U.S. President Barack Obama will try to turn the page on bitterly partisan fights over energy policy on Friday, focusing his first energy speech of his second term on proposing a modest new fund to support research.
Obama will tour the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago, which is known for its groundbreaking research into advanced batteries used in electric cars, and will talk about the need to find more ways to wean cars and trucks off oil, White House officials said.
Obama is proposing a fund that will draw $2-billion (U.S.) over 10 years from royalties the government receives from offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
The research would be aimed at new ways to lower the cost of vehicles that run on electricity, biofuels, natural gas or other non-oil fuel sources.
"It squirrels away a set of resources that even in a difficult budgetary environment, will give researchers in the private sector certainty," a White House official told reporters ahead of Obama's trip.
The United States has a newfound wealth of oil and natural gas resources made possible by hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" and other drilling advancements, but consumers still face high prices at the pumps because gasoline prices are tied to world markets.
Obama first mentioned the Energy Security Trust fund in his State of the Union address last month, pitching it as a way to "free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we've put up with for far too long."
A White House spokesman said on Friday that new investments in green energy technology are more important for easing the effects of climate change than whether or not the controversial Keystone pipeline gets built.
Asked by reporters whether the construction of the pipeline was less important to slowing climate change than supporting projects such as the Argonne National Laboratory that President Barack Obama is visiting on Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was.
"There's no question about that," he said. Measures such as increasing automotive fuel economy standards would have the clearest impact, he said.
By choosing to focus his first energy speech on research – an issue that appeals equally to Republicans and Democrats, industry and environmental groups – Obama is seeking to build some common ground on energy, which has been an extremely divisive policy issue.
In his first term, Obama pushed for laws that would use market forces to reduce climate-changing carbon pollution, but the so-called "cap and trade" bill was opposed by industry and failed in Congress.
His administration pumped $90-billion in economic stimulus funds into clean energy and "green jobs" projects, helping to dramatically expand renewable energy production in America.
But some projects failed, including a California solar panel maker called Solyndra that had received $527-million in a government loan.
Republicans excoriated his administration for that failure, as well as for delaying approval of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from Canada.
In his second term, Obama has so far earned plaudits from environmental groups for making climate change one of his top priorities. He warned lawmakers he would look for ways to take action, if they don't.
Green groups want him to push for new regulations on coal-fired power plants. They also are urging him to reject the Keystone pipeline in a final decision on the project due sometime later this year.
Pipeline activists were planning to protest outside the Argonne laboratory during Obama's visit.
The research trust fund will require consent from Congress. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican senator on the Senate Energy Committee, had proposed a similar idea for a trust fund. But her proposal called for expanded drilling, which is not part of Obama's proposal.
A White House official said the administration has no plans to change the existing five-year offshore drilling plan or to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling, a long held goal of congressional Republicans.
A spokesman for Murkowski knocked the president's plan for relying on royalties that he said already have been factored into the budget.
"The inevitable result is either deficit spending or the goring of someone's proverbial ox, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
"There's a better way that not only funds investment in research but also addresses our need for affordable and abundant energy," Dillon said, referring to allowing more energy production.
Still, White House officials said the plan would not add to the deficit. The plan comes after Obama and congressional Republicans failed to avert $85-billion in across the board spending cuts called the sequester. Those cuts kicked in on March 1.
Officials told reporters they expect leasing revenues to grow in coming years for several reasons, including changes the administration plans to make to leasing policy.
The administration plans to propose "more diligent development of oil and gas leases through shorter primary lease terms, stricter enforcement of lease terms, and monetary incentives to get leases into production," a fact sheet provided by the White House said.