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The Guardian/UK

Energy: Can Obama Keep It Clean?

Kate Sheppard

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.

The 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."

The 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.

This 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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Kate Sheppard is the political reporter for Grist.

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