Obama Calls on Congress to Set Carbon Cap

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama called on lawmakers tonight to create a market-based cap for carbon emissions and to commit to a future built on renewable energy.

The president's own commitment to clean energy as an economic driver for the nation was clear in the structure of his speech. He focused on three areas that he called "absolutely critical to our economic future." Number one on the list: energy. Healthcare and education followed, but the president emphasized:

The country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.

That's a major shift from calls to open up more land to oil exploration and chants of "drill, baby, drill."

Obama's first budget, being released on Thursday, already factors in revenue from a future cap-and-trade system starting as early as 2012. The White House hasn't publicly detailed the contours of a carbon cap program, but The New York Times reported over the weekend that the president's plan could raise up to $300 billion a year by 2020 and that the president wants most of the revenues to go to families to offset higher utility bills and related expenses, with the rest going to support the development of alternative energy.

Here's what Obama said to Congress about cap-and-trade this evening:

To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.

Barely a month into his presidency, Obama's administration is already demonstrating a dedication to cleaning up the nation's energy sources. His Cabinet is topped with scientists who recognize the dangers of climate change. His EPA has started the process of tightening emissions standards on greenhouse gases, and it could soon begin regulating CO2 under the Clear Air Act.

The president has also promised to support the research and development needed to build a clean, efficient energy system. He pointed out tonight that the new economic stimulus plan was putting the nation on track to double U.S. renewable energy production in the next three years.

In his budget, Obama said, he will recommend investing $15 billion a year in clean energy. Yes, he mentioned "clean coal," but the investment list was heavy with renewable energy – solar power, wind, biofuels – and it stressed energy efficiency and the need for a smart power grid. And when he talked about support for the auto industry, Obama emphasized that it would be progressive auto industry that was making cars for a clean energy future.

None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy. But this is America. We don't do what's easy. We do what is necessary to move this country forward.

Republicans criticized the new administration for focusing on spending to revive the economy rather than on cutting taxes. "Washington shouldn't be spending money that we don't have," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican House whip. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who gave the official GOP response, talked about energy, but as a need for "urgent action to keep energy prices down." Jindal mentioned increasing conservation, energy efficiency and renewable fuels use, all good, but added to his list nuclear power and "drilling for oil and gas here at home."

Obama, who inherited a $1.2 trillion budget deficit from the Bush administration, argues that the government needs to spend now to resuscitate the economy, and he says he has a plan to cut the deficit in half within four years.

The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank. We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election.

To pay for the new spending, Obama discussed "responsibly ending" the war in Iraq; rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in federal programs; ending wasteful spending on cold war-era weapon systems; ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas; and increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, those earning over $250,000.

The president promised: "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

If we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered.'

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