A key element of the proposed budget President Obama unveiled today is a plan to make renewable energy more profitable. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Mark Hertsgaard who writes about the environment for The Nation and Vanity Fair.
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LISA MULLINS: One key element of the budget President Obama unveiled is renewable energy. Here's what the President had to say about that earlier in the day today.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We need to make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. That's why we'll be working with Congress on legislation that places a market base cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy. And to support this effort, we'll invest $15 billion dollars a year for 10 years to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, and to build more efficient cars and trucks right here in America. It's an investment that will put people back to work, make our nation more secure, and help us meet our obligation as good stewards of the earth we all inhabit.
MULLINS: Once again, that's Barack Obama earlier today. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard writes about the environment for The Nation. So, Mark, when you hear about not only an investment in more efficient energy sources but something also that will put people back to work and make the nation more secure, as the President said, sounds too good to be true. Do you think it is?
MARK HERTSGAARD: I don't think so. This is actually what's happening in Europe and a lot of other countries. The US is kind of behind the curve internationally on this. So what Obama is proposing really is kind of best practices internationally now.
MULLINS: Best practices internationally. At the same time, how do we get there from here? I mean, one of the things he's talking about is to tax and cap carbon emissions and then put the revenue into green investments. Taxing and capping of carbon emissions is something that's likely to be extremely difficult getting through Congress. I'm wondering if you can tell us how it would work, first off, and what the hurdles are to getting there?
HERTSGAARD: Sure. A cap and trade system is one that basically sets a cap on the amounts of greenhouse gas emission the economy can permit. And it's a cap that goes down over time so it can reduce the emissions over time. And then each industrial sector, whether it be electricity or coal or automobiles, what have you, has a particular target that it has to reduce by such and such a time. If you as a firm can reduce your emissions below that target, you are not charged anything. In fact, you have permits that you will then be able to sell to companies that cannot meet those targets. And over time, this is supposed to reduce the overall emissions.
MULLINS: And how about the tax part of that?
HERTSGAARD: The tax can either be done in addition to that or separately from that. There's a lot of debate on Capitol Hill and among analysts about what is the best way to do it. There's very mixed results in Europe on cap and trade so far. Their initial foray into this sphere a few years back is generally regarded as something of a failure precisely because the government gave away these permits basically for nothing -- and that ends up rewarding the biggest polluters. Obama as a candidate proposed 100 percent auctioning of these permits. So companies could go into the marketplace and basically buy up these permits â€“ the right to pollute if you will â€“ and therefore, that revenue would then come back to the United States Treasury. And the question is, what do you do with that revenue?
MULLINS: Okay. So if hundreds of thousands of Americans work in the oil and coal industries, what is the human cost here in terms of the overall proposed transition that he is outlining, in terms of jobs lost?
HERTSGAARD: I haven't seen personally really persuasive solid numbers yet on how much job loss we're going to see in those industries. So much depends on exactly how tough the carbon targets are â€“ both in terms of how much the emissions have to decline and how quickly they have to decline. Now, the upside is you're going to be creating millions of new jobs in the construction sector in particular. The stimulus package, which has already passed, the budget of course is still to be decided, the stimulus package â€“ the green spending in that is about $71 billion dollars in direct green spending, and another $20 billion dollars in tax incentives. Put that all together and the estimates are that it will create about 2 million new jobs.
MULLINS: Before I let you go, Mark, you have been covering this issue for quite some time. Where do we stand now with this proposal â€“ with the stimulus plan combined with the budget blueprint that we're getting right now from Barack Obama. I mean, how do you see where the nation is poised right now on this issue?
HERTSGAARD: Well, the nation is making a big U-turn from the Bush-Cheney years. The problem is we lost 8 years there of no action. And so now in order to preserve the planet, the greenhouse gas emissions have to decline even more sharply than they would have otherwise. And even Obama's polices are simply not enough yet. So we're beginning to make a U-turn but it's going to have to really accelerate if we're going to prevent the worst scenarios of climate change.
MULLINS: Mark Hertsgaard is the environment correspondent for The Nation magazine. He spoke to us from San Francisco. Thanks for your time, Mark.