July 20, 2008

Lawmaker Thinks Big on Energy Innovation

FOUR DOLLARS is more than just the current price for a gallon of gas. It's also the cost of getting Americans to pay attention to national energy policy. Unfortunately, $4 a gallon is still not enough to get politicians to shift beyond tired platitudes and political divisions.

Perhaps after a few more months of paying history's highest prices for gas, heating oil and electricity, and with an election looming, voters will force Washington to do the right thing.

In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes isn't waiting.

The Chesapeake Republican has introduced a proposal every bit as audacious as John Kennedy's drive to the moon, every bit as urgent as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Manhattan Project, a name Forbes has appropriated.

Unfortunately, Forbes' energy proposal has been lost in a sea of Republicans clamoring to erect oil platforms off every beach, and Democrats urging the widespread deployment of expensive technologies that can't solve the problem. The bill has only a few cosponsors, despite plenty of interest beyond Capitol Hill.

H.R. 6260 - the New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence - would combine grants and prizes to encourage research, development and deployment of more fuel-efficient cars, greener buildings, better solar power, cheaper biofuels, effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases and to store nuclear waste. Oh, and a prize would also go to whoever invents a way to generate electricity from nuclear fusion.

The whole thing would start with a commission that has a year to find a way to make America 50 percent less reliant on foreign oil in a decade . It would make recommendations on how to proceed, then billions of dollars in grants would be issued to finance the basic research. Prizes would be awarded - $10 billion, for example, if somebody can produce a 300-megawatt fusion reactor; or $500 million for a car that can meet several standards for efficiency, practicality and affordability.

While Forbes is adamant that a huge new push is necessary to cure the oil addiction sickening the nation, he is refreshingly free of loyalty to his bill's details. Perhaps, he said, there's a better mix of prizes, or a better balance between private-sector research and government-sponsored effort.

But the nation must get going, with a dedication to finding answers, no matter how long it takes. The past's painless fixes - forgotten each time gas gets cheap - have only postponed the inevitable reckoning.

"If we're smart enough to say we're not going to do Band-Aid approaches," Forbes said in an interview, " ... we'll create new and imaginative ways to solve the problem."

Forbes isn't just talking about energy. A research effort of this scale could inspire young people to become scientists the way the Apollo program did. It could throw off new technologies and businesses, and reassert America's primacy in a field as important as space and nuclear technology.

A message with that kind of hope and vision is hard to hear over the bickering ahead of November. To win an election, "what you have to do is pick something that the other side doesn't have," Forbes said, "and act outraged over it."

But outrage won't solve the nation's energy troubles, or safeguard jobs. For that, you need something else, something Forbes is displaying: Leadership.

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