Obama's $2 billion plan to wean US off foreign oil

During a visit to Argonne National Lab, President Obama proposes using royalties from offshore drilling in federal waters to create an 'Energy Security Trust Fund' to pay for research into battery and clean-fuel technologies.  

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama listens to a research engineer explain electric-car technology during a tour of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., Friday.

If the Obama administration has its way, $2 billion in new revenue from offshore oil drilling will fund research into how to wean American drivers off imported oil.

Speaking Friday at Argonne National Laboratory – the high-tech incubator that produced battery breakthroughs for today’s plug-in vehicles – President Obama proposed an “Energy Security Trust Fund” to finance research into batteries for plug-in vehicles and other “breakthrough technologies,” such as hydrogen fuel cells and cleaner biofuels.

The idea, Mr. Obama noted, comes from a group of retired military officers and corporate executives called Securing America's Future Energy or SAFE, and it is not primarily about the economy or the environment but national security.

“The reason so many different people – from the private sector, the public sector, our military – support this idea is because it's not just about saving money, it's also about saving the environment. But it's also about our national security,” Obama said. “This is not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea; this is just a smart idea, and we should be taking [SAFE’s] advice.”

SAFE’s plan called for a $5 billion trust fund, but with Congress focused mainly on cutting budgets, Obama is offering a slimmed-down version. The White House says the $2 billion fund would not add to the deficit since it would tap royalty revenues generated by oil and gas development in federal waters off the Outer Continental Shelf. Those revenues are projected to increase in coming years as drilling expands as part of the administration’s five-year energy plan.

So far, the US has cut foreign oil imports by more than 3.6 million barrels per day during Obama’s presidency, the White House reported. Oil imports have also fallen to a 20-year low, and carbon-pollution emissions are at their lowest level in nearly two decades.

Part of the trend is connected to the drop in economic activity resulting from the recession and slow recovery. But renewable electricity generation from wind, solar, and geothermal sources has doubled, and Obama wants to double the fuel efficiency of the US auto fleet by 2025. That could reduce oil consumption by more than 2 million barrels a day – as much as half of the oil imported from OPEC every day, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released Friday .

All these factors are already having an effect, Obama said Friday in Illinois. “You walk into any dealership today, and you'll see twice as many hybrids to choose from as there were five years ago. You'll see seven times as many cars that can go 40 miles a gallon or more.”

The goal of the trust fund is to push forward.

Initially, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said such a fund was “an idea I may agree with," but a spokesman has since pulled back, saying the revenues might constitute a tax increase.

Oil and gas producers expressed the hope that the new plan would speed up federal permitting. “IPAA welcomes the president’s new commitment to investing in a more efficient energy project permitting process on federal lands,” said Independent Petroleum Association of America President Barry Russell in a statement.

Some environmentalists decried the president’s overall energy strategy as a façade for increased oil and gas development.

"President Obama’s proposal promises to save the United States from its dependence on oil by deepening our dependence on oil,” said Daniel Gatti, director of Environment America’s Get Off Oil program. “Today’s plan fails to directly confront the key question on oil and transportation policy: Are we building a future in which we drill for use more oil, or are we building a future in which we use less?

Still, on Capitol Hill, one bipartisan group of legislators swung behind the president.

“The president clearly gets it,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit, bipartisan energy-efficiency group that boasts a board of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.“The good news is that Republicans get it too. Every day we don’t advance public policies to drive energy productivity is a day we waste energy and we waste money. Congress should join with the president today in the race to a more energy-efficient America."

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