Congress approved the towering $787 billion economic stimulus plan – officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – on Friday by a vote of 246-183 in a crunch to meet the mid-February deadline set by the president to sign the legislation, which he has said will define the success or failure of his first term in office. The legislation hit his desk less than a month after he took his oath of office.
At a convivial ceremony, the president signed the bill in Colorado – a state aggressively engaged in green energy – as a nod to the stimulus package’s energy initiatives. Denver is also where Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president. The signing venue was the Denver Nature and Science Museum – which boasts 465 solar panels – that Obama toured prior to signing the bill.
In televised remarks from the museum, Obama said prior to signing the bill that the ARRA was “the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history.”
“Today does not mark the end of our economic troubles. Nor does it constitute all of what we must do to turn our economy around," Obama said. "But it does mark the beginning of the end – the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs, to provide relief for families worried they won’t be able to pay next month’s bills, and to set our economy on a firmer foundation."
Obama was introduced at the event by Blake Jones, CEO of the Colorado-based company Namaste Solar, which specializes in solar-panel installation. Jones praised the installation as allowing his company and others to "begin hiring again." Jones predicted the bill would create some 69,000 news jobs in the solar sector over the next two years.
As much as $20 billion in tax incentives will go for solar, wind, hydro and other renewable power sources in a move that Congressional proponents of the bill say could create 500,000 jobs.
Zeroing in on energy, Obama said that, “Because know we can’t power America’s future on energy that’s controlled by foreign dictators, we are taking big steps down the road to energy independence, laying the ground work for a new green energy economy that can create countless well paying jobs.”
Unlocking the grid for clean energy
The largest emphasis for energy in the stimulus package, said Obama, would be placed on transforming the electricity grid by giving America the world’s first “smart grid system” and by extending tax credits and loan guarantees to renewable energy companies.
Obama emphasised that American electricity is transported along “a grid of lines and wires that date back to the time of Thomas Edison,” adding that, “This means we’re using 19th and 20th century technologies to battle 21st century problems like climate change and energy security.”
The bill contains $11 billion for smart-grid technology, including $4.5 billion for a federal matching grant programme to invest in smart-technology projects, a move hailed by Bellona USA’s director, Jonathan Temple.
“There is a lot of money in this package that, if spent wisely and quickly, will help the US to begin to tackle climate change – but President Obama’s priority is to get the US economy moving again,” said Jonathan Temple, Bellona USA’s director.
“In particular, Bellona supports measures that will further develop green energy technologies, and promote the construction of a smart electricity grid,” he said.
Obama identified “a gap between how much clean energy we are using and how much we could be using,” saying the current network could not deliver wind energy from were it is produced to where it is most needed.
“This bill offers the first important steps in the creation of a national transmission superhighway that will connect our cities to the windy plains of the Dakotas and the sunny deserts of the southwest,” Obama said.
The sheer magnitude of the bill required that Obama sign it 10 times, which he did using 10 different pens that were laid out for him. When he was finished with the two minute long signing process, he stood up and said with a brio he has displayed on similarly victorious occasions: “There you go – it’s done.”
Bill just the beginning of a long haul
Despite the upbeat ceremony, Obama and his supporters left no doubt that the bill was only the beginning of what will be a protracted effort to lift the economy.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told E & E News that while the administration has no specific plan for a second stimulus package, he would not rule out the possibility.
"I think the president is going to do what’s necessary to grow this economy," Gibbs told reporters. "But there are no particular plans at this point for a second stimulus package at the moment. I wouldn’t foreclose it, but I wouldn’t say, at the same time, there’s – we’re readily making plans to do so."
The bill provides tax credits of up to $7,500 to buyers of new plug-in hybrid vehicles – a step toward making good on Obama’s order on January 26th to put vehicles getting at least 35 miles to the gallon on the road by 2011.
Some $18 billion for environmental projects, like clean water systems, flood control and pollution cleanup work is also in the package.
The package will also deliver $1.2 billion to fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental cleanup programmes, including the much neglected Superfund, enacted by US Congress in December 1980 to clean up heavily contaminated toxic waste sites that have been abandoned.
The legislation also includes more than $17 billion to be invested in public transport.
CCS finally an American priority
The legislation provides about $2 billion to research a system to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants, or carbon capture and storage (CSS) – a climate technology that the Bellona Foundation has promoted intensively since the early 1990s.
The Obama stimulus package money has been slated to revive a CCS demonstration programme in Illinois that was killed by the Bush administration.
A tap on the wrist for nuclear energy
In another cheer for the anti-nuclear environmental sector, House and Senate conferees eliminated a provision to provide as much as $50 billion in loan guarantees to build new nuclear power plants.
Congress approved loan guarantees to build new nuclear plants in the 2008 budget, so it is still conceivable that some new nuclear plants will be built in the United States.
Also included in the stimulus package is $6 billion for the Energy Department to clean up sites where it develops nuclear weapons. This is an established annual expense to clean up decades old waste, said Bellona’s Temple, and the outlay will need to continue for at least another 20 or 30 years.
Obama tastes partisan sour grapes
Obama Tuesday made an effort to play down these differences and promoted the bills as a cooperative exercise in Congress reaching across the aisles and set aside differences. But Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a strong statement that was not the case.
"The transparency and bipartisanship that President Obama promised the American people was sacrificed to pass a pork-laden bill without any public review or meaningful Republican support," Steele’s statement said. "Republicans are unified in our disagreement with congressional Democrat leaders and President Obama on this
The bill passed with the approval of only three republican Senators – Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.