Unions and oil companies painted President Obama as a jobs destroyer for his decision to delay the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline at a GOP-led hearing this morning—but is that true?
Not according to one of the lone dissenting witnesses, a clean energy advocate who said if permanent jobs are the goal, the president must shift the country's energy focus away from oil infrastructure to the manufacturing-heavy green sectors.
“We need to think long term … The answer lies in increased investment in the research and development of green alternative energy projects,” said Jerome Ringo in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Ringo, a former oil worker, was the president of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental groups now part of the BlueGreen Alliance.
Now it seems Obama—who is under heavy attack from Republicans for choosing to put off the Keystone XL decision for at least a year—is heeding such calls from his base to invigorate the clean economy.
Today the president unveiled a $4 billion green-buildings initiative with former president Bill Clinton and U.S. industrial giants, including 3M Co. and Alcoa Inc., to retrofit 1.6 billion square feet of government facilities over the next two years using private money and existing federal programs.
The project, part of the We Can't Wait Campaign, is expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs over the next two years.
The $7 billion Canada-to-Texas pipeline, which was touted at the hearing as a key job-creating project, would create 5,000 to 6,000 temporary construction positions, according to figures from the U.S. State Department, the agency in charge of the pipeline approval process. (TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, says 20,000 temporary jobs would be created.)
In a recent analysis, InsideClimate News found that more than 15,000 Americans are working for electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers. The potential across the green economy is enormous, according to Ringo. Renewable energy and energy efficiency were responsible for 8.5 million jobs in 2006 alone, he said today, citing figures from a 2009 green jobs report by the American Solar Energy Society, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
An American Clean Economy without Cap and Trade?
A half dozen Western states have left or been kicked out of a regional carbon trading program and have instead joined a new U.S.-Canada initiative aimed at curbing emissions in a more politically palatable way.
The North America 2050 (NA2050) partnership—which launched quietly on Nov. 10—comes as federal legislation to create greenhouse gas limits and a price on carbon seem further away than ever, and as delegates from 194 countries struggle to make progress at UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.
NA2050 will help North America create policies to cut emissions and foster a shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, without forcing carbon caps or emissions trading.
The initiative was made public just after Arizona said it was pulling out of the Western Climate Initiative (WCI). The WCI's cap-and-trade approach would set limits on emissions, which Republicans nationwide have called an unfair tax on businesses.
After Arizona defected, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington were dropped for failing to pass laws that would allow them to participate in the scheme.
WCI is left with one U.S. member: California.
The four-year-old program was supposed to start capping emissions in 2012, but now it's future is uncertain. California will launch its own cap-and-trade program in 2013. The four Canadian provinces left in WCI haven't said what's next for them.
In the meantime, any state, province, business or nonprofit in the United States, Canada and Mexico can join NA2050. So far nearly 30 states and provinces are on board. They include: current and former WCI participants, members of the 10-state Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—the first and only mandatory trading scheme in America—and members of the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, which aims to build its own cap-and-trade program.
For Arizona, whose Republican governor, Jan Brewer, opposes cap and trade, the initiative means the coal-reliant state can adopt solutions like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology at coal-fired power plants, while skirting the politically charged issue of capping climate-changing emissions.
“WCI was pretty much equated with cap and trade. It wasn't the only thing it was working on, but by and large it is what our stakeholders viewed it as,” said Kurt Maurer, deputy to the director of Arizona's department of environment, Point Carbon reported this week.
Similarly, in Oregon, growing disdain for cap and trade kept the state legislature from voting the state into the WCI program in 2009 and 2010. Officials elected instead to join the broader campaign, according Sustainable Business Oregon.
“The politics aren't there for [cap and trade] right now,” said Dave Van’t Hof, who led former Gov. Ted Kulongoski's efforts on climate change.
Solar Industry Fights to Extend Fast-Expiring Subsidy
The politics for solar aren't looking so great either. This week, the solar industry was scrambling to keep a key clean energy subsidy alive as installers were scrambling to start construction before it runs out.
On Wednesday, a coalition of 750 renewable energy companies and organizations sent a letter to Congress to grant a one-year extension to the Treasury Department's Section 1603 cash grant program, which is set to run out Dec. 31, 2011.
The two-year-old program allows renewable energy developers that qualify for an investment tax credit to instead get a cash payment worth up to 30 percent of their project costs.
Without the 1603 grant, the logic goes, young solar startups that aren't earning taxable profits would lose access to crucial upfront capital.
“Allowing [the grant] to expire at the end of the year, while tax equity markets remain limited, would have a severe impact on the few industries actually creating new American jobs in this economy,” Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said in a Nov. 30 press release.
So far, the 1603 program has spent more than $1.3 billion on some 6,300 solar projects, according to solar industry figures released in September. Supporters credit the cash grant with spurring $4.5 billion in private solar investment and supporting more than 100,000 jobs.
But their pleas to Congress come at a precarious time for federal clean energy programs, with fiscal austerity mania sweeping Washington and House Republicans going full-speed ahead with their investigation into Solyndra, the failed solar firm that cost the government more than a half-billion dollars.
Not everyone is complaining. For solar manufacturers, the subsidy's likely expiration has meant big business in the fourth quarter.
China's Suntech Power and Trina Solar, two of the biggest solar panel makers, both reported a surge in sales and said they expect shipments to increase throughout December. The 1603 program requires clean energy projects to start construction before 2012 in order to qualify for the cash grant.
“We expect to see at least 50 percent sequential growth in shipments” to the United States this quarter as a result of the subsidy's expiration, Andrew Beebe, Suntech’s chief commercial officer, said on a conference call, GigaOm reported Sunday.
Solar industry officials caution, however, that the boom will bust next year without the cash grant program.
China-U.S. Solar Trade War Gets Intense
As the roller-coaster that is the solar industry continues, the ongoing solar trade dispute between the United States and China isn't helping matters.
In the latest round, China hit the United States with a taste of its own medicine.
Back in October, the U.S. unit of Germany's SolarWorld AG and six unnamed U.S. solar panel makers filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) alleging that illegally subsidized Chinese firms are distorting the market with underpriced panels and making it impossible for them to compete. (Today ITC voted unanimously to investigate. Depending on the outcome, commerce officials could impose tariffs on Chinese-made panels as early as March.)
The probe will examine programs in the states of Washington, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey and California, Reuters reported.
Commerce officials say they are also weighing a second investigation to see if U.S. suppliers of polysilicon, a key material used in photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, are selling the ingredient at illegally low prices in China to undercut the local supply chain.
Bad P.R. Month for the Still-Struggling E.V. Industry
The electric vehicle industry is on edge after batteries used in GM's gas-electric hybrid Volt caught fire in recent crash tests.
That cars catch fire isn't anything new for automobiles, and so far no Volts involved in real-world crashes have gone up in flames. But analysts anticipate the bad press could steer consumers, who are already weary of E.V.'s, toward fuel-efficient conventional cars instead, the New York Times reported.
That's exactly what GM doesn't need right now. On Thursday, the auto giant said it would fall short of its goals to sell 10,000 Volts in 2011, Detroit News reported. GM has sold about 6,000 Volts since it released the cars last December.
The Volt first raised red flags in May after the car’s lithium-ion battery pack caught fire three weeks after a federal side-impact crash test. Two more batteries caused fires in late November a week or so after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted three more tests that month.
GM executives said they are developing a process to draw electricity from the advanced batteries after a crash in order to keep it from smoking and sparking, Bloomberg reported.