Obama State of Union address couches clean energy in terms of jobs, steering clear of emissions and cap-and-trade

Publish date: January 27, 2010

WASHINGTON – During his first State of the Union address to the Congress, President Obama tonight renewed his call for Congressional action on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation in order to rescue, restore, and rebuild the American economy and the middle class.

Obama, known for his soaring oratory, worked hard in his highly spirited address to tie clean energy and climate change to renewed chances for the American workforce to rejuvenate, and look to toward a brighter future of American leadership in clean energy. US unemployment has hovered around 10 percent for months – three points higher than when Obama took office.

So, he was conscious in his address that the dire warnings, such as drought, disappearing polar ice caps, refugees fleeing floods and worsening disease that have accompanied discussions of global climate change have ceased to captivate American voters.

Yet, in an impressive demand for the creation “clean energy jobs,” Obama said, “we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives.”

Among these, he enumerated “continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies,” and said that, “yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.”

Speech touts renewable and…nuclear

But in an appeal that is likely to upset many in the US and world environmental sector, he also said that creating more clean energy production for America and putting more US citizens to work, “means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” and  “making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

As he spoke to the joint session of Congress tonight, Obama stared down the climatic and social shambles left to him by the Bush administration while attempting to keep the mood light, making many comments that drew laughter from the packed chamber.

Saying that he was grateful that he was grateful to “the House (of Representatives) for passing (an energy) bill last year,” he added with a smile and to the laughter of many that, “This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.”

Senate climate legislation is faltering as the Congress attempts to grapple with health care, skyrocketing deficits, unemployment and Wall Street regulation, climate legislation has taken a back seat. This last week, it became an even thornier issue as a Massachusetts special election brought Republican Scott Brown to the Senate seat that had been held for five decades by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, killing the Democratic supermajority in Congress and the possibility that climate leglislation would be passed at the snap of Democrats’ fingers.

Obama open on economic difficulties of energy reform

Obama openly recognized the difficulties of tackling energy and climate problems against such a backdrop, saying, “I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change,” which also brought knowing chortles from the Republican side of the aisle.

But, after pausing for yet another characteristic grin, he continued that whether one believes the science or not, investing in energy efficiency and cleanliness will put the United States in a position of leadership.

“(…)Even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future,” he said, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy,” adding to general applause: “And America must be that nation.”

Job creation to sell climate battle

Instead, he couched the energy and climate in terms of job creation and fresh investment opportunity, as well as a subversion of business as usual in Washginton. He also threw down opportunities for American innovation as a gauntlet, pointing to other economies that were forging ahead more quickly in their efforts to create clean energy jobs.  

“You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse,” he said.

“Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.”

Obama also announced $8 billion in stimulus grants for high-speed rail projects. The cash will be awarded to 13 corridors and will include funding for 31 states. He said he and Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Tampa, Florida, to make the announcement on Thursday.

Lawmakers’ reactions

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said Obama “made the point we’ve been trying to make for so long, that if America is going to lead the world in this decade, in this century, we better get going. Because if we don’t, than other nations like China are just going to steal our thunder.”

Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a lead author of the Senate climate bill, said, “President Obama(…) threw the weight of his presidency behind a principled compromise that prices carbon to reduce pollution, invests in new energy, and also embraces nuclear, clean coal, and even drilling.”

Kerry is working with South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s Independent Senator, to produce a bill for Senate floor consideration before the end of the spring. To make any progress, the three senators must court a handful of moderates. So far, only a few are sending any public signals that their door is even open to negotiations.

Montane Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee called the idea of a comprehensive energy and climate bill “important” and pledged to “try to find a way.” But he added, “There’s a lot to pass in nine months.”

Baucus said he does not plan to mark up a climate bill in the near future. “We have to figure out some other big issues first,” he said.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican Senator, read between the lines of Obama’s remarks to question whether he was truly pushing for the programe most environmentalists want, she told told ClimateWire.

“I only heard him use the word ‘climate’ twice,” said Murkowski, a possible swing vote on the issue who has been leading efforts to neuter any climate regulations out of the Obama-led US Environmental Protection Agency.

“I guess what I took from it was his urging us to move on an energy bill that was more comprehensive, that’s beefed up nuclear and offshore production, which I thought was very good. But if he was really urging members of the Senate to act on a cap-and-trade piece, I certainly didn’t hear that part,” she was quoted as saying.

Indeed, a transcript of Obama’s speech as delivered includes no mention of cap-and-trade, a contentious issue that Obama steered well clear of for the domestic audience.

As largely expected, President Obama also made no mention of last month’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen, which, while drawing China and India into the fold of nations who will set their own emissions targets, were seen largely as an international failure.

This will doubtless come as a dissapoitment to international observers, who are expecting agreesive unilateral action from the United State before the next round of UN climate talks next year in Mexico.

But even democratic Senators have questioned agressive dealings with athe climate issue, given the shambles left to Obama by the Bush administraton.

“I think this is a very difficult time, given the state of the economy,” Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democratic Senator said. “And the lack of a firm commitment on the part of other nations. That makes it more difficult. That’s not to say progress can’t be made. If I were advising the president, I would focus on energy security, job creation in the energy space that would have the additional advantage of helping to address carbon emissions but do it an economically friendly way.”

US Environmental response cautiously positive

Despite what many had hoped would be more from the President on the environment, one of his signature issues, many US environmental groups were quick to praise what they could in an effort to get the Senate to act on climate legislation.

“In the face of Congressional opposition and elsewhere, Obama stuck to his guns and called for the passage of energy and clmate legislation. What might emerge later this year is anyone’s guess,” said Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA.

“To gain political support across the board, any legislation will need to contain something for everyone. We probably won’t like everything that’s in it,” he said.

“All eyes remain tightly focused on the United States Senate,” said the Sierra Club’s head Carl Pope. “With millions of Americans still out of work, it’s time for the Senate to get serious about passing bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation,” 

“In addition to slashing our dangerous dependence on oil and creating millions of new jobs, clean energy legislation will restore American industry, rebuild the middle class, and rescue our economy by putting it back on a path to long-term, sustained prosperity,” he said, “adding “In the year ahead, Congress faces a stark choice: build a clean energy economy that puts America back to work and makes us more secure, or bail out Big Oil and other polluters and maintain a dirty energy status quo that we can quite literally no longer afford.”

A Sierra Club statement enumerated the breadth of Obama’s environmental accomplishments during his fist year in office, including the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act’s approximately $90 billion in green spending to get our economy back on track and create millions of new clean energy jobs; declaring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare and finally beginning the process of regulating the carbon pollution that causes global warming;  affirming that science and the rule of law will once again lead;  making environmental justice and a more inclusive environmental movement top priorities at EPA, among dozens of others.

Obama hoped to tackle the partisan blockades standing before passing the climate bill and other signature legislation, saying, “We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics.”

He praised what he called American’s “stubborn resilience in the face of adversity,” and appealed to lawmakers to abandon the rhetoric of the past.

Will clean energy create jobs?

There are opposing opinions on whether jobs would blossom by requiring factories and utilities to use less oil and coal, or whether the rise of more expensive solar, wind and other “green” energy would kill jobs.

Early in his 71-minute speech, Obama was quick to point out that one US company, at least, was creating jobs in the solar power sector.

“You can see the results of last year’s investment in clean energy –  in the North Carolina company that will create 1200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels,” he said.

But this was modest by comparison to other commentators and recently released research.

“We know that clean energy is a proven job creator,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer recently told reporters.

She cited a 2009 study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley, the University of Illinois and Yale University that concluded between 918,000 and 1.9 million jobs would be created over 10 years by the climate bill passed last year by the House of Representatives.

Those added jobs would ripple through the economy, giving it a $39 billion to $111 billion boost, the researchers said.

Centre for American Progress and Universities agree

Similarly, a study by the Centre for American Progress and the University of Massachusetts economics department looked at the combined effects of the House-passed climate control bill and last year’s economic stimulus law. The latter included tens of billions to encourage alternative energy investment.

Around 2.5 million new jobs would be created, this study concluded. But with a projected 800,000 jobs lost in connection with the declining use of fossil fuels, there would be a net 1.7 million new jobs, it said.

None of the University studies included the possibility of a significant expansion of construction jobs if a climate control bill is coupled with new incentives to build additional nuclear power plants, as many Senate Republicans demand.

Currently, there are about 130 million jobs in the United States. A 1-2 million jump in jobs “is not insignificant,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It would help recoup some of the 7.7 million jobs lost over the past two years.

But part of the problem in projecting job creation, according to some economists including Hufbauer, is that there are many unknown factors that could intercede over the next decade.

The University of California study, for example, noted that efficiencies encouraged by climate legislation would reduce energy and transportation costs, saving families and businesses money “they can spend on domestic goods and services, which will create jobs for Americans.”

That does not address the possible increase in consumer and business costs from using alternative energies, which are still much more expensive than coal or oil. Republicans, who mostly oppose climate legislation mandating lower carbon emissions, argue that manufacturing jobs will flee to countries that haven’t imposed stringent global warming laws.

Playing environmental and economic catch up

China will build green factories and create jobs for windmills and solar power if the United States doesn’t, green advocates say. In fact, China is expected to have pulled ahead of the United States in installed wind power in 2009.

Also unknown is whether the Federal Reserve, during a period of accelerated consumer spending the UC study envisions, might have to use monetary policy to put the brakes on spending to stave off inflation.

As politicians, economists and environmentalists battle it out, the climate-jobs debate has not been bolstered by firm government statistics.

At the international climate meeting in Copenhagen last month, US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke touted the prospects of “millions of blue- green- and white-collar jobs” by “reinventing” power generation, transportation and manufacturing with alternative energy.

But Locke said his agency had not done any detailed analysis of job creation and instead was relying on estimates from industry and foreign countries.

Hufbauer said that to be “really intellectually honest,” legislation controlling carbon emissions should be framed as a way of buying an insurance policy against possible climate-related disasters.

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