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PHILADELPHIA - As the nation's governors were calling for an energy revolution that would eliminate the reliance on foreign oil and fight climate change, a Bush administration official told them it wasn't "realistic" to think the United States could or should become energy independent.
That was not what Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wanted to hear.
He called the remarks from a Department of Energy deputy assistant secretary "the most pessimistic comments made today." And later in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he said the position will leave the department "on what I think is the wrong side of history.'
The National Governors Association wraps up its summer meetings today (MONDAY) and energy policy has dominated the agenda. In a mostly bipartisan manner, these state executives called for an expansion in renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. They requested more research into capturing the pollution from burning coal and into new types of biofuel. They even delved into more politically touchy subjects, such as increasing offshore drilling and building new nuclear power plants.
But it was the comments of DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary James Slutz, who works in the office of fossil energy, that caused the biggest stir.
He told a meeting of the association's natural resources committee, of which Huntsman is a member, that coal, oil and natural gas will remain "indispensable," and while the United States gets much of its oil from domestic wells, it will forever need to import oil to meet demand.
"I would imagine that the Department of Energy would be taking just the opposite approach and that is leading out with a vision," said Huntsman, who also criticized President Bush's $1.2 billion hydrogen fuel cell project as paltry.
He tried to rally governors behind "a moon shot" approach to tackling energy, which he also pushed two weeks ago at the Western Governors Association meetings in Wyoming.
"It takes presidential leadership, nothing short of that will do," he said, referring to President Kennedy's famous call to put a man on the moon.
While Huntsman has long been a supporter of Republican candidate John McCain, he said both major candidates have shown an interest in taking on the issue. He believes the new president should make energy policy the dominant issue of his first year in office and should start speaking out even before the inauguration.
The western governors will try to develop a plan that either Obama or McCain could adopt that would try to tackle the rising costs, the pollution and the reliance on foreign suppliers, many of whom are antagonistic to the United States.
A presidential call for an energy awakening would have to focus on renewables, said Robert Malone, president of BP America, an oil company that is highly invested in other types of energy.
Malone said past presidents starting with Nixon have made half-hearted calls for energy independence, or small attempts to grow an alternative fuel industry, that has left the nation in the bind that it is in.
"As a nation we can't afford to get it wrong again," he said.
One expert disagreed with Huntsman's "moon shot" approach.
Vijay Vaitheeswaran, a presenter at the conference and correspondent for The Economist, who also co-authored "Zoom: The global race to fuel the car of the future," said the next president shouldn't make the mistakes of his predecessor by betting big on some alternative sources that have yet to be proven.
He wants government leaders to "remove the perverse and distorted subsidies" from things like oil and corn-based ethanol and get out of the way.
"Solutions emerge from the bottom up, they always have."