by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

I am always skeptical of books written by presidential candidates. As a rule, the text is just an extended résumé coupled with a laundry list of initiatives that sound good but lack any specifics that might encumber the candidate if he or she later wants to adjust the details of a position. A refreshing exception to this rule is Bill Richardson’s recent book “Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire an Energy and Security Revolution.”

In this book, Richardson draws on his experience as a former energy secretary and current governor of an energy-producing state to lay out a very specific plan for reducing our dependency on foreign oil while addressing global warming. Richardson’s goal is aggressive: A 50 percent reduction in America’s dependency on oil by 2020. But given the situation that we have gotten ourselves into – our economy is now totally dependent on the price of oil, and we currently import more than 65 percent of the oil we consume – only an aggressive plan is likely to have much effect.

Richardson’s plan hinges on making our transportation system less dependent on oil and more dependent on electricity. He proposes tax breaks and rebates to greatly accelerate the adoption of plug-in and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Plug-in cars and trucks run off a battery that can be charged from the electric grid and would work well for those who travel less than 100 to 150 miles a day. A plug-in hybrid also gets its battery charged from the electric grid, but it has a motor as well that can power the car on long trips or when one forgets to fully charge the vehicle. The plug-in hybrid represents the best of both worlds by greatly lowering fuel costs while still giving the user unlimited range.

By shifting our transportation system to electricity, we can tap our domestic energy sources, including renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal, as well as clean coal and nuclear plants, to meet our transportation energy needs. Powering a vehicle from the electric grid limits the source of pollution from greenhouse gas emissions to the generation facility – for example, a coal-fired power plant – where CO2 can be trapped and sequestered. This is a much easier way to control emissions than trying to capture them from hundreds of millions of individual automobile tailpipes.

Richardson also would increase fuel economy standards for conventional cars to 50 miles per gallon by 2020 and promote public transportation projects as a way of further reducing our dependency on foreign oil.

All Americans could reap the benefits of oil independence. I think an initiative to free our country from oil dependency would unite Americans in a way we haven’t seen for a long time.

Richardson believes that if we take the lead in developing and selling new energy technologies to the world, our economy could experience a period of growth and economic investment greater than the economic boom of the 1990s. By simultaneously reducing oil imports and exporting new energy-saving technology, we could greatly reduce the trade deficit and help our weakened dollar recover its value.

Plus, we would be spending our energy dollars at home, where they could recirculate in our own economy instead going overseas to pay for another Saudi palace. “Robbing Osama to pay Paul” is how Richardson puts it. For working Americans, lessening our dependence on foreign oil would mean a cheaper and more predictable cost of transportation – eliminating the price spikes that make it hard to pay the bills after paying at the pump.

We might also be able to reduce our military spending. Most Americans don’t realize we spend more than $100 billion of our military budget each year protecting the world’s oil transportation routes. This subsidy to the international oil cartels and oil companies could be greatly reduced or eliminated if we became less dependent on foreign energy. At the very least, we’d be able to negotiate some cost sharing. Right now we’re so dependent on foreign oil that we really don’t have any leverage.

Richardson points out that if we met his goals for energy independence, the United States could make decisions about where and when to deploy our troops based on our strategic aims rather than basing deployments on potential threats to our oil suppliers.

Richardson goes into much more detail in his book, and I would recommend that people of all political bents take a serious look at his proposals. Richardson’s odds at winning the Democratic presidential nomination don’t look good right now. He is currently polling at 10 percent in Iowa and has not been able to get above 3 to 5 percent nationally. Other candidates would be wise to copy Richardson’s plan or try to woo him to their campaign.

Regardless of who ends up winning the presidential election in 2008, ending our addiction to foreign oil and building a sustainable energy future need to be priorities for the next president. The costs of our continued dependence on oil are just too high.