Yes He Can: Obama’s Vision for U.S. Energy Security

On March 30, 2011, President Barack Obama spoke to the students of Georgetown University on the topic of United States’ energy security policy. Jokes about Georgetown’s early departure from this year’s NCAA March Madness Tournament aside, the President addressed a wide array of issues, ranging from exploration of offshore oil to the imperative for spurring American innovation. Although the President’s speech fell short of committing to detailed numerical benchmarks for his administration’s energy initiatives, his address nonetheless provided a candid blueprint for his vision of the American energy policy for the next decade.

However, the President did offer some specificity in one area:

“And today, I want to announce a new goal, one that is reasonable, one that is achievable, and one that is necessary.
When I was elected to this office, America imported 11 million barrels of oil a day.  By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut that by one-third.  That is something that we can achieve.  We can cut our oil dependence — we can cut our oil dependence by a third.”

Citing this goal as part of his administration’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future”, Obama reiterated his administration’s partiality against reliance upon foreign oil. In support of this, the President brought to light the realities of the United States’ limited reserves in oil—only 2% of the entire world’s reserves—and reminded his audience of the imperative to explore new avenues for energy sources. While the tone of his address was clearly fixed upon singing high praise of alternative energy and energy efficiency, the President grounded his rhetoric in realism and qualified the substantial role of foreign oil in the nation’s energy portfolio for some time to come.

Writing for the Brookings Institute, Charles Ebinger describes Obama as being “practical in his assessment of oil markets, the reasons for the recent run up in gasoline prices, and in his inability to offer any short term palliatives,” and adding further that Obama correctly evaluated the country’s dependence upon oil for the near future. Meanwhile, Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute questions the economic soundness of weaning off cheap, market-controlled oil, especially when the majority of the US oil comes from “friendly” suppliers.

Though Griswold’s economic valuation of importing cheap oil certainly deserves merit, especially in a time of hardship for everyday Americans, Obama’s point of America’s need to develop alternative fuels and cut dependence upon foreign oil provides a goal for the longer term.  We are now at a crossroads where the decisions of today’s bureaucrats and politicians will dictate the United States’ energy security for the next half-century—possibly more. With a menagerie of issues like population growth, climate change and increased energy consumption of developing countries at the world’s doorsteps, sustainable energy practices are no longer a choice, but a requisite for the survival of our nation and species.

In response to the energy challenges that lie ahead, President Obama, in addition to outlining specific alternative energy options, offers a simple and idealistic solution:

“…our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own backyard—because we boast one critical renewable resource that the rest of the world can’t match: American ingenuity. American ingenuity, American know-how”

Up until now, alternative energy has benefitted from relatively little research and development because of the US’s use of cheap imported oil as the predominant source of energy.  Hence, the alternative energy sector has immense potential for growth.

Going forward, two policy initiatives will be crucial in the success of Obama’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.” First will be the strengthening K-12 education in areas of science, math, engineering and technology. Second will be collaborating internationally to develop new technologies and elevate “American know-how.”

Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” program, which is a collection of measures designed to help American students “learn deeply and think critically” in the aforementioned areas, is a positive step in the direction of developing America’s human capital. If the US is to reap the benefits of “American knowhow,” investments must be made in the education of its youth.

The Obama Administration has also been proactive in enhancing international cooperation in developing a sustainable energy future. When it comes to scientific cooperation, China, our biggest economic rival, is one of our most valuable partners. Beginning as early as 2008 at the onset of his administration, President Obama has set the tone for what his stance will be in terms of energy cooperation. It is important for Obama, and presidents after him, to maintain this precedence with China, as well as others of the international community.

Here at the Center for Environment and National Security, we firmly believe in transnational cooperation for alternative energy development. A recent grant proposal from our center involved the introduction of a pilot project in Vietnam for collecting locally available agricultural residues and using these materials in commercial scale bio-gas digesters for conversion into fuel that can be used by vehicle fleets. Involvement in such projects by partner organizations of the government will be equally important as any enterprise undertaken by the executive branch in developing new energy technologies.

As of today, the United States has much room for growth in diversifying our energy portfolio. On March 30, President Obama candidly evaluated the current state of the US energy policy, and skillfully delineated the challenges that lie ahead. It is imperative that moving forth, we heed the President’s call for mobilizing America’s next generation of technology innovators, and pursue policies that propel, and not hinder, increased independence from imported fuels.

-David Huang, undergraduate intern

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