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At MIT, Bingaman pushes amped-up U.S. energy policies

Boosting Washington's "anemic and unreliable support for basic science and engineering enterprise" is a critical step toward a viable energy future, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., told an MIT audience on Friday, April 25.

Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, gave the 2008 Karl Taylor Compton lecture on "Forging a Clean Energy Future." In her introduction, MIT President Susan Hockfield said Bingaman "understands better than any other government leader" what it will take to develop and sustain energy-focused innovation in the United States.

"The energy challenge today is very different from the energy challenge a few years ago," Bingaman told his audience in the Stata Center's Kirsch auditorium. "Until recently, the energy challenge was seen as the need to reduce foreign oil dependence. This is still a major concern, but today we see the energy challenge as much larger, different in nature and more urgent."

In fact, while presidential candidates tout "U.S. energy independence," Bingaman said he thinks this is not achievable in the next few decades.

"Sixty percent of our oil comes from overseas, and we need to develop alternatives to wean ourselves, as well as adopt policies and incentives to reduce our overall energy consumption," he said.

While lauding MIT's strides in innovative energy technologies, Bingaman said the United States is falling short in helping make these technologies a reality. "We don't have the long-term policy to sustain" the momentum from the laboratory to domestic manufacturing, he said.

Bingaman blamed a lack of consistent policies and long-term consensus for dooming each administration to unfulfilled promises: In 1970, Nixon committed to creating a "pollution-free" car within five years; Carter wanted to "reinvent" the car; Clinton referred to "a new generation of vehicles;" and in 2003 Bush touted the "FreedomCar."

Consistent tax incentives for renewables, a cap-and-trade system to stimulate private sector development of clean energy technologies and an influx of funding to improve math and science education are a few of the ways Congress can help, he said.

Bingaman proposed a multi-faceted approach to amp up government response to the energy crisis:

• The federal government should provide incentives to make alternative energy technologies cost-effective and ensure they are manufactured in the U.S.
• Washington should "support the science and technology enterprise" by requiring the president to commit funds for multi-agency, congressionally approved energy initiatives. The National Academy of Sciences should analyze energy priorities every five years.
• The government should set priorities for technology development and use modeled after Japan's detailed timeline for 21 innovative energy-related milestones.
• The presidential science adviser should be granted "some real authority" within the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that funding for science and technology makes it into the federal budget.

"It's not enough to commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2025," Bingaman said. "We need to act, and we need to act now."

The Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series was established in 1957 to honor the late Karl Taylor Compton, who served as president of MIT from 1930 to 1948 and chairman of the Corporation from 1948 to 1954. The purpose is to give the MIT community direct contact with the important ideas of our times.

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