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President Obama calls for new $2 billion energy initiative

President Barack Obamspoke about alternative energy sources Argonne National Laboratory Friday March 15 2013. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

President Barack Obama spoke about alternative energy sources at Argonne National Laboratory Friday, March 15, 2013. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 17, 2013 6:11AM

President Barack Obama, speaking Friday from Argonne National Laboratory, called on Congress to put a new $2 billion energy initiative into motion and get America off of its heavy reliance on foreign oil “once and for all.”

“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 to about 400 people in the Center for Nanoscale Materials.

In his State of the Union address, Obama had first called on Congress to set up an Energy Security Trust to fund research into new technologies that would lead to cleaner energy.

Now, he was bringing attention to the issue at Argonne, a mega-hub of innovation that includes wide-scale research to improve efficiency in the car industry. A White House official said Argonne was chosen because “they have been at the forefront of research focused on high-tech vehicle technology.”

Obama said there should be support for this idea “because it’s not just about saving money, it’s also about saving the environment. It’s also about national security. . . . Our reliance on oil makes us way too dependent on other parts of the world, many of which are very volatile.”

Obama’s proposition was to take a portion of oil and gas revenues from public lands and put it toward research “that will benefit the public so we can support American ingenuity without adding a dime to our deficit.”

“We can support scientists who are designing new engines that are more energy efficient; support scientists that are developing cheaper batteries that can go farther on a single charge; support scientists and engineers that are devising new ways to fuel our cars and trucks with new sources of clean energy, like advanced biofuels and natural gas, so drivers can one day go coast to coast without using a drop of oil,” Obama said.

The president’s proposal sets aside $2 billion over 10 years and will support research into a range of cost-effective technologies — like advanced vehicles that run on electricity, biofuels, fuel cells, and domestically produced natural gas.

There was clear excitement among Argonne staff over the visit, a team of engineers grinned ear to ear after meeting with the president. The last White House visit was in July 2002 when President George W. Bush toured the lab.

It was the third time the Obamas visited the Chicago area in recent months. Two weeks ago, First Lady Michelle Obama was at McCormick Place pushing fitness for children while the president in February visited the South Side to talk about gun violence.

Matthew Howard, director of communications from Argonne National Laboratory, said Argonne faces funding cuts under the federal sequester.

“We’re anticipating a 5 percent cut. We don’t have specifics on how that’s going to play out,” he said. “Our main concern is the freezing of new ideas and the slowing down of new projects while the rest of the world is racing ahead. There is a long-term effect that could really damage science in this country and innovation.”

On Friday, prior to his remarks, the president toured the lab, visiting four stations in Argonne’s Advanced Powertrain Research facility. At each station, an engineer explained to the president what tests and research were under way.

The president went through a thermal chamber, which tested battery performance at high and low temperatures. He later said he joked to his daughters that he would emerge from the chamber as “the Incredible Hulk,” getting a laugh from the audience.

Argonne is one of the Department of Energy’s biggest national laboratories, managed by the University of Chicago.

“We can do this. The nature of America’s miraculous rise has been our drive, our restless spirit our willingness to reach out to new horizons, our willingness to innovate. . . . That’s what Argonne National Lab is about.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

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