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Nobelists call for energy R&D in climate bill

Thirty-four Nobel Laureates have penned a letter urging President Barack Obama to push for a $150 billion clean energy fund in the climate legislation currently moving through Congress. Not that Obama needs any prodding – this message was clearly targeted at Congress.

The president kicked things off earlier this spring by assumed the existence of roughly $600 billion in cap-and-trade revenues in his first 10-year budget. Some $150 billion of that money was dedicated to a Clean Energy Technology Fund, but the Senate eventually stripped all of this out of its budget bill, illustrating precisely why advocates are pushing for a dedicated and untouchable stream of revenue in the climate legislation itself.

Those efforts fell apart when House Democrats began striking deals to secure votes, eventually paving the way for passage on June 26. The last Congressional Budget Office analysis forecasts that the bill would effectively raise $873 billion over 10 years, but most of that sum would be doled out to various causes in an effort hold consumer and business costs down.

Burt Richter, the Nobel-prize winning physicist and former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, offered up a few numbers in a conference call with journalists: Energy makes up about 10 percent of the nation’s gross national product, or about $1.5 trillion per year; $15 billion would represent just 1 percent of the nation’s energy expenditures. Small potatoes in the grand scheme, but Richter says it would get the nation started on the kind of energy innovation that will be needed to meet the climate challenge – and stay ahead in an increasingly competitive world.

“The United States is getting to the point where it doesn’t make anything that anybody wants to buy,” he said, pointing to nuclear and wind power as two energy technologies that the United States pioneered and then shipped overseas. “We would be well advised to invest at an appropriate scale … if we want to preserve our position of technological leadership.”

Richter was jointed by Dan Reicher, a former Energy Department official who now works on energy issues at Google, and Rush Holt, one of three physicists in Congress and the former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey. Holt says the current legislation would dedicate about $2.5 billion annually for energy research, including $1 billion for carbon capture and sequestration, but that’s not nearly enough in his mind. Word has it that Holt planned to buck his party and vote against the climate bill until his arm was sufficiently bent out of shape by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

I asked Holt whether that was true, and he chose is words quite carefully: “I really want this bill to succeed,” he said. If the legislation doesn’t build in the mechanisms and funding necessary to overhaul the energy sector, he added, “then we are on a wing and a prayer that the innovation will somehow appear.”


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