Newton, Ia. — President Barack Obama, in Iowa Wednesday, announced plans to allow offshore wind energy production, a step that economic development officials said could spur the state’s burgeoning renewable energy industry.
Speaking at a Newton wind tower plant, Obama said new Department of Interior rules would clear the way for the first wind turbines to be erected off the Atlantic coast.
“We are establishing a program to authorize – for the first time – the leasing of federal waters for projects to generate electricity from wind as well as from ocean currents and other renewable sources,” Obama said to about 200 workers at Newton’s Trinity Structural Towers and public officials.
The administration chose as the backdrop for the Earth Day event a state that trails only Texas in wind energy production. Obama became well-versed in Iowa’s renewable energy sector during his campaign for the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
Iowa has become home to 300 companies and suppliers of the wind energy industry, which would benefit from offshore towers, state Department of Economic Development Director Mike Tramontina said.
“We have a cluster of wind industry and wind manufacturing in our state, and that would grow as the whole demand grows,” Tramontina said. “I think Iowa companies will have opportunities wherever the wind is. They have a foothold in Iowa.”
Obama also pushed for new energy legislation this year that would require lower pollution standards and spend $150 billion over 10 years on the renewable energy industry.
Some Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, have said Obama’s plan to reduce pollution would hold the United States to an unfair standard. But Obama argued that the nation’s environmental efforts are inextricably tied to its economic future.
“We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity: The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy,” Obama said.
His appearance at the former Maytag appliance plant, where Trinity assembles wind turbine towers, underscored that message. About 30 of the roughly 90 employees at Trinity’s Newton plant are former Maytag workers. The appliance plant closed in 2006 after the longtime Iowa company was sold to Whirlpool, idling roughly 1,800 workers.
Introducing Obama Wednesday was Richard Mulbrook, a former 22-year Maytag employee and now Trinity’s maintenance manager in Newton.
“This time we’re manufacturing renewable energy, as you can see around you,” Mulbrook said, with segments of the massive white towers behind him. “We have a bright new future here in Iowa.”
It was Obama’s first trip to Iowa as president and came after weeks of foreign travel and focus on international diplomatic and economic work.
During the 30-minute speech, Obama repeated his campaign’s promise to tie his remedy for the nation’s economy to the need for renewable energy and a cleaner environment. But this time, he emphasized the role Americans can play in the meantime.
“I do not accept the conventional wisdom that suggests that the American people are unable or unwilling to participate in a national effort to transform the way we use energy – that the only thing folks are capable of doing is paying their taxes,” Obama said.
The Democrat also joked about the criticism he received last year from his Republican opponent, John McCain, when Obama suggested that Americans could help cut petroleum consumption by keeping adequate air pressure in their car tires.
“Everybody made fun of me,” Obama said with a smirk. “Well, I tell you what, it turns out it saves you a lot of gas.”
Obama made only passing reference to ethanol, saying “my budget also invests in advanced biofuels and ethanol, which, as I’ve said, is an important transitional fuel to help us end our dependence on foreign oil while moving towards clean, homegrown sources of energy.”
Obama’s plan to reduce pollution seeks to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050 by establishing a cap-and-trade system. The plan calls for businesses to be granted credits for emissions; companies that use more than their share would have to buy credits from companies whose emissions fall short of their caps. The total number of credits would be reduced over time.
“Through this kind of market-based cap, we can address in a systematic way all the facets of the energy crisis: lowering our dependence on foreign oil, reducing our use of fossil fuels and promoting new industries right here in America,” Obama said.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee began hearings on an energy bill Tuesday and is expected to act on it next month.
Some Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, have said Obama’s cap-and-trade plan would punish businesses and cost consumers more.
“We can work together to find better ways to protect the planet without hitting the household budgets of families already struggling with the economic downturn,” Latham said.
Grassley said lowering emissions should be handled by international treaty. Otherwise, heavy polluters such as China would gain a competitive advantage over the United States, he argued.
“If we just do it by ourselves, we’re going to lose a lot of manufacturing jobs to China,” Grassley told reporters. “We should have a level playing field.”
Obama said he planned to ask other nations to take similar steps when he participates in an international conference next week.
“This is a global problem, and it will require a global coalition to solve it,” Obama said. “It is true that the United States has been slow to participate in this kind of a process. But those days are now over.”