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Obama Calls for Security Trust to Fund Energy Research

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View of the Materials Engineering Research Facility’s process research and development , Argonne National Laboratory (Photograph courtesy Argonne National Laboratory)

Speaking at Argonne National Laboratory Friday, President Barack Obama emphasized the need for research on alternative energy technologies and called for an energy security trust to fund such research, pulling $2 billion in royalties from oil and gas leases over 10 years. Taking aim at the recent sequester-driven budget cuts and partisan budget battles in Congress, Obama called for the trust ‘”so we can support American ingenuity without adding a dime to our deficit.”

The Argonne laboratory, located in Lemont, Illinois near Chicago, is one of the Department of Energy’s largest research labs, employing more than 1,250 scientists. “It’s not every day that I get to walk into a thermal test chamber,” Obama joked to the crowd during his visit. “I told [my girls] I’d come out looking like the Hulk. They didn’t believe that. ”

Researchers at Argonne are working on better materials for batteries, optimized engines, and advanced biofuels, among other transportation-related initiatives. (Related photos: “Seven Ingredients for Better Electric Car Batteries“)

A drop in funding to DOE laboratories would prompt them to cancel all new research, according to the Argonne lab’s director, Eric D. Isaacs. Obama quoted Isaacs’ recent warning in response to the sequester: “This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the word races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.”

Pointing to the latest spikes in the price of U.S. gasoline, Obama touted alternative energy research as the foundation for national security, and said the trust “helps us free our families and our businesses from painful spikes in gas once and for all” by reducing fuel use.

Obama’s speech recapped many of his previous comments on American energy in February’s State of the Union address. In that address, Obama first floated the energy security trust idea and continued his advocacy for an “all of the above” approach to energy, which would continue to promote offshore oil exploration (including in the Arctic) and natural gas drilling while funding alternative energy research. (See related: “Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate, With or Without Climate Change“)

Obama has leaned toward the realm of research over both terms of his presidency, which has been evident in his choices for secretary of energy: first Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning physicist who oversaw the DOE’s controversial loan programs, and now nominee Ernest Moniz, an MIT physicist who has signaled support for natural gas and nuclear energy. (Related: “Focusing on Facts: Can We Get All of Our Energy from Renewables?“)

Critics of the government’s energy research efforts often point to Solyndra, which received a $535 million loan guarantee before going bankrupt. But in an open farewell letter, departing secretary Chu defended the DOE’s loans. “While critics try hard to discredit the [grant and loan] program, the truth is that only one percent of the companies of the companies we funded went bankrupt,” Chu wrote. “That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not.” (Related: “Steven Chu to Step Down as Energy Secretary“)

Other critics of the Obama’s administration’s focus on energy research say it is undercutting the rollout of technologies we already have in hand. In a post titled “Obama Doesn’t Know How to Deploy New Energy,” clean energy proponent Jigar Shah wrote, “With the likely nomination of Ernest Moniz as the Secretary of Energy, President Obama has chosen invention over deployment — and R&D over job creation and carbon reduction.” (Related: “Mixed Reaction to Moniz Nomination for Energy Secretary“)

But in choosing to focus on research for his speech at Argonne Friday, Obama may be “seeking to build some common ground on energy, which has been an extremely divisive policy issue,” as Reuters noted. Introducing the energy security trust concept, Obama noted Friday that the idea came from a nonpartisan coalition: the Energy Security Leadership Council, which includes FedEx Chairman Fred Smith and Joint Chiefs of Staff member General P.X. Kelley, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.).

What do you think? Does the United States need an energy security trust for research? Vote and comment below.