Muckraker: Grist on Politics

President Barack Obama devoted a significant portion of his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night to energy and environmental concerns, talking up the need for energy investments and calling on legislators to send him a cap-and-trade bill this Congress.

“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,” said Obama. “So 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.” (Read Grist’s coverage of the GOP response.)

This session of Congress ends in 2010, which would match earlier statements from his administration that the White House is not necessarily going to demand a bill this year. Obama praised the energy investments already made in the economic recovery package as a down payment on those future goals, however.

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“We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country,” he said. “And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills.”

The president listed energy as his top priority going forward, followed by health care and education. He pledged to double the use of renewable energy and invest $15 billion dollars in the development of new technologies each year – including wind, solar, advanced biofuels, more fuel-efficient automobiles, and “clean coal.” He criticized the lack of action in past decades on energy, and called for the United States to take the lead in technological innovation:

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It begins with energy. We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.

Well I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders – and I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again.

In his discussion of his pending budget proposal, he called on Congress to end wasteful government spending, and pledged to “end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.”

Later in the speech, Obama gave a shout out to Greensburg, Kan., which has made green a core part of a reconstruction program after a tornado destroyed much of the community in 2007. The mayor of Greensburg, Bob Dixson, was among the guests seated with First Lady Michelle Obama at the speech. Obama noted the town as a place where he has found hope and inspiration.

“I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community – how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay,” he said. “‘The tragedy was terrible,’ said one of the men who helped them rebuild. ‘But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity.'”

The speech didn’t include much in the way of specific policy directives or new initiatives, but focused more on the broad goals of repairing the economy.

“The only way to fully restore America’s economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world,” he said. “The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care; the schools that aren’t preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit. That is our responsibility.”

Watch Obama deliver his speech: