The Apollo projects of our time

He rightly called those "the Apollo projects of our time," drawing on the name used for the lunar mission. For this is the kind of national objective that can change the course of our future, creating jobs today, strengthening our security tomorrow and improving our health for decades to come.

And, in these budget-conscious times, the president laid out a common sense way to pay for these needed investments, by ending $4 billion in annual tax breaks and other subsidies for big oil companies and other fossil fuel producers.

"Instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy," he said, "let's invest in tomorrow's."

That's the way to make our workers more competitive, our companies stronger and our country more secure.

Here's what he's talking about.

First, let's give a jolt to the fledgling electric car industry, by helping communities build electric charging stations and helping scientists and engineers improve these vehicles and the batteries they use.

That's important. We consume, as a nation, 800 million gallons of oil a day. About half of that is motor gasoline that fuels our cars and trucks.

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Whenever we put 10 gallons of gas in the tank, just 2 gallons actually move the car forward. The rest is wasted, through the inherent inefficiency of the internal combustion engine and the loss of sitting in traffic while the engine runs.

Electric cars turn that equation upside down, using 75 percent of the energy to power the car. Moving to electric vehicles for daily commuting and short trips can take a huge bite out of the oil we buy, often from countries that don’t share our values or goals. Investing in this is the right thing to do.

Similarly, the president wants Americans to be able to board a high-speed train that will cut travel time in half, compared to driving. That, combined with his call to help states upgrade crumbling bridges and roads, can help relieve congestion that is costing us billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.

The president called us to invest $9 billion a year in research and development to create the energy sources and efficiency gains we need to make our companies more competitive and enable our workers to prosper in the fast-growing market for clean energy solutions worldwide.

As he spurs American innovation and know-how, the president made clear that government will be part of the solution. He rejected, though, the false argument that we must somehow choose between prosperity and the protections we rely on to keep our people healthy and safe - on the job and off.

After the BP oil disaster killed 11 workers and poured 170 million gallons of toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico, throwing thousands of fishermen out of work, Americans everywhere understand that smart safeguards strengthen our economy, preserve jobs and create opportunity.

And yet, there are voices in Congress seeking to undermine needed protections. Big polluters and their congressional allies are targeting the Clean Air Act, a law with a 40-year record of saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and improving the quality of life for us all.

The president made clear that he stands with the health of the American people, not the special interests of corporate polluters who want to put our lives and our planet at risk.

"I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people,” he vowed. “That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe."

Peter Lehner is the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.