LEMONT, Ill. — Envisioning cars that can go "coast to coast without using a drop of oil," President Barack Obama on Friday urged Congress to authorize spending $2 billion over the next decade to expand research into electric cars and biofuels to wean automobiles off gasoline.
Obama, expanding on an initiative he addressed in his State of the Union speech last month, said the United States must shift its cars and trucks entirely off oil to avoid perpetual fluctuations in gas prices. Citing policies that already require automakers to increase gas mileage, he said he expects that by the middle of the next decade, Americans will have to fill up their cars only half as often.
"We've set some achievable but ambitious goals," Obama said, speaking at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago
"The only way to break this cycle of spiking gas prices — the only way to break that cycle for good — is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks, off oil," the president said.
Friday's speech, with its focus on energy, was designed to draw attention to what the White House says is one of Obama's top agenda items for his second term. That focus, however, has been overshadowed as the administration and Congress work on an immigration overhaul, gun legislation and deficit-reduction measures.
Obama cast his proposal as not only a clean energy plan, but as one meant to create opportunities for economic growth.
"I want the next great job-creating breakthroughs, whether it's in energy or nanotechnology or bio-engineering, I want those breakthroughs to be right here in the United States of America, creating American jobs and maintaining our technological lead," he said.
Obama spoke from inside Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, a ring-shaped facility a mile-and-a-half around. The facility acts as a giant, extra-bright X-ray that allows scientists to look inside objects at the atomic level.
The initiative, proposing to spend $200 million a year on research, would be paid for with revenue from federal oil and gas leases on offshore drilling and would not add to the deficit.
The money would fund research on "breakthrough" technologies such as batteries for electric cars and biofuels made from switch grass or other materials. Researchers also would look to improve use of natural gas as a fuel for cars and trucks.
Obama's motorcade passed a couple dozen protesters standing in the rain at the Argonne entrance, protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The Obama administration is considering whether to clear the project. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force one that "there's no question" that the types of green energy initiatives the president was talking about at Argonne would have more impact on climate change than whether Keystone is built.
"Thousands of miles of pipelines have been built since President Obama took office inside the United States of America and it hasn't had a measurable impact on climate change" Earnest said. "But what has had an impact, measurable impact, on climate change has been, for example, the car rule that the president has put in place that has greatly increased fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions."
Inside the national lab, Obama got a firsthand look at some of the cutting-edge vehicle research, including a room that can go to extreme temperatures to test the impact on fuel efficiency. He talked to engineers working on electric car batteries and on an engine that runs on diesel and gasoline to reduce fuel costs.
"We want to keep on funding them," the president said, as he looked at the engine, developed with public and private funding from Chrysler. "That's what I'm trying to tell Congress."
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 CEO Frederick W. Smith and retired Marine Corps Gen. P.X. Kelley.