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Will Obama Break His $150 Billion Promise?

President Obama has repeatedly pledged $150 billion to clean energy research and development, but with just $1 billion per year in R&D funding, the Waxman-Markey bill falls far short. Will Obama listen to 34 Nobel laureates urging him to keep his promise?

Johanna Peace

With last week's letter urging Obama to ensure "stable support" for a Clean Energy Technology Fund in the climate bill currently before the Senate, America's top scientists and energy experts signaled that the scientific community will hold Obama to his promise of investing $150 billion in clean energy research and development.

The names on the letter represent a virtual who's who of the upper echelons of the American scientific community, led by former Federation of American Scientists Board Chairman Burton Richter. Its supporters include Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google, former special assistant to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton administration, and a former candidate for Energy Secretary under Obama.

These science and energy experts are insisting that the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) be strengthened from its current form, which would invest just one-fifteenth of the $15 billion per year Obama repeatedly pledged during his campaign. "This is a serious deficiency," the letter warns.

In recent weeks, Waxman-Markey supporters have suggested that Obama will meet his $150 billion commitment through investments in efficiency and clean energy in the stimulus bill. But critics of ACES point out that Obama's web site promises $150 billion for research and development alone. While the media and the public may hold a broader definition of green spending, the letter from the nation's scientific experts highlights the need for research and development money specifically. According to the authors, this funding is crucial for making "rapid scientific and technical progress" toward new energy technologies and more advanced versions of existing technologies, like solar photovoltaics, biofuels, and next-generation batteries. That funding can't be found in the stimulus package, in ACES, nor in Obama's budget, critics say. 

The Nobel laureates' letter puts sharp focus on a crucial test for Obama, especially at a time when Asian nations are surging ahead as leaders in clean tech investment. Reports that China alone will spend up to $660 billion over ten years on renewable technologies--compared to the $9 billion provided for clean energy measures under Waxman-Markey--resulted in a wave of news articles and blogs, including a recent Washington Post report on the issue. Now, all eyes are on Obama to push for a bill that can measure up to Asia's bold moves on clean energy.

The stakes for Obama here could be high. During the campaign, he drew attacks from Hillary Clinton and John McCain for being all rhetoric and no action. If Obama compromises on his $150 promise, he could reinforce that criticism. Candidate Obama also came down hard on Clinton and McCain, calling them captive to corporate interests and saying they'd "let lobbyists use their clout to get their way" on energy policy. Now Obama risks being called to task for the same sins as he faces one of his first critical tests as president--the test of whether he'll keep his promise on clean energy investment.

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Johanna Peace is a Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.

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