Such legislation "may be both more enactable and more successful than focusing only on the limits, or on the stick, so to speak," Doniger said.
The United Auto Workers also has come around to accepting the need for alternative-fuel vehicles. The UAW has long viewed efforts to boost federal gas mileage standards as a threat to Detroit's success with truck and SUV sales and as bad for U.S. jobs. Now the union sees a new threat from the increasing popularity of foreign-produced hybrid and advanced diesel technology, which a recent University of Michigan study said could cost the United States as many as 200,000 jobs.
So the UAW, in cooperation with the nonpartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, has begun promoting a proposal for a federal program to encourage U.S. manufacturers to develop their own alternative-fuel technology and keep those jobs here. "The guts of what we're proposing -- which is really an investment tax credit -- that's not a Republican or Democrat idea. That's sort of motherhood and apple pie to business folks and conservative folks. In theory I do think we have support across the political spectrum to this type of approach," said Alan Reuther, legislative director at the UAW.
Domestic automakers are considering support for the UAW proposal. "We've been engaged in discussions with them to see if there's something we can all agree on," said Dennis Fitzgibbons, a lobbyist for DaimlerChrysler AG.
Set America Free is advocating a combination of manufacturer and consumer tax credits, as well as federal research funding, to help U.S. companies rush to the marketplace with vehicles that run on alternative sources of power. They favor a wide mix of technology including methanol, wider use of ethanol and development of plug-in hybrids that can go long distances on batteries. The Rockville-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, an energy policy think tank founded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, formulated the plan late last year and has sought support from the right and left on the political spectrum.
Now the group is creating unexpected pairings of conservative defense policy wonks and environmental activists to lobby members of Congress for support and last week staged a briefing for Capitol Hill staffers.
Gaffney, who runs the Center for Security Policy think tank, said he had something of an epiphany on the issue last year after attending a conference on the outlook for Saudi Arabian oil reserves. A longtime advocate of nuclear energy and ballistic missile defense, and a member of the neo-conservative movement that pushed for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Gaffney said he realized it's no longer tenable to send billions of dollars in oil proceeds to the Middle East.
"It's a recipe for disaster," he said. "Most of the places we import from have regimes that are at best unstable and at worst openly hostile to the United States. . . . What are we doing giving all this money to the people who are trying to kill us?"
The emergence of China as an industrial powerhouse is compounding the problem, he said, creating a huge rival to the United States for the world's dwindling oil reserves. "We have a national security emergency on our hands," Gaffney said.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said last week that he plans to form a bipartisan "Oil and National Security Caucus" to build political support for action. His staff members declined to say which Republican colleagues are being approached about joining the group, but Engel said at a joint appearance with Gaffney on Capitol Hill that there is interest on both sides of the aisle.
"This isn't a Republican or a Democrat issue, or a right-wing or left-wing issue. It's an American issue," Engel said.
Ultimately, though, it's also a consumer issue. And advocates of alternative technology are going to have to make the case that Americans will see tangible benefits from switching to fuels other than gasoline, said Lindsay Brooke of the auto industry consulting firm CSM Worldwide.
"There's a lot of public discourse about energy independence and so on," Brooke said. "But I still think we have a ways to go. The public's concern really is for its own wallet."