday evening, the foreign policy analyst and green technology investor said that by “undermin[ing] oil’s monopoly on transportation, Americans could free themselves from having to kowtow to “dictators and autocratic kingdoms,” like Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members.

Salt, which had been a strategic commodity through the end of the 19th century—it was the only way to preserve meat—had its monopoly eliminated by technological innovation: refrigeration. “You won’t sit down to dinner tonight, look at the salt, and think ‘I wonder if our country is salt independent?’” Woolsey said to scattered laughter. Salt, he said, is boring. But before the advent of refrigeration, wars were fought over salt—much in the way that wars are fought over oil today.

Woolsey sees only one answer to this problem: innovations that specifically aim to reduce the amount of oil we put into our gas tanks. A founder of the Set America Free Coalition—a group that promotes alternative fuel choices—Woolsey has a tool that helps him to do this personally: “It’s 25 feet long and orange with black plugs on each end,” Woolsey said. One plug goes into the wall; the other goes into his modified Prius.

More interesting than the solutions he proposed—and Woolsey wants to try ethanol, methanol, and other possibilities—are the ones he dismissed. “Drill baby drill” only affects the supply. Cap-and-trade would have only applied to fixed emitters of CO2—not mobile emitters like automobiles. Nuclear power does nothing to change the stuff that goes into our cars. And setting CO2 aside, 25% of what comes out of your tailpipe is carcinogenic.

Woolsey, who was invited to speak by 30 Years After, an LA-based group of Iranian Jews, devoted much of his speech to issues relating to Iran. He believes that than the combination of sanctions, diplomacy, political isolation and other measures currently being taken against Iran are too little, too late, and puts the possibility of Iran’s producing a nuclear weapon—or a country’s having to use force to stop it from doing so—at “slightly more” than 50 percent.

By way of illustration, Woolsey recalled his experience as ambassador to the Negotiation on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in Vienna from 1989-1991. At the end of long days of negotiating, he and his Soviet counterpart would often go out to dinner together. Over Lobster Thermidor and a bottle of Chablis—“on the American taxpayer”—Woolsey and “Oleg” would end up talking about their kids. And at the end of the evening, the two might find some points on which each side could concede at the negotiating table the next day.

“Can anybody remotely imagine a session like that with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?” Woolsey asked rhetorically. “Or someone who sees the world the way he does?”

Turn oil into salt, Woolsey said, and we won’t have to.