Why energy R&D matters more than ever

Why energy R&D matters more than ever
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As Congress proceeds with fiscal 2017 appropriations, it should reject the House and Senate subcommittees’ marks and embrace President Obama’s request for increased support of energy research. But it should do so for reasons that far transcend the White House rationale, which is largely rooted in a clean energy plan that 20 nations agreed to last year in Paris.

Mission Innovation, as the accord is known, would double spending on energy research over five years with the goal of developing sources of clean energy that reduce carbon emissions and alleviate global warming without causing economic stress.

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Substituting solar, wind and safe nuclear energy for fossil fuels is a big plus for safeguarding the global environment. But it is also a vital step in fighting terrorism and reducing the corrosive whipsaw impacts of price volatility on economies that have come to rely overwhelmingly on oil and natural gas production.

For many decades, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, as the international cartel is commonly known, successfully regulated world oil supplies and thereby the price of a barrel of oil on the international market. By doing so it filled the national treasuries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and nine other nations across the globe, giving them an outsize role on the stage of world affairs.

To say their interests often have not aligned with ours is to state to the obvious. The divergence, after all, has been a prime motivation behind the bipartisan goal of making America energy independent.

But even if we were to succeed in achieving our goal, oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran would retain their clout so long as the rest of the world continues to feed at the petroleum trough. Weaning the entire world off oil is the only answer.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s March interview of President Obama in The Atlantic lays bare the administration’s frustration with the Saudis. According to Goldberg, the president implicates “allies like Saudi Arabia with abetting the radicalization of Muslims worldwide,” by financing madrassas that teach Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam espoused by al Qaeda; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh; and Boko Haram, which has been on a killing spree in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Almost 25 years have passed since al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. But renewed focus on possible Saudi complicity in the second attack eight years later and the kingdom’s current blackmail threat to divest itself of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. assets if Congress passes a bill that could allow victims of terrorism to sue the country demonstrates how much credence there might be to the president’s allegation.

As recent events in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, Calif., prove, extremist Islam poses a continuing threat to the United States and the rest of the Western world. And that threat is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

We need to keep our nation as safe as possible now, but we also need a durable strategy that will destroy the capabilities of al Qaeda, ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups in the long term, by developing energy technologies that will make petroleum largely obsolete. Mission Innovation is a step in the right direction, and Congress ought to provide the resources necessary to achieve it.

Funding Mission Innovation would also send a signal to oil-producing nations around the world that they need to begin to diversify their economies. Venezuela — no friend of ours, incidentally — which has been crippled by tumbling oil prices, is a prime example. At home, Congress and the administration should support Mission Innovation initiatives in states such as Wyoming and Alaska that have been hit hard by the collapse of oil prices.

The time is ripe for action on Mission Innovation, even for policymakers and elected officials who think climate change is a hoax. Putting a dagger in the financial heart of Islamic terrorism should be reason enough. Congress needs to embrace the call for investing in energy research. 

Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York. He writes and speaks widely about scientific research and science policy.