Obama leads panel on energy, innovation at CMU

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Sen. Barack Obama joined a disparate panel of business, labor and education officials here today in a wide-ranging conversation on the roles of energy innovation, education and infrastructure improvements as foundations of prosperity.

"If we remain dependent on oil from dictators, we'll endanger our security, imperil our planet, pay more at the pump, and sit on the sidelines while the jobs of the future are created abroad," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said as he opened the event before an invited audience in the Carnegie Mellon University gymnasium.

"If we can't give every child in America the chance to get a world-class education, we'll cripple their ability to make a living in a knowledge-based economy and watch China and India move ahead in the race for the 21st century.

"If we can't control skyrocketing health care costs, we'll confront a mounting moral crisis and a major anchor on the ability of American business to compete. If we don't rebuild our crumbling roads, rail bridges and electrical grid, we'll see our standard of living suffer, while we leave our communities less safe from terror or natural disaster," Mr. Obama continued.

He was flanked on the stage by a high-powered panel that included the chairman of General Motors, a Nobel laureate, and other business and education leaders. They included Lael Brainard, vice president of the Brookings Institution; Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foundation; Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone; Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution Health and the former chairman and CEO of America Online; Susan Castillo, superintendent of public instruction, Oregon Department of Education; Gen. Jim Jones, United States Marine Corps (retired), president and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Vinod Khosla, founder and partner of Khosla Ventures; Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Federico Pena, former U.S. secretary of transportation and former secretary of energy; Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union; John P. Surma, chairman and CEO of U.S. Steel Corp.; Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; and G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., chairman and CEO of General Motors.

The assemblage of talent proved almost too much of a good thing as the need to include comments from so many well-known voices on an array of complex subjects worked against the ability for any of the individuals to speak at much length or depth on any of them.

There was clear consensus on the panel over the need for the United States to diversify its energy supplies. Mr. Wagoner nodded in approval as the candidate described a universal pre-occupation with gas prices.

"We now need to move to a phase where we diversify the sources of energy we use in our sector and in others," Mr. Wagoner said. He noted the pace of innovation in biofuels, hybrid technology and battery power while encouraging federal support for basic research in all of those areas.

Mr. Obama suggested limiting greenhouse gases with a cap-and trade system in which industries would pay for and trade rights to exceed specified emission levels.

U.S. Steel's Mr. Surma noted, however, that a cap-and-trade system -- variants of which have been proposed by both Mr. Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John S. McCain -- should be crafted carefully to avoid increasing costs on U.S. industries in a way that creates incentives to shift employment to countries with lax environmental standards.

The panelists were united in calling for more federal support for education at every level.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

First Published June 26, 2008 4:45 PM


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