WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An automobile service station in Nebraska recently began promoting a brand of “terror-free gasoline” at its pumps - a move that has some Middle East experts crying foul.
Catching the wave of rising U.S. focus on energy independence, a new website has set out to tell U.S. motorists where they can fill up without having to worry that the proceeds will “finance terrorism by importing oil from the Middle East.”
The website — www.terrorfreeoil.org — identifies oil companies deemed to use home-grown oil supplies from the United States and Canada rather than the Middle East — including Amerada Hess, Sunoco Inc., and Sinclair Oil.
“Financing for terrorism comes from one place and that is the Middle East,” said Joe Kaufman, a spokesman for the group — the Terror-Free Oil Initiative.
Middle East experts see creeping xenophobia in the effort, and liken it to when Dubai Ports World triggered a political firestorm when it tried to buy U.S. facilities last year.
“It’s a marketing gimmick,” said Fahad Nazer - a fellow at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington. “It seems like a lot of knee-jerk reaction without really much substance or circumspection behind it.”
Nevertheless, the first U.S. station to sell certified “terror-free” gasoline recently opened at 12901 Q Street in Omaha, Nebraska, with “terror-free” grades of premium, super and regular unleaded gasoline grades marked on the pump.
The group is also fielding inquiries in 32 other U.S. states, the District of Columbia, as well as in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Norway, according to the website.
U.S. politicians including President George W. Bush say they want motorists to use more home-grown fuels like ethanol to replace imports from Middle East suppliers, including OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. About 17 percent of U.S. crude oil imports come from the Middle East region.
Bush and other politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have focused on the link between the security of U.S. energy supply and national security.
Energy independence has been painted as a pipe dream by some U.S. energy analysts who say that imports have nowhere to go but up.
“If we mean it literally, we’re almost certainly headed for great disappointment,” Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told a congressional hearing, though he admitted the idea has “deep political resonance.”
The idea has taken hold with U.S. industry, which sees it as a way to promote growing use of ethanol, made from corn or other non-food sources like switchgrass.
“Why should we be sending dollars to Mideast terrorists when we can send them to rural America,” said Vinod Khosla, a well-known Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of computer server maker Sun Microsystems Inc.. “We should not be hostage to the Mideast.”
Khosla was in Washington this week to promote “25 X ‘25,” an organization aiming for 25 percent of U.S. energy needs to come from home-grown renewable sources like ethanol, wind and solar power by 2025.
For their part, refiners with the “terror-free” stamp of approval caution that their oil-buying practices are driven by economics, not patriotism.
Amerada Hess’ refineries don’t process oil from Middle East nations, but are instead set up to run oil from Venezuela, West Africa and the North Sea, said company spokesman Jay Wilson.
“I don’t want to appear too virtuous,” Wilson said. “It’s business.”