Obama says renewable and clean energy development key to overcoming economic crisis

Publish date: February 24, 2009

In a rousing first speech to a joint session of US Congress, President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on legislators to send him a bill that places a market-based cap on US carbon polluting emissions and pushes the production of more renewable energy.

“The President is determined to tackle big challenges early in his administration,” said Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA.

“There is no time to lose.” 

Obama tread carefully so as not to lay blame on his predecessor George Bush – who traditionally sided with big industry and derailed binding emissions cuts and renewable energy investment, but he nonetheless fired a salvo at past leaders who have put off important issues for too long.

“We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election, Obama said in Prime Time televised remarks.

“A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.”

Saying that the budget he will submit to Congress on Thursday will target three prime areas – energy, health care and education – he said that the most critical changes “begin with energy.”

Renewable energy and cap and trade promises realised

Following through on a campaign promise, Obama urged Congress to pass a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet and use $15 billion a year of the revenues from the programme to pay for renewable sources of energy.

“To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy,” he said. 

“So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America,” he said. 

“And to support that innovation, we will invest $15 billion a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America,” he added.

Obama delivered his State of the Nation address against a background of intense economic worry, and it was pitched with a deep acknowledgment of those problems mixed with an exhortation to American resilience and an expansive agenda with a pledge to begin paring down a soaring budget deficit.

“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this,” Obama said.

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he said to a standing ovation.

Science, research and clean energy key to stemming crisis
To achieve this goal, Obama focused heavily on the potential of research and science, and struck a populist note saying that solutions were to be mined from among American workers.

“The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach,” he said.

“They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.”
He said his budget proposal to be released on Thursday will invest $15 billion a year on wind and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal and American-built cars and trucks that are more fuel efficient.

"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," said Obama, again emphasising in his 36th day as president the importance of the United States taking a leadership role in upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

Bringing renewables home
However, he said while the United States invented solar technology, America has fallen behind Germany and Japan in producing it.

While new plug-in hybrid vehicles roll off US assembly lines, Obama said they must run on advanced batteries made in South Korea – a scenario Obama disagreed with

“Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders – and I know you don’t either, he said. “It is time for America to lead again.”

To address put America in this leadership role, he reiterated his goal to double US renewable energy production over the next three years and touted the billions of dollars his administration will invest in energy research.

“Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years,” he said.

“We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.”

New electricity grid to transmit clean energy
To get these stores of renewable energy from where it is harnessed to where it is needed, Obama said the US will fashion a new electricity grid. 

"We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills," Obama said.

John Kilduff, senior vice president at MF Global in New York, said electricity price deregulation never met its promise because surplus power could not be shipped to regions of the country where supplies were constrained.

"If there is finally a commitment to updating the electricity grid, consumers could see electricity prices akin to what they pay for long distance telephone service," Kilduff told Reuters.

Cap and trade could bring boom times
As for Obama’s call for capping US carbon emissions, Kilduff said buying and selling the permits among companies and industries to spew the emissions "could become a new boom for the financial services industry…that could rival foreign exchange trading and oil trading itself."

Obama shoots for optimism in face of economic meltdown

The tenor of Obama’s frequent and optimistic appearances before the nation are part of a larger strategy to achieve something like US President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fire-side chats” in which that president, spelled out in plain terms, what he planned to do to lift America out of the Great Depression of the 30s, aides to the President have said in interviews with Bellona Web.

Other presidents have used their first address to Congress to lay out comprehensive plans for the first time, but Obama has already addressed the nation from the East Room and held a prime-time press conference, in addition to visiting Canada and six American states in trips intended to sell his economic message.

But even though Americans have been seeing a lot of  Obama in the first 36 days of his presidency, the speech on Tuesday evening gave him an opportunity to command the stage in a way he has not yet done and served as an early test of whether he will be able to persuade Republicans to support any pieces of his agenda.

It’s a strategy that is working, according to a New York Times/CBS news poll published earlier this week, indicating that Obama has achieved job approval rating of 63 percent of Americans, both Democratic and Republican. Most remarkably, this poll cites Republican responders as indicating Republicans in Congress are causing continuing headaches, rather than the president’s initiatives.

Participants in the New York Times/CBS poll also said that Obama should focus on pushing the issues he campaigned on rather that trying to compromised to garner the support of recalcitrant Congressional Republicans.

Obama’s speech tonight did nothing but raise support for the bold economic plans he has been outlining since the campaign trail.

A CNN poll taken directly after Obama concluded his speech tonight indicated that 87 percent of respondents indicated that the address made them feel more optimistic.

Eighty-two percent of those who took part in the same survey backed Obama’s economic plans. 

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