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Barack Obama: Securing Our Energy Future
RFF Policy Leadership Forum
September 15, 2005
Senator Barack Obama

Barack Obama, elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004, was born in Honolulu in 1961. He attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in political science and a specialty in international relations. He graduated in 1991 from Harvard Law School, where he was the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He was a lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004, representing Chicago's South Side 13th Senate District.

Recognized for his innovative and effective legislative leadership at the state level, Obama first served as a community organizer in Chicago neighborhoods, helping church groups create job-training programs, reform area schools, and improve city services. He also worked as a civil rights lawyer on voting rights and employment discrimination cases in federal and state courts. He chaired the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50-million philanthropic effort to reform the city's public schools.

In the Senate, he currently serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee; the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety; the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water; the Foreign Relations Committee; and the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Video of this RFF Policy Leadership Forum and commentary on Senator Obama's remarks follow below.

Event Video


Barack Obama Suggests Strategies To Secure America's Energy Future

Amid record-high gasoline prices and forecasts of skyrocketing home heating costs this winter - exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - Senator Barack Obama of Illinois called the American energy situation "a clear and present danger to the U.S. economy (that) will not subside." In fact, he predicted, "it's only going to get worse."

Obama presented his views on energy policy, entitled "Securing Our Energy Future," at Resources for the Future as part of the Policy Leadership Forum series.

Declaring that "the days of running a 21st century economy on a 20th century fossil fuel model are numbered," Obama called on his fellow lawmakers to support and adopt more challenging policy measures to alleviate American dependence on oil. "Limited supplies and an unprecedented growth in demand have sent the global oil market teetering toward the edge of disaster. All this means that the price of oil is going to be reaching levels we just can't handle any more."

Senator Barack Obama

Obama charged that the federal government has been aware of the dangers of the nation's dependence on foreign oil for years. "Despite constant warnings by researchers and scientists, major corporations, and our own government officials, (oil dependency) is a danger our government has failed to prepare for, failed to listen to, and failed to guard against."

Passed by Congress this summer, the new energy law's "solutions are too timid and reforms are too small," Obama stated, adding that he voted for the bill because it offered "baby steps" in the right direction. He stressed the need for more short-term action, including building refinery capacity and expanding the strategic petroleum reserve, as well as investment in clean coal technology, increasing renewable fuels to 20 percent of total energy use, and fitting all cars with flexible fuel engines by 2010.

Obama, a Democrat elected to his first term in 2004, highlighted the particular need for policy reform toward the automobile industry, noting that the largest source of American dependence on oil comes from the cars Americans drive. U.S. demand for oil is not sustainable, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), which the energy law supports exploring, would only meet U.S. petroleum needs for one month. "ANWR is clearly not the solution," he said.




As Brazil nears energy self-sufficiency through biofuels, and China and Japan produce and purchase huge numbers of fuel-efficient vehicles, the oil-dependent U.S. auto industry risks being left behind, he said. With health-care costs for retirees alone climbing year after year - Obama said that $1,500 from each General Motors vehicle sold today goes toward this expense - the industry claims it cannot keep pace on technological development, which potentially throws the entire sector into turmoil.

"This isn't just costing us energy efficiency," Obama said. "It's decimating American businesses and costing American workers their jobs." He laid out several policy options being considered to help the beleaguered industry increase capacity in hybrid and alternative fuel technologies, including direct subsidies and consumer tax credits.

He specifically called for an increase in the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards of three percent per year for 15 years, rather than a one-time large increase, to give automakers a chance to develop energy efficient auto technology over time. The savings from this, he predicted, could be enormous: a 40 mile-per-gallon requirement on all cars could reduce U.S. oil consumption by one billion barrels per year by 2020.

Obama also suggested that the government take on part of American auto companies' retiree health care costs, to alleviate part of that burden. He suggested government assistance in covering 10 percent of this expense, half of which automakers would be required to invest in clean technologies. He estimated the cost of taking on this burden would be $670 million - a relatively small amount of money, which could be funded through closing a tax shelter loophole, relieving what is a crippling expense for the auto industry while also promoting energy efficiency and reduced oil dependence.

Obama reiterated the need for policymakers to take prompt and significant action to reduce American dependence on oil - for the benefit of the environment, the economy, and geopolitical security. "Ultimately," he said, "we see a nation that can't control its future as long as it can't control the source of energy that keeps it running."  

Link to Transcript
Senator Obama's Remarks (PDF)

Link to Handout
Senator Obama's Energy Independence Proposals (PDF)



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