In jobs speech, a test for the president on clean energy

President Obama's jobs speech tonight is seen by some as a symbol of his commitment to clean energy -- and a gauge of his willingness to defend the emerging industry against Republican ridicule.

It comes as the White House is signaling a retooled emphasis on "old school" highway jobs, as one Republican strategist said approvingly, to caffeinate national employment and consumer spending.

But there's a bigger employment picture that some advocates hope is not lost in Obama's focus on attaining immediate jobs. The idea that he might shuffle away from his pledge to "win the future" with innovative technologies -- his central employment pitch this year -- frustrates environmentalists who point to strong public support for renewable energy.

There's also concern that Obama is allowing House Republicans to shape his employment approach. Seeking bipartisan compromise could compress the president's vision for clean energy, they say. The risk is that Republicans will reject Obama's compromised terms, providing losses legislatively and in the battle for ideas.

"The president shouldn't shy away from an investment in this arena," said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress and a former policy adviser to the Obama administration. "He should put forward proposals regardless of whether the House would immediately pass them or not. He should put forward proposals that make sense."

Striking a deal with the House could mean that the president adheres to "a very limited vision" for the nation's economic recovery, added Tanden, saying Obama could include clean energy projects in the infrastructure bank he's expected to unveil tonight.

"He can't be so confined," she said. "He has to have an argument with the American people about what we should be doing now, and what we should be doing next year, and what we should be doing in the future."

Not sexy, but a job driver

The last time Obama addressed a joint session of Congress, he proposed a clean energy standard, a major policy meant to create new demand for solar, wind, nuclear and other low-emitting electricity sources.


That hasn't happened. Still, some advocates believe Obama is so invested in the clean energy sector -- in both political capital and taxpayer treasure -- that it's nearly impossible for him to retreat from it now.

But even these advocates, facing unbending Republican opposition in Congress and national sentiment supporting spending cuts, appear willing to accept a modest role for clean energy in the near-term jobs effort.

So tonight Obama should push for a tax credit that encourages industrial owners to install efficient systems for powering and heating their plants, said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program.

"Hopefully, that's the kind of thing that Barack Obama can get up and say on Thursday -- 'Why doesn't this make sense? Combined heat and power [and] waste heat recovery, not sexy, but puts a bunch of people back to work,'" she said. "That's the kind of proposal I think he should be presenting."

It would also have an impact on climate change. A plant using combined heat and power emits about half as much carbon dioxide as one that buys electricity off the grid, according to U.S. EPA.

The jobs plan will likely extend Obama's efforts this year to lure Republicans with compromise and bipartisan policies. The administration has revealed the president's main themes. And they are not controversial ideas -- at least historically.

Immediate jobs in highway and bridge construction are likely in store. And economy-tingling polices like extending the yearlong payroll tax cut and encouraging businesses to hire unemployed workers have also been aired.

One Republican wants to help Obama

Energy efficiency could get a nod, too. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Obama might propose a plan to retrofit commercial buildings.

He offered a large program along those lines in February, aiming to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in places like strip malls, office buildings and hospitals by 2020. The Better Building Initiative would save $40 billion in electricity costs, the White House claimed. And its cost would be offset, at least partially, by canceling tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.

Some moderate Republicans are willing to work with Obama to extend tax credits for renewable energy and to help coal plants install scrubbers and other equipment to cut air emissions, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview.

Those and other things, like carbon capture and sequestration, would be paid for with revenue derived from royalties and permits associated with expanded oil and gas drilling.

"We must make a transition, a new energy transition in America," said Murphy, who introduced H.R. 1861, the "Infrastructure Jobs and Energy Independence Act." "Even if we can't agree on issues like climate change, we need to agree on clean air, land and water, and energy that is ours."

But he won't support any plan that fails to offset its cost with savings, or new revenue, elsewhere. Obama's infrastructure bank is too expensive, he said, and an energy efficiency program that increases the deficit "doesn't make sense."

An end to the 'green energy show'?

Obama's speech rides the tail of difficult setbacks for clean energy and environmental rules, coming one week after a government-sponsored solar company, Solyndra, added more than 1,000 people to the unemployment ranks -- and days after Obama overruled EPA's efforts to develop stricter ozone rules.

"It gives people something to shoot at," a prominent Democratic pollster said of Solyndra, guessing that the company's demise will make the White House cautious about proposing clean energy provisions tonight.

Still, that doesn't mean that Obama will shy away from clean-tech policies during his re-election campaign, the pollster said, noting that they offer "tremendous political advantage."

But Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist who advises GOP leaders on energy policy and strategy, believes the speech will signal the end of the "green energy show."

The sector's high-tech jobs are harder to ramp up than construction and retrofit crews, and there is global competition in the marketplace, he said. And clean energy programs often require government subsidies, for which Congress has little appetite.

"What are they talking about before the speech?" McKenna said of administration officials. "They're talking about infrastructure -- roads and bridges that are going to be driven on by cars that burn gasoline. It's straight out of the '60s. But the reason it's old-school is 'cause it works."

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