President Barack Obama said Friday the U.S. must shift its cars and trucks entirely off oil to avoid perpetual fluctuations in gas prices.
By the middle of the next decade, Americans will only have to fill up their cars half as often, he said at Argonne National Laboratory in the western suburbs.
The president called on Congress to authorize $200 million a year for research into things like electric car batteries and biofuels that can wean automobiles off oil. He proposed an energy security trust that would use revenues from federal leases on offshore drilling.
Obama said American energy provides one of the greatest opportunities for economic growth, and the U.S. can't miss opportunities while the rest of the world moves forward.
Obama proposed the idea of an energy security trust last month in his State of the Union address, but he mentioned a price tag --— $2 billion over 10 years. The White House said the research would be paid for with revenue from federal oil and gas leases on offshore drilling and would not add to the deficit.
Researchers also would look to improve use of natural gas as a fuel for cars and trucks.
The proposal is modeled after a plan submitted by a group of business executives and former military leaders who are committed to reducing U.S. oil dependence. The group, called Securing America's Future Energy or SAFE, is headed by FedEx Corp. Chairman and chief executive Frederick W. Smith and retired Marine Corps Gen. P.X. Kelley.
The nonpartisan group says its goal is to "break oil's stranglehold on the transportation sector" through alternatives such as electric cars and heavy-duty trucks fueled by natural gas, but it had proposed a much larger $500 million annual investment.
Creation of the trust would require congressional approval at a time of partisan divide over energy and fiscal issues. Republicans have pushed to expand oil and gas drilling on federal land and water, while Obama and many Democrats have worked to boost renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Obama tried to appeal to both parties by pitching the trust plan not just as an environmental issue but as a job-creation plan that would help the United States remain a technology leader.
"If a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "Let's take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we've put up with for far too long."
David Pumphrey, co-director of the Energy and National Security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the proposal is likely to meet resistance in Congress, especially among Republicans who have disparaged the 2009 economic stimulus law.
Obama was shrewd to frame the issue in terms of energy security and reducing oil imports, rather than as an effort to address climate change, Pumphrey said, but the plan "still takes a revenue stream and directs it into this usage" for clean energy, Pumphrey said. "That's $2 billon that could go to other uses or deficit reduction."
White House officials said the president's proposal would not require expansion of drilling to federal lands or water where it is now prohibited. Instead, they are counting on increased production from existing sites, along with efficiencies from an administration plan to streamline drilling permits. The government collects more than $6 billion a year in royalties from production on federal lands and waters.
Obama's push for the energy trust came as the Environmental Protection Agency released a new report Friday indicating that fuel economy standards rose last year by 1.4 miles per gallon (0.6 kilometers per liter) — the largest annual increase since EPA started keeping track. The agency said the improvement was due to better availability of high-performing cars and more options for consumers.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers suggested that rather than encouraging research on fuel-efficient cars, the government should focus on making diverse fuels more available and improving transportation infrastructure.
A spokesman for the energy security group SAFE welcomed Obama's plan, even though it does not call for expanded drilling. A plan released by the SAFE group in December recommended using revenues from expanded offshore drilling and increased production in Alaska in areas where it is now blocked.
"At the end of the day, we still think it's a proposal that can have bipartisan support and that can help reduce oil dependence," SAFE spokesman Brad Goehner said Friday.
Argonne is one of the Energy Department's largest national laboratories for scientific and engineering research, staffed by more than 1,250 scientists and engineers. White House officials said it was chosen as the site of the president's speech because of its tradition of research into vehicle technologies.