President Obama delivered a speech at the lab calling for the creation of an Energy Security Trust Fund, which he touted in his State of the Union, to invest $2 billion in revenues from federal oil and gas leases in new technologies which would reduce U.S. dependence on oil. The concept was first floated by the Energy Security Leadership Council, and reflects a genuine need: As long as oil enjoys a monopoly in our transportation system our economy, our security, our health and our climate are all at risk. And while there are technologies which could break that monopoly today, there are also important technological areas where fundamental research is still needed:
- Batteries, the key to electrification, can and should at least double in performance. Look at the agony Boeing is going through with the safety of its lithium ion batteries in the 787 Dreamliner.
- Cellulosic and other advanced biofuels have not come down in cost nearly as quickly as anticipated or needed. Estimates now are that they may be price competitive by 2016, but additional investment is needed to ensure that date doesn't slip.
- Fundamental changes in vehicle architecture, like those envisaged by Edison 2, can give us much lighter but safer and higher performance vehicles using a fraction of today's energy to move passenger traffic.
The sequester made all this worse, slashing the budgets of critical research projects here and at other centers. So the $2 billion the president is asking to set aside is critical.
But having said that, there is already deployment-ready oil substitution technology which is frozen out of the market by the lack of infrastructure and finance, deficiencies which the federal government must, if it is serious about reducing oil dependence, remedy now. Obama has a lot of power without Congress or new appropriations.
Companies like Daimler U.S. in Portland make natural gas trucks; ask them what they need to sell more and their answer is crisp: "pumps, pumps, and more pumps." Most truckers who want to save money by fueling with natural gas can't, because there are not CNG or LNG outlets on their routes. The government should simply mandate that every large service station that sells petroleum sell at least one other fuel -- some would choose natural gas, others E85 ethanol and still others would become electric charging stations -- all of which would dramatically accelerate the replacement of petroleum dependent vehicles on the road. And the auto companies can and should make every vehicle capable of burning diverse fuels.
Right now, when service station operators and clean tech companies like Propel try to meet the need for fuel diversity with their own funds, big oil companies sue them, effectively locking in their monopoly because small companies can't afford to fight these law-suits, however meritless. The Justice Department could help.
Once E85 pumps are available, the U.S. will reap the benefits of Obama's earlier decision to get rid of the oil import tariff on Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol, which replaces far more oil per gallon than the corn-based variety U.S. drivers were previously stuck with.
The administration joined the airlines in going to war with the European effort to levy a carbon fee on flights into and out of Europe -- but it has done nothing to reform U.S. air traffic regulations to encourage airlines to use fewer, larger, more direct flights to get their passengers where they are going with much less jet fuel.
This Deployment Deficit is not limited to the oil replacement challenge. Indeed, in the utility sector fossil fuel substitutes like solar, wind and building renewable performance is collectively much further along the research and development curve than in transportation. Yet here too the Obama Administration hasn't yet matched its policy rhetoric with delivery.
Interior Secretary Salazar devoted his last major public appearance to issuing permits for 1100 MW of wind and solar projects on public lands in California. The Department of Defense has announced a goal of 3.2 GW of renewable electricity sourced by 2025, 25 percent of total requirements. But old guard forces in the Pentagon are already using the sequester as an excuse to back down from those goals, and newly arrived Defense Secretary Hagel will need strong backing from the White House to keep those goals at the top of the military's mission critical list.
Two years ago the president signed an Executive Order calling for " federal agencies to achieve zero net energy by 2030 and employ high-performance and sustainable design principles for all new construction and alterations. At least 15 percent of existing buildings need to meet these guiding principles by FY 2015."
We are halfway there on the calendar -- but there is no evidence we are half \way there on getting the job done. Agencies like DOD and GSA, which control most federal building retrofits, have lots of competing challenges -- reports from major efficiency contractors who have bid for this work report that many contracts are sitting in the "to be done" stack -- and that with sequestration, unless there is a real signal that these projects are a priority for the White House, they will continue to languish. The administration has also failed to issue energy efficiency standards which were also part of the president's State of the Union two years ago -- at a cost so far of $3.7 billion to the U.S. economy.
Globally, there are about 1.5 billion people for whom renewable power is already cheaper than the fossil fuels on which they depend for electricity or light -- diesel and kerosene. The U.S. has two agencies designed to finance global investments -- the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Export-Import Bank (EXIM). OPIC, under the leadership of Elizabeth Littlefield, has become a global leader in finding financial solutions to speed solar and wind market penetration in high interest rates emerging economies like India. But at EXIM, "the Chairman Fred Hochberg, has personally directed financing for massive coal projects in South Africa and India" including a new one which will benefit the scandal ridden Indian mining conglomerate Adani and threaten the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
So overall, if you look at the president's record in executing and deploying climate solutions which don't require additional research, I'd say he gets a bit more than 50 percent. But let's remember, at Harvard Law School, 50 percent is not a passing grade. And what won't get you through Harvard Law also won't get the U.S. off its dependence on oil.
Please Mr. President, make it clear to your team: Deploying clean energy and substitutes for oil has to be at the top of their to-do lists.
A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."