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Time for a great leap forward towards energy independence

By Martin C. Jischke

A very famous man was quoted in a New York Times news story as saying "The fuel of the future is ethanol." That man was Henry Ford. The year was 1925. That future Henry Ford referred to is today. I believe we are at a crossroads, not only in this nation, but in our world. The time has come when we will either begin to find alternatives to our national and worldwide dependence on fossil fuels or fossil fuels might well become the end of us.

The question for us at the dawn of the 21st century is how can we conserve oil and how can we supplement it through the development of clean alternative energy sources. What are the facts? There are many. I will list a few.

First, using 2003 numbers, the United States is the biggest consumer of energy in the world, and Americans are the biggest consumers per capita. Our per capita consumption is more than twice that of all of Western Europe. With 4.6 percent of the world's population, we produce 17.5 percent of the world's energy. But we consume nearly a quarter of the world's energy. Not all of our energy use is for the benefit of this nation alone. For example, some of our energy use goes into the production of food that benefits people around the world.

Second, according to the International Energy Agency, world production of oil will peak between the years 2010 and 2020. That is less than four to 14 years from now--not very far away.

Where does that oil come from?

Over 60 percent of our oil is imported. Thirty-six percent of our imported oil comes from Mexico, Canada and the North Sea, but 47 percent comes from three other areas: the Persian Gulf, Nigeria and Venezuela. To summarize all of this: If we had a color-coded threat advisory for oil dependency, it would be blaring bright red. Severe, imminent risk. At Purdue and at universities and research labs throughout the nation and world today, energy alternatives, policy and conservation are being studied.

Last year, a $25 million grant from Lilly Endowment enabled us to launch four new centers in our Discovery Park, a Center for the Environment, an Oncological Sciences Center, a Cyber Center and an Energy Center. Our researchers are interested in how to make existing energy sources cleaner and more efficient, as well as developing alternative energy sources that will make the U.S. less dependent upon foreign oil. Today, we have possibilities that did not exist in the days when Henry Ford predicted a future powered by ethanol. There are obstacles to overcome in all of this as well.

Solving the energy challenges before us will not be easy. Some have called for a Manhattan Project approach similar to the World War II effort that brought together the best university and private-sector scientists and engineers of the day to research nuclear weapons.

I prefer another analogy. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy called on all the resources of the U.S. to land an American on the moon and return him safely to Earth within that decade. President Kennedy never said this would be easy. In fact, he said, "This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts."

It meant the nation had to come together and work as one toward the common goal. In July of 1969, Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong announced to the world "The Eagle has landed." Do you remember? How could anyone forget? He took that giant leap for mankind only eight years after the President's challenge.

Today, we are calling on all the resources of this nation to take the next giant leap. This amounts to nothing short of a great leap forward toward more energy independence. We need to commit ourselves to safe, clean energy from domestic sources. We need to do this for the sake of our nation, for the sake of our prosperity, our posterity and our planet.

Like the effort to reach the moon within a decade, it will take all of us working together. It will take commitment, courage, leadership and sacrifice from all of us. It will take commitment, courage, investment and sacrifice from business and industry. It will take commitment, courage and sacrifice from people and our pocketbooks.

Can we do it? I believe we can. And I firmly believe we must begin, echoing words that acknowledge the responsibility and the urgency of this calling: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

For the Record is an edited excerpt of Purdue University President Martin C. Jischke's speech at the Sen. Richard G. Lugar - Purdue University Summit on Energy Security in August, 2006.

November/December 2006