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Senator Obama on Energy Independence

February 28,2006 address to National Governor's Ethanol Coalition.

Published: 03-Mar-2006

his year's State of the Union address, President Bush told us that it was time to get serious about America's addiction to foreign oil. The next day, we found out that his idea didn't sit too well with the Saudi Royal Family. A few hours later, Energy Secretary Bodman backtracked and assured the world that even though the President said he planned to reduce the amount of oil we import from the Middle East, he actually didn't mean that literally.

If there's a single example out there that encapsulates the ability of unstable, undemocratic governments to wield undue influence over America's national security just because of our dependence on oil, this is it.

Now, I could stand up here and give you all plenty of reasons why it's a good idea for this country to move away from an oil-based economy. I could cite studies from scientists and experts and even our own State Department detailing the dangers of global warming - how it can destroy our coastal areas and generate more deadly storms. I could talk forever about the economic consequences of dependence - how it's decimating our auto industry and costing us jobs and emptying our wallets at the pump. And I could talk about the millions of new jobs and entire new industries we could create by transitioning to an alternative-fuel economy.

But all we really need to know about the danger of our oil addiction comes directly from the mouths of our enemies:

"[Oil] is the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community." These are the words of Al Qaeda.

"Focus your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause them to die off [on their own]." These are the words Osama bin Laden.

More than anything else, these comments represent a realization of American weakness shared by the rest of the world. It's a realization that for all of our military might and economic dominance, the Achilles heel of the most powerful country on Earth is the oil we cannot live without.

Oil single-handedly fuels 96% of our transportation needs, and it's also critical to the manufacture of millions of goods and products in this country. As we saw during Hurricane Katrina, this kind of dependency means that the loss of even a small amount of oil and refining capacity for just a few days can cause economic panic and soaring prices. A serious embargo or permanent loss could cause untold disaster.

It would be nice if we could produce our way out of this problem, but it's just not possible. We only have 3% of the world's oil reserves. We could start drilling in ANWR today, and at its peak, which would be more than a decade from now, it would give us enough oil to take care of our transportation needs for about a month.

As a result, every single hour we spend $18 million on foreign oil. It doesn't matter if these countries are budding democracies, despotic regimes, or havens for the madrassas that plant the seeds of terror in young minds - they get our money because we need their oil.

One need only glance at headlines around the world to understand how dangerous this addictive arrangement truly is.

In Iran, Islamic fundamentalists are forging ahead with their nuclear program, knowing full well that the world's response to their actions will be influenced by our need for their oil. In fact, reports of a $100 billion oil deal between Iran and China were soon followed by China's refusal to press for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear intentions.

In Nigeria, militant rebels have been attacking the country's oil pipelines in recent weeks, sending prices soaring and calling into question the political stability of a country that represents America's fifth-largest source of oil imports.

In Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda has been attempting attacks on that country's poorly defended oil refineries for years. On Friday, they almost succeeded as a truck full of explosives was detonated by the shots of security guards just before it entered the refinery. Even this minor damage caused oil prices to jump $2 in a single day. But a former CIA agent tells us that if terrorists ever succeeded in destroying an entire oil complex, it could take enough oil off the market to cause economic catastrophe in the United States.

Our enemies are fully aware that they can use oil as a weapon against America. And if we don't take this threat as seriously as the bombs they build or the guns they buy, we will be fighting the War on Terror with one hand tied behind our back.

Now, the good news about the President's decision to finally focus on energy independence after five years is that it helps build bipartisan consensus that our reliance on foreign oil is a problem and shows that he understands the potential of renewable fuels to make a difference.

The bad news is that the President's energy policy treats our dependence on oil as more of a nuisance than a serious threat.

Just one day after he told us in the State of the Union that renewable fuels were the key to an energy independent future, we learned that the President's budget cuts would force layoffs at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Last week, this made for a rather awkward situation when the President wanted to use the lab for a photo-op - so awkward that the White House actually re-hired the laid-off researchers just to avoid the embarrassment.

This is only one example, but it tells the story of a larger weakness in the President's energy policy: it's simply not commensurate to the challenge.

There's a reason that some have compared the quest for energy independence to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing. Like those historic efforts, moving away from an oil economy is a major challenge that will require a sustained national commitment.

During World War II, we had an entire country working around the clock to produce enough planes and tanks to beat the Axis powers. In the middle of the Cold War, we built a national highway system so we had a quick way to transport military equipment across the country. When we wanted to beat the Russians into space, we poured millions into a national education initiative that graduated thousands of new scientists and engineers.

If we hope to strengthen our security and control our own foreign policy, we can offer no less of a commitment to energy independence.

But so far, President Bush seems like he is offering less - much less.

His funding for renewable fuels is at the same level it was the day he took office.

He refuses to call for even a modest increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

His latest budget funds less then half of the energy bill he himself signed into law - leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in under-funded energy proposals.

And while he cannot seem to find the funding for any of these energy proposals, he has no problem allowing the oil companies to stiff taxpayers $7 billion in royalties that they owe us for drilling on public lands. These are the same oil companies that are currently enjoying the highest profits on record.

Again, this is just not a serious commitment to energy independence. The solutions are too timid - the reforms too small. America's dependence on oil is a major threat to our national security, and the American people deserve a bold commitment that has the full force of their government behind it.

This isn't to lay the blame for our energy problems entirely at the feet of our President. This is an issue that politicians from both parties clamor about when gas prices are the headline of the month, only to fall back into a trance of inaction once things calm down. And so we all need to get serious here. Automakers need to get serious about shifting their technology to greater fuel-efficiency, consumers need to get serious about buying hybrid cars, and Washington needs to get serious about working together to find a real solution to our energy crisis.

Such a solution is not only possible, it's already being implemented in other places around the world. Countries like Japan are creating jobs and slowing oil consumption by churning out and buying millions of fuel-efficient cars. Brazil, a nation that once relied on foreign countries to import 80% of its crude oil, will now be entirely self-sufficient in a few years thanks to its investment in biofuels.

So why can't we do this? Why can't we make energy security one of the great American projects of the 21st century?

The answer is, we can. The President's energy proposal would reduce our oil imports by 4.5 million barrels per day by 2025. Not only can we do better than that, we must do better than that if we hope to make a real dent in our oil dependency. With technology we have on the shelves right now and fuels we can grow right here in America, by 2025 we can reduce our oil imports by over 7.5. million barrels per day - an amount greater than all the oil we are expected to import from the entire Middle East.

We can do this by focusing on two things: the cars we drive and the fuels we use.

First, the cars. For years, we've hesitated to raise fuel economy standards as a nation in part because of a very legitimate concern - the impact it would have on Detroit. The auto industry is right when they argue that transitioning to more hybrid and fuel-efficient cars would require massive investment at a time when they're struggling under the weight of rising health care costs, sagging profits, and stiff competition.

But it's precisely because of that competition that they don't have a choice. China now has a higher fuel economy standard than we do, and Japan's Toyota is doubling production of the popular Prius to sell 100,000 in the U.S. this year.

There is now no doubt that fuel-efficient cars represent the future of the auto industry. If American car companies hope to be a part of that future - if they hope to survive - they must start building more of these cars.

But that's not to say we should leave the industry to face these costs on its own. Yes, we should raise fuel economy standards by 3% a year over the next fifteen years, starting in 2008. With the technology they already have, this should be an achievable goal for automakers. But we can help them get there.

Right now, one of the biggest costs facing auto manufacturers isn't the cars they make, it's the health care they provide. Health care costs make up $1,500 of the price of every GM car that's made - more than the cost of steel. Retiree health care alone cost the Big 3 automakers nearly $6.7 billion just last year.

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