LEMONT, Ill. — Envisioning cars that can go "coast to coast without using a drop of oil," President Barack Obama urged Congress last week 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 only have to fill up their cars 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.
Creation of the trust would require congressional approval at a time of partisan divide over energy issues. Republicans have pushed to expand oil and gas drilling on federal land and water, while Obama and many Democrats have worked to boost renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
There were signs agreement may be possible. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has called it "an idea I may agree with."
Murkowski, senior Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, did not fully endorse the plan, which is similar to one she has proposed to use revenue from drilling for oil and natural gas on public lands that previously were off-limits to energy production to pay for research on new energy technologies.
White House officials said the president's proposal would not require expansion of drilling to federal lands or water where it is now prohibited. Instead, they are counting on increased production from existing sites, along with efficiencies from an administration plan to streamline drilling permits. The government collects more than $6 billion a year in royalties from production on federal lands and waters.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said Obama needs to expand drilling to get his support.
"For this proposal to even be plausible, oil and gas leasing on federal land would need to increase dramatically," the spokesman, Brendan Buck, said. "Unfortunately, this administration has consistently slowed, delayed and blocked American energy production."
Obama's push for the energy trust came as the Environmental Protection Agency released a report Friday indicating that fuel economy standards rose last year by 1.4 miles per gallon, the largest annual increase since EPA started keeping track. The agency said the improvement was due to better availability of high-performing cars and more options for consumers.
A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said the group supports efforts to make diverse fuels more available but said improved transportation infrastructure, such as additional charging stations for electric cars and greater availability of clean diesel fuel, also is needed.