Committee on Science and Technology
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Op-Eds :: October 29, 2008

Protecting the Environment Through Innovation [Gordon]

As seen in The Washington Times on October 29, 2008.

Current popular thought often pits the economy and the environment against each other—as though we cannot support one without damaging the other.  Both are now in dire straights.   

But there is a silver lining to these dark clouds.  The next president and the next Congress can look to environmental protection as an engine of job creation and the path to reinvigorating our economy.   

One key issue will be water policy.  Dwindling water supplies loom as a major threat to our nation’s economy, at a time when we could not stomach another hit. In an effort to head off a water scarcity crisis, the Committee on Science and Technology has begun to search out ways for the federal government to spur new technological innovations in water conservation and efficiency. 

The U.S. uses approximately 40 billion gallons of water per day to supply water for domestic consumption, industry, and other uses.  Population growth, increased per capita water use, water quality degradation, and increased withdrawals to support agricultural, industrial, and energy production activities combined with climate variability have increased water shortages across the country.   

By conservative estimates, 39 states are expected to experience droughts in the next five years.  When severe water shortages occur, the economic effect can be substantial.  Eight water shortages from drought or heat waves each resulted in $1 billion or more in monetary losses over the past 20 years.  

There are steps we can take to both reinvigorate our economy and ensure there are adequate supplies of this vital resource. 

First, we need an effective research and development effort that provides tools and information to manage our water resources effectively.  The U.S. is not getting its money’s worth on water resources research because of a lack of coordination, according to the National Academies.  During tough budgetary times especially, we need to ensure that taxpayer money is getting the best return on investment. 

The next Congress needs to create a national water initiative to coordinate and support federal water research, education, and technology transfer activities to address changes in water use, supply, and demand in the U.S.  It will include support to increase water supply through greater efficiency and conservation.  This legislation will help to engage stakeholders at all levels of government, academia, and industry to create a national strategy to ensure adequate water for the 21st century and beyond.

Also, water treatment and delivery systems, especially those in communities east of the Mississippi, are in need of repair and upgrading.  We cannot expect to support a modern society and economy on a crumbling, obsolete infrastructure.  Federal investment in infrastructure to deliver and treat water would create hundreds of good paying jobs in towns and cities across the country.  This investment would improve public health, conserve water and improve water quality in rivers, lakes and coastal areas.   

Water is intrinsically linked to the other key factor in our pursuit of creating jobs and protecting the environment—energy.  We need water to produce energy, and energy is needed to transport and treat water.  With more water shortages predicted in the future, this balancing act is becoming increasingly tenuous. 

Our current addiction to foreign oil is putting our environment and our economy in jeopardy.  We need to get serious about developing the new technologies that will reduce dependency on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions.  We need radical breakthroughs, not incremental change.  To get a different result from what we’ve gotten in the past, we need to change what we’ve been doing.   

We need to fully fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E.  Modeled after the DARPA, which gave the Department of Defense breakthroughs like GPS, body armor, and the internet, ARPA-E will apply to energy technology development the research model that made DARPA so revolutionary.   

ARPA-E will be a new agency within DOE tasked with high risk, high reward energy technology development, especially research that is too cross-cutting or multi-disciplinary to fit into the current system at DOE.  It will bring together the best and the brightest from all sectors—national labs, academia, the private sector, individual inventors—in a way that has never been done in energy research.  It will give them the resources and the autonomy they need, and it will get bureaucracy of their way.   

ARPA-E is uniquely positioned to be the bridge to a new energy economy.  Although many companies are pursing new energy technologies, the full burden cannot fall exclusively to the business community.  Companies have to be accountable to stock holders.  ARPA-E will bring the market actors to the table from the beginning, which will ensure the tech transfer will be much more efficient than the current process.  This will form the foundation of a vibrant new sector of our economy, the way DARPA formed the underpinnings of the multi-billion dollar defense industry.   

ARPA-E is already law—it passed with broad bipartisan support, but is not yet fully funded.  It will fall to the next president and the next Congress to make this research a priority. 

The next Congress will face significant challenges:  a climate in crisis, a floundering economy, a growing need for clean energy we produce at home.  The solutions lie in science, technology, and the American spirit of innovation.  We can revitalize our environment and our economy through strategic support for rebuilding our infrastructure, investments in new energy technologies, and we will grow jobs while we do it. 

About half of the growth in the country’s GDP over the past 50 years is the result of developing and adopting new technologies.  We must not only promote existing technologies, we must also be working to develop the next generation of technologies necessary to achieve greater progress in energy efficiency and environmental protection. This will be a key to our competitiveness over the next 50 years.  

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Bart Gordon, Chairman


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