From NBC/National Journal's Aswini Anburajan
Barack Obama attempted to bring a fresh face to an old political issue in Portsmouth, N.H., Monday, proposing a comprehensive energy plan that attempts to combat global warming while ensuring American energy security.
Obama called for an economy-wide cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and an investment of $150 billion over the next 10 years to develop new technologies to create sources of renewable energy, advanced biofuels and the safe use of nuclear power. He also called for greater U.S. engagement with the world in combating climate change, and spoke of the importance of individual responsibility in reducing energy consumption, saying that he would even sign a ban on incandescent light bulbs.
The plan received praise from the League of Conservation Voters for embracing a mandatory cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, a step that his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Clinton, has not advocated.
But in his remarks, Obama also skated a fine line between the history of U.S. energy policy and the ability of political leaders to pass comprehensive energy reform; between his criticism of the role energy lobbyists played in the Bush energy bill and his vote for that bill.
His speech opened with a nod to that history, by showing a montage of every president since Richard Nixon, all promising to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
Obama blamed not only the power of the energy lobbyists in Washington interests in Washington for stymieing energy reforms but also the politicians that allowed that system to continue to exist.
"I know that change makes good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to actually make change happen, they didn't lead," Obama said. "When they had the chance to stand up and require automakers to raise their fuel standards, they refused. When they had multiple chances to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable fuels that we can literally grow right here in America, they said no."
His remark was both an attack against politics as usual in Washington and also a veiled reference to Clinton, who voted against raising average corporate fuel economy standards and tax breaks for ethanol producers.
But even though Obama takes broad swipes at Washington with a special-interest tar brush, even he gets somewhat spattered when it comes to the energy industry. Obama is a strong supporter of the Illinois coal industry, and has received thousands of dollars from lobbyists for the energy industry and employees of energy companies, according to the FEC.
In 2005, he voted for the Bush energy bill, which he vigorously criticizes on the stump, accusing the administration of meeting with conservation and environmental groups only once but meeting with the oil industry 40 times.
Obama's support for the Bush energy bill brought $40 million to Illinois to help its burgeoning ethanol industry, $1 billion to allow diesel engines to be retrofitted to reduce air pollution and another $85 million for Illinois universities to research how to turn Illinois basin coal into transportation fuels, according to an article in the Peoria Star Journal at the time.
To his credit, Obama addressed his vote in his speech and justified it on the grounds that it provided support for renewable energy.
"I even voted for an energy bill that was far from perfect," Obama said, "because I was able to ensure that it contained some real investments in renewable sources of energy."
Obama added that he fought to keep tax breaks for energy companies out of that bill.
Obama did not openly call for increasing coal production in his speech, but he did say, "We must find a way to stop coal from polluting our atmosphere without pretending that our nation's most abundant energy source will just go away. It won't."
He pledged to rely on a carbon cap to stop new dirty coal plants from being built and a ban on new traditional coal facilities. Obama's energy proposals come at an opportune time. At nearly every campaign stop in Iowa last week, voters asked about what Obama would do to reduce American dependence on foreign oil and help combat global warming. His proposals may help him gain traction with voters who are concerned about the issue, especially small farmers in Iowa who would benefit from his push for greater ethanol production.