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This Week in Clean Economy: Obama Nurtures His Base with Green Buildings Initiative

Under GOP attack for his Keystone XL delay, Obama goes with his base—and the clean economy. Cap and trade loses favor, and solar fights for a key subsidy.

Dec 2, 2011
Solar house construction

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.

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