America Is Totally Unprepared for a Protracted Oil Interruption

It will come as a shock to most Americans and the media, but as the election reaches a crescendo on the issue of preparedness and energy, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain —nor anyone in local, state or federal government — has developed a contingency plan in the event of a protracted oil cut-off. It is not even being discussed.

A detailed examination of the Obama and McCain energy platforms and track records reveals that neither man has tackled the issue of a potential oil catastrophe that would quickly tear this nation apart. Nor does either candidate reflect the sense of urgency such a looming catastrophe — constant, continuous threats by Iran, Venezuela and other OPEC activists — requires.

For example, Obama’s regularly promised remedy for gasoline consumption is to ensure that 1 million plug-in hybrids are on the road by 2015. That prodigious lack of awareness towers over the bitter facts of national oil consumption.

Some 250 million gas-consuming cars and trucks travel America’s highways. Detroit adds 1.5 million more to that per month. The scrappage rate on a modern American vehicle is about a decade. In order to counteract such mammoth numbers in such an emergency — or even to make a meaningful dent in our energy future — the nation would have to immediately retrofit and do so at a rate far more than a million cars per month to alternative fuels or propulsion. An early scrappage program would be necessary, such as Canada operates for its fuel-inefficient program.

Yet nowhere does Obama speak of retrofitting. Until he reads this, he will not realize that our nation has fewer than seven true retrofitters, struggling to convert a few dozen cars each week. America will need to invent a retrofitting industry overnight, the type that Iran is now employing to convert 20 percent of its fleet annually to natural gas.

Obama has supported legislation that makes it essentially impossible to convert more than a handful of cars from oil to other fuels such as CNG, sugar cane ethanol, electric, or similar alternatives.

Moreover, Congress has opposed all early scrappage incentives because auto parts lobbyists want to continue fixing older cars. An early scrappage incentive plan would be required overnight. Obama has never mentioned one.

In essence, Obama’s plan virtually assures that America will be subservient to foreign oil for decades to come.

McCain is equally unaware of the frightening energy facts. His proposal for a $300 million award for an electric car battery overlooks the facts.

Electric cars were invented in 1835. By 1900, fundamentally all cars in America were electric until they were subverted by internal combustion interests. By 1912, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had teamed up to create a battery-operated Model T sustained by home recharging in combination with a national network of charging stations designed to use omnipresent parking meter-type devices called Electrants. That plan was also subverted in 1914 by corporate foul play. Then along came World War I.

Chances are McCain will learn this only after reading this article, even though many others know this. But clearly, a new battery is not needed. Resurrecting the old idea will work just fine.

That is exactly what is happening. The Israeli enterprise known as Project Better Place has been working with Nissan for several years, preparing to introduce batteries and a network of charging stations along the lines of the Ford-Edison model. GM, which was working against Ford-Edison at the time, is now preparing to mass-produce the Volt as an extended-range electric car.

A long list of major and minor carmakers is joining the electric revolution. All of them are fast gearing up for mass production in 2010.

Hence, if McCain wanted to make a difference, he would not propose a $300 million prize for a simple device invented more than 150 years ago, proliferated a century ago, and now readying for mass production this moment. The real prize would be to commit $300 million to mandate these new vehicles for the post office and other government fleets, and to require them for corporate fleets. Nowhere does that idea appear in McCain’s monologues.

Returning to McCain, he does not even mention retrofitting. Worse, his theme song of “drill baby drill” is yet another way of assuring that America will be shackled to costly oil for another generation. First, the fastest drilling requires a three- to seven-year waiting period. Second, the scrappage rate ensures that every new car sold fueled by petroleum obligates the owner to oil for another decade.

It is not just McCain. With equal oblivion, Obama fails to even mention mandates to immediately convert fleets to green cars.

Worse, the lack of immediacy in the rhetoric and positioning of both candidates makes the conclusion bulletproof that neither had a plan from day one to cope with a protracted energy interruption. Both offer filter tip cigarettes to stop the smoking addiction.

Government has prepared for hurricanes, anthrax, terrorism and every other disaster, but not the one threatened daily — a protracted oil stoppage, whether caused by terrorism, intervention in the Persian Gulf or a natural disaster.

It is like seeing a hurricane developing without a disaster plan or evacuation route. Our allies have oil shortage interruption contingency plans, but America does not.

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling investigative author of IBM and the Holocaust, Internal Combustion and his just released book, The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops — or the Day Before (Dialog Press), from which this article is adapted.

Black can be reached at