Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Environmental leaders gave a big thumbs-up to Barack Obama’s economic stimulus proposal on Thursday, though they pledged to continue pushing to make the bill as green as possible, particularly on transportation issues.

“This morning, President-elect Obama reaffirmed his commitment to invest in efficiency and clean energy technologies as part of his economic recovery package,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a statement. “Ready to hit the ground running, he offered specific details that offer great hope for America’s future success.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope was also effusive in a statement: “These initiatives are a win-win for a strong economy and a healthier environment. They will create good jobs here in America and reduce our dependence on dirtier energy sources like oil and coal by promoting the shift to wind and solar power and high-energy-performance, low-carbon cars and buildings.”

Said Cathy Zoi, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, “This increased investment in renewables, efficiency, and our energy infrastructure is a crucial first step in boosting our economy, ending our reliance on dirty coal and foreign oil, and solving the climate crisis.”

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder praised the plan too. “Obama’s call for ‘a whole new approach to meeting our most urgent challenges … ending the culture of anything goes’ signals a refreshing break from the past,” he said.

Blue Green Alliance Executive Director David Foster told Grist that he thinks the plan is on the right trajectory, though he hasn’t seen enough detail yet to determine whether there’s adequate funding for green programs. “I think the important point is that we have a significant green down payment, that we understand the importance of this in the stimulus, and that we forge ahead in using it as a building block to do a lot more in this Congress because I think it’s absolutely the smart way to think about economic development,” he said.

“I think we’re waking up and realizing that this is not just the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, it’s actually going to turn into the greatest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, and we need to focus on that human aspect of this,” Foster continued. “Alcoa announced that it was laying off 13,000 employees a few days ago. All other manufacturing companies I’m aware of are thinking about this situation as in free fall. I don’t think we’ve quite grasped yet how serious the economic devastation is out in Main Street, and we need to be thinking about all the different ways we’re going to transform the economy so that long-term it delivers on the jobs we need both now and in the future.”

One area of concern for environmentalists is transportation. They had hoped to see dedicated funding for mass transit in the Obama plan, but the draft in circulation doesn’t include any.

Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke told Grist she hasn’t yet reviewed the entire Obama plan, but will be working with Congress to make sure that mass transit sees increased funding, either through a stimulus bill or the transportation bill expected later this year. “There will be more than one opportunity, but it’s critical that in the stimulus package transportation, particularly transit, get much greater attention,” she said. “We need greater investment not only to improve the transit systems we have, but to get more light rail, bus services, and rail, so not all Americans are as dependent on the car as they are now. People want choices and we need to provide them.”

Blackwelder also emphasized the importance of funding mass transit rather than new road projects. “[W]e are working with the president-elect’s team, as well as members of Congress, to ensure that wasteful spending on new roads will be kept out of the recovery package,” said Blackwelder. “Instead, we must invest in improving and expanding clean transportation options including public transit and passenger rail, as well as on maintaining and repairing the roads and bridges that already exist. Dollar for dollar, investments in public transportation and road and bridge repair create more jobs than new road construction and lead to cleaner air and less pollution.”

Pope too warned against lumping funding for dirty projects into the stimulus package. “As this plan moves to Congress, it is vitally important that the government focuses on investing in newer, cleaner, more efficient technology and not wasting money on costly, business-as-usual approaches like new coal plants, dams, or ‘highways to nowhere,'” said Pope. “We look forward to working with the new president and the Congress to pass this plan and keep it focused on the priorities that will provide short-term economic recovery and long-term economic stability and a cleaner, safer world.”