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Remarks at "We Can Lead" White House Briefing with Energy Secretary Steven Chu

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at “We Can Lead” White House Briefing with Energy Secretary Steven Chu
Washington, D.C.

Thank you.

As always, Secretary Chu, it’s a pleasure to share a stage with you.

I’m so pleased to see all of you here. We are coming to a critical time in the debate about energy and climate legislation.

And I want to commend all of you for getting behind this effort.

Having the support of the business community in this fight is absolutely vital to the passage of meaningful legislation.

I hope you will go back to your communities and spread the message that this energy legislation isn't just important for our environment.. . . It is also crucial for our economic competitiveness.

In the next few years, some entrepreneur or inventor is going to revolutionize:

  • a new light-weight battery for electric cars;
  • a safe and affordable way to capture carbon from coal plants.
  • Or a cheap and effective way to store power from the wind and sun.

These discoveries will fundamentally change the way the world uses energy.

And President Obama wants to make sure the brains behind these innovations live, work and create jobs in America.

If we make the right choices, we can start putting legions of engineers, scientists, skilled tradesmen and industrial designers to work building everything from a national smart grid to new clean coal power plants to technologies we have not yet envisioned.

Now, I understand that there is a lot of skepticism whenever there is talk about the promise of clean energy.

People say, “Well, we've been hearing about this for 35 years and nothing really ever changes.”

In the past few decades, any time there was a sustained spike in oil prices, businesses funneled cash into things like wind farms and solar factories—only to see those investments wiped out once oil prices declined.

But this time has to be different – for the sake of our environment and our economy.

For a good hundred years or so, American businesses have enjoyed the fastest growth we have ever seen in the history of humankind.

You can point to countless innovations that helped build today's modern 21st century economy – from the automobile, telephones, cell phones and TV to the advent of space exploration and the Internet.

But through all that change, there were two constants that underpinned our growth.

Fossil fuels were cheap; and the externalities of using them, like carbon emissions, were of almost no concern.

Those days are over.

We can’t count on cheap fuel.

And the costs associated with fossil fuel energy are painfully high.

If we don’t curb our carbon output, the consequences for our environment and our economy will be devastating.

Companies can certainly keep using energy like they did in the 20th century, and they may enjoy a little more uninterrupted growth.

But when the seas start rising, floods start increasing and droughts start spreading and lasting longer, you'd better believe that's going to be bad for business.

Or, companies can adapt to the new realities of the 21st century:

Start being more efficient and using cleaner fuels.

Those adaptations won't just be leaving a better world for our kids, it will help preserve the only place where you can do business: Our planet.

Now, I know American businesses want to do the right thing. Certainly, those of you in this room have exhibited tremendous leadership, even if it has sometimes put you at odds with others in the business community.

But if we ever want to get renewable energy up to scale, we need to incentivize entrepreneurs, businesses and tinkerers in garages across America to attack our energy challenge.

That's why we need to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that will place a market-based cap on carbon pollution.

This will send a surefire market signal to every entrepreneur and business in America that it’s safe and profitable to make long-term investments in clean energy.

Right now, too many potential clean energy investors are sitting on the sideline because there is no certainty in the marketplace.

It doesn’t make any sense to invest until you know what the rules of the road will be. That’s why we must act now.

It took us 100 years to build an industrial infrastructure around cheap oil—from pipelines and refineries to cars and factories—so we're not going to be able to turn on a dime overnight.

But passing a good energy bill is the single most important step we can take to get moving.

To those who are worried about this energy bill having a negative effect on our economy, I would say this: You are underestimating the capacity of American businesses to innovate.

History would teach us that's a mistake.

All we need to do is make sure the right incentives are in place.

Back in the early 1990s, I remember folks being concerned about a market-based approach to curb acid rain pollutants.

Prominent trade groups estimated that compliance would cost business $50 billion a year and lead to sky-high utility bills.

Ultimately, it ended up costing less than 5 percent of that—and consumers’ electricity rates actually ended up declining by almost 20 percent over the next decade and a half.

That wasn't big government picking winners. Instead, it involved the federal government setting broad-based goals and allowing the private sector to innovate and compete to reach them.

That is the very essence of the president’s approach on our clean energy initiatives.

If we create the right incentives on energy, it will drive demand for clean energy and efficiency that will foster the creation of new businesses and the jobs that come with them.

And if we don't—if we allow one more opportunity for real energy reform to pass us by—then we are going to cede leadership in one of the most promising areas of economic growth in the 21st century.

Today, too much of the money, talent and jobs in clean energy are flowing abroad.

In July, I was in China with Secretary Chu and saw how that country had made a strategic commitment to lead the world in clean energy investments.

They have already adopted the most aggressive energy efficiency standards in the world and have become the world’s largest market for wind energy.

Meanwhile, the United States has spent too much of the last decade watching the rest of the world pass us by.

If we don't reverse this trend, we'll all be sitting here 10 years from now wondering how Beijing or Shanghai became the Silicon Valley of clean energy.

Citizens around the world are starting to demand cleaner energy solutions. One way or another, they're going to get them.

The question is where will these solutions come from?

America has all the brainpower and the resources we need to provide an answer to the world's energy problems.

Now, we just need to find the will.

I hope I can count on everyone in this room to help give us a push in the right direction.

Thank you.