Energy: Can Obama Keep It Clean?

As pretty much every poll
prior to the election told us, the American public still ranks
environmental concerns way down the list of challenges they want their
next president to address, while the economy and energy consistently
rank near the top. But even as the financial crisis consumes Americans'
minds, there remains a looming environmental crisis.

If the next administration is serious about addressing global warming - and Barack Obama
has promised he is, laying out a comprehensive plan on the subject -
it's likely that the first big environmental actions will never be
called "environmental" at all. Instead, success in environmental
concerns will come through addressing economic concerns.

president-elect seems to grasp this convergence. "Finding the new
driver of our economy is going to be critical. There's no better driver
that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new-energy economy," he
told Time's Joe Klein in an interview two weeks ago. "That's going to be my No 1 priority when I get into office."

first environmental moves of an Obama administration will probably come
via economic recovery plans for creating new jobs in home and business
weatherisation and infrastructure development, and creating efficiency
incentives. These are the lowest-hanging fruit on energy and economic
policy, and could be tacked onto a stimulus package early in a new
administration. They'd also provide immediate savings for individuals
and businesses, reduce the need to import energy, and in the process
reduce carbon emissions - which should make for an easy win in the
first days of his administration.

Obama has also promised a
long-term investment of $150bn in a new-energy economy through
efficiency, jobs programmes, upgrading the electrical grid and
supporting the research and development of new technologies, which if
enacted could jump-start the economy. Included in this stimulus will
likely be support for the domestic auto industry, which has been suffering major losses in the economic downturn.

assistance to the auto industry is also likely to present one of the
first challenges for Obama. On Wednesday, the department of energy
announced that auto companies would be able to apply as early as next
week for the $25bn in low-interest loans
to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles that Congress and George Bush
recently approved. On the campaign trail, Obama promised support to
retool factories so they can create the next generation of
fuel-efficient vehicles, and advocated doubling the loan programme to
$50bn. But many enviros are critical of the funding, seeing it as a
bail-out for an industry that has undermined efforts to make vehicles
more efficient. The fact that Ford Motor Company just introduced their new F-150 truck line
for 2009 - a three-ton, 16-miles-per-gallon monster - doesn't reassure
many that the auto industry is serious about using these massive loans
to produce more efficient vehicles. The New York Times notes that Ford spent $150m to retool its Dearborn, Michigan plant to make that new truck.

The auto industry is already lobbying
Obama for more help, and if the president-elect is serious about tying
his energy plans to economic stimulus, he's going to have to demand
that an aid package include strict fuel-economy requirements, and he's
going to have to start doing that now. It's tough love for an industry
that many fear is going to collapse without aid, but if the industry
doesn't start making the next generation of vehicles, they're
essentially planning their own demise.

Green groups are all
jumping behind Obama on the idea of tying stimulus to green growth,
recognising that this sort of plan is likely to gain approval long
before the president and Congress could get a regulatory system in
place to cut carbon dioxide emissions. "It's about connecting the dots
between energy, the environment and the economy, and President Obama
made that clear," said Sierra Club political director Cathy Duvall on
Wednesday. "It will help our economy recover, and it will also help our
environment recover."

Obama will have an opportunity to provide
leadership on this in the very first weeks of his administration, if
not before. While environmentalists are pleased that the
president-elect seems to get the need to connect economic, energy and
environmental policy, they'll have to hold him to these promises as a
litany of concerns vie for his attention early on.

"If there's
going to be a new economic stimulus package, clean energy should be
cornerstone," said Anna Aurilio, director of Washington DC office of
Environment America. "We think solving the economic crisis is going to
be predicated on how well we launch the clean energy economy."

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