Feature:Opinion

We landed on the moon; why can’t we plug the damn hole?

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Richard Russell
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      Richard Russell

      Richard M. Russell is CEO and Managing Partner of VIAforward, a technology consulting company. Prior to founding VIAforward, Russell spent a combined two decades as a United States Ambassador and senior Presidential and Congressional advisor on science, technology and telecommunications.

      In 2007, the President appointed Russell to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations' chartered World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The WRC is convened every four years to revise the international treaty governing radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits.

      In 2002, Russell was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Russell spent seven years as OSTP's Deputy Director for Technology. He also served as Senior Director for Technology and Telecommunications for the White House's National Economic Council. In those two capacities, he coordinated all technology and telecommunications policy for the White House.

      From 1995-2001 Russell worked for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science. During his time on the Committee, Russell was charged with overseeing the Committee's technology policy, coordinating its oversight agenda and helping manage the Committee's majority staff. Russell joined the Science Committee as a professional staff member. He was promoted to Staff Director for the Subcommittee on Technology and then Deputy Chief of Staff for the full committee.

      In addition to working for the White House, the U.S. Department of State and the House Science Committee, Russell has served as a legislative assistant in both the U.S. House and Senate and run the Washington office of a trade association. In 1988 Russell earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Yale University.

On Tuesday, President Obama promised in his Oval Office address that the US could end our addiction to imported oil through technological innovation and sheer gumption:

“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that [ending our reliance on oil] is somehow too big and too difficult to meet …the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.” – Obama, June 15, 2010

Presidents have played this same tune for four decades, and it has proven neither useful nor true. Like President Nixon’s invocation of the Manhattan Project to support his energy initiative in 1973, President Obama used the moon-landing reference as proof that the US can become energy self-sufficient if it just tries a bit harder. And Obama’s World War II allusion came right out of President Carter’s playbook in 1979:

“Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war.” – Carter, July 15, 1979

As if ignoring the past 30 years, Obama’s warning that “we are running out of places to drill” virtually mirrored Carter’s 1977 Oval Office address stating that global supplies of oil and gas “are simply running out.” Carter’s best guess for the start of this energy apocalypse: the early 1980s.

History shows that we’ve been working to reduce our dependence on oil for a long time. After decades of effort, tens of billions of dollars in federal funds, and countless energy initiatives, the fault lies not with lack of effort but with our failure to identify a specific objective and adopt a strategy for reaching it.

We need to define the problem. Today’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide invariably get conflated with our desire to lessen America’s dependence on imported oil. While addressing these issues together is politically convenient, it ignores the fact that the two goals are very different and at times conflicting.

Take the connection between windmills and imported oil as an example. Countless politicians and columnists have opined on the need for new, clean sources of electricity – such as windmills – in order to help our nation become energy self-sufficient. The problem is that windmills do not displace oil. Oil is used overwhelmingly for transportation, while coal is predominantly used to generate electricity. Windmills generate electricity. Such generation can displace some coal. But we have plenty of domestic coal. So windmills have nothing to do with energy independence.

  • flips

    Perhaps we could shove Rush Limbaugh down the hole. I’m sure his royal flesh would create a tight seal.