Obama: 'No quick fixes' to American energy security

U.S. president Barack Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. needs to free itself from dependence on foreign oil, and set a goal of reducing oil imports by one-third in a decade.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

U.S. president Barack Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. needs to free itself from dependence on foreign oil, and set a goal of reducing oil imports by one-third in a decade.

In a measured speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Obama said "American ingenuity, American know-how" can lead the nation into a future that doesn't involve risking energy security on tumult in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.

To make ourselves more secure -- to control our energy future -- we will need to harness that ingenuity. It is a task that won’t be finished by the end of my presidency, or even the next. But if we continue the work that we have already begun over the last two years, we won’t just spark new jobs, industries and innovations; we will leave your generation and future generations a country that is safer, healthier, and more prosperous.

Demand will no doubt exceed supply, and as nations like India and China grow and industrialize, it will only get worse, Obama said.

As two billion more people start consuming more goods, and driving more cars, and using more energy, it’s certain that demand will go up a lot faster than supply. So here's the bottom line – there are no quick fixes. And we will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we get serious about a long-term policy for secure, affordable energy.

He added:

We cannot keep going from shock when gas prices go up to trance when they go back down on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again. We can't keep on doing that. It is time to do what we can to secure our energy future.


Looking inward to the domestic energy situation, Obama said the U.S. has just 2 percent of the world's oil reserves yet uses 25 percent of them.

"Even if we drilled every drop of oil out of every one of those reserves, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet our long-term needs," he said.

One way to meet this need: partner with Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

A second way: "safe and responsible" off-shore drilling.

"I don't think anyone's forgotten that we're not even a year removed from the largest oil spill in our history," Obama said, his booming voice quieting the room. "I know the people of the Gulf Coast haven't. What we learned from that disaster helped us put in place smarter standards of safety and responsibility.

"For example, if you're going to drill in deepwater, you've got to prove that you can actually contain an underwater spill. That's just common sense."

A third way: natural gas.

Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves -- perhaps a century's worth -- in the shale under our feet. Now, we have to make sure we're doing it safely, without polluting our water supply.

A fourth way: biofuels made from switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass.

If anyone doubts the potential of these fuels, consider Brazil. I was just there, and already, more than half of Brazil’s vehicles can run on biofuels. And just last week, our Air Force used an advanced biofuel blend to fly an F-22 Raptor faster than the speed of sound...I'm directing the Navy and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to work with the private sector to create advanced biofuels that can power not just fighter jets, but trucks and commercial airliners.


Obama said the energy problem manifests itself most clearly in the transportation sector, where 70 percent of petroleum consumption occurs. Not to mention that it's the second largest part of the average family's budget, he said.

Last year, we established a groundbreaking national fuel efficiency standard for cars and trucks. Our cars will get better gas mileage, saving 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program. Our consumers will save money from fewer trips to the pump -- $3,000 on average over time. And our automakers will build more innovative products. Right now, there are even cars rolling off assembly lines in Detroit with combustion engines -- I'm not talking about hybrids -- that can get more than 50 miles per gallon. We know how to do it. We know how to make our cars more efficient.

To underscore his point, Obama announced a new goal: by 2015, federal agencies must purchase all of their vehicles as alternative fuel, hybrid, or electric models.

"All of them should be alternative fuel," he said.

With that said, Obama called for "more powerful incentives to consumers" and rewards for "communities that pave the way for adoption" of electric vehicles.

But the challenge is to overcome the battery, which has delayed electric car production in the United States.

"Soon, America will be home to 40 percent of global manufacturing capacity for these batteries," he said, adding that America must manufacture batteries to attract the domestic manufacture of electric cars.

But it comes back to energy.

The thing about electric cars is that, well, they run on electricity. Secretary Chu knows that. And even if we reduce our oil dependency, a smart, comprehensive energy policy requires that we change the way we generate electricity in America.


Obama also touched on green building and the need to waste less energy.

Today, our homes and businesses consume 40 percent of the energy we use, costing us billions in energy bills. Manufacturers that require large amounts of energy to make their products are challenged by rising energy costs. That’s why we’ve proposed new programs to help Americans upgrade their homes and businesses and plants with new, energy-efficient building materials like lighting, windows, heating and cooling – investments that will save consumers and business owners tens of billions of dollars a year, free up money for investment and hiring, and create jobs for workers and contractors.

He discussed the financial hurdles for homeowners to build more efficiently.

They'll get their money back. You will save money on your electricity bill that pays for those improvements that you made. But a lot of people may not have the money up front so we've got to give them incentives to do that...with the right incentives in place, we can double the use of clean energy.


Obama also touched on Japan and the nuclear power question. Succinctly: "We can't simply take it off the table."

He expanded:

America gets one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy. It has important potential for increasing our electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. But I'm determined to ensure that it's safe. That's why I’ve requested a comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure that all of our existing nuclear energy facilities are safe. We'll incorporate those conclusions and lessons from Japan in designing and building the next generation of plants.

He added: "You will have a customer if you're producing clean energy...innovators are willing to make those big capital investments."


Obama called for a "clean energy standard" to drive private investment, but acknowledged that government support is vital.

I've visited gleaming new solar arrays among the largest in the world, tested an electric vehicle fresh off the assembly line -- about five feet before Secret Service told me to stop -- and toured once-shuttered factories where they’re building advanced wind blades as long as a 747 and the towers to support them. I've seen the scientists searching for that next big energy breakthrough. And none of this would have happened without government support.

He then outlined the threat of slowing this support:

We're already paying a price for our inaction. Every time we fill up at the pump; every time we lose a job or a business to countries that invest more than we do in clean energy; when it comes to our air, our water, and the climate change that threatens the planet you’ll inherit – we are already paying that price. These are the costs we’re already bearing. And if we do nothing, that price will only go up.


Obama closed by speaking directly to the Georgetown students in the room, telling them that the era in which they have come of age -- "fewer walls," "constant information" and "economic turmoil" is evidence enough that America "can change for the better" -- and that "young people" must "push America."

We need that. We need you to dream big. We need you to summon that same spirit of unbridled optimism, that bold willingness to tackle tough challenges and see those challenges through that led previous generations to rise to greatness –- to save democracy, to touch the moon, to connect the world with our own science and imagination.

The reason? If nothing more, because it's not to be left to future generations -- and because "all of our challenges are within our power to solve."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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