Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - “A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence”

Posted on May 9, 2008

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, to hide two billion dollars in the appropriations bill for a secret project to win World War II. Sen. McKellar replied, "Mr. President, just where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?" That place in Tennessee turned out to be Oak Ridge, one of three secret cities that became the principal sites for the Manhattan Project. The purpose of the Manhattan Project was to end the war by finding a way to split the atom and build a bomb before Germany could. Less than three years later the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Friday, May 9, I went to Oak Ridge to propose that the United States launch a new Manhattan Project: a five-year project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence. Instead of ending a war, the goal will be clean energy independence – so that we can deal with rising gasoline prices, electricity prices, clean air, climate change and national security. By independence I do not mean that the United States would never buy oil from Mexico or Canada or Saudi Arabia. By independence I do mean that the United States could never be held hostage by any country for our energy supplies. In 1942, many were afraid that the first country to build an atomic bomb could blackmail the rest of the world. Today, countries that supply oil and natural gas can blackmail the rest of the world. The Manhattan Project in 1942 was in a response to an overwhelming challenge – the prospect that Germany would build the bomb before America did. Today's overwhelming challenge is the need to discover ways to satisfy the human demand and use of energy in an environmentally satisfactory and affordable way so that we are not overly dependent on overseas sources. This year Americans will pay nearly $500 billion overseas for oil – that's $1,600 for each one of us – some of it to nations that are trying to kill us by bankrolling terrorists. That weakens our dollar. It is half our trade deficit. It is forcing gasoline prices toward $4 a gallon and crushing family budgets. Then there are the environmental consequences. If worldwide energy usage continues to grow as projected and fossil fuels continue to supply over 80 percent of that energy, humans would inject as much CO2 into the air from fossil fuel burning between 2000 and 2030 as they did between 1850 and 2000. We have plenty of coal to help achieve our energy independence, but no commercial way – yet – to capture the carbon from the coal, and we have not finished the job of controlling sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury emissions. I hope that members of Congress and presidential candidates of both political parties will start now to compete to see who can propose the most effective new Manhattan Project for clean energy independence - knowing that in the end, it will take bipartisan cooperation to get a result. After all, the people didn't elect us to take a vacation this year just because there is a presidential election. This country of ours is a remarkable place. Even during this economic slowdown we will produce this year about 30 percent of all the wealth in the world for just the 5 percent of us who live here. Despite the gathering storm of concern about American competitiveness, no other country approaches our brainpower advantage – the collection of research universities, national laboratories and private sector companies we have. And this is still the only country where people can say with a straight face that anything is possible – and really believe it. These are precisely the ingredients that America needs during the next five years to place ourselves firmly on a path to clean energy independence within a generation – and in doing so, to make our jobs more secure, to help balance the family budget, to make our air cleaner and our planet safer and healthier – and to lead the world to do the same.