A big green cheer for the stimulus bill

Billions to boost energy efficiency and clean up toxins? After eight dark years of Bush, environmentalists can hardly believe their eyes.

Published February 14, 2009 11:50AM (EST)

As the economic stimulus bill fights its way out of the Senate to President Barack Obama's desk, it's tough to find a leading environmentalist with a discouraging word to say about the plan. Sure, some had a few quibbles about, for instance, the amount of money designated for public transit versus highways, but overall, the greens see blue skies ahead.

The folks at the Natural Resources Defense Council were positively ebullient about the bill. "Congress really got it right with this economic recovery package that will deliver jobs and green infrastructure to America," crowed Wesley Warren, director of programs for NRDC, in a statement. "We need to put America on a path to a clean-energy economy, and Congress has taken a big step forward in heeding this call."

The stimulus package will invest $37.5 billion in energy. That includes $4.5 billion to boost the energy efficiency of federal buildings; $6.3 billion for energy efficiency and conservation grants; $5 billion to weatherize old buildings, which promises to put idle construction workers back on the job; $2.5 billion for energy efficiency and renewable-energy research; $6 billion for new loan guarantees for wind and solar, and the list goes on.

Over at the Sierra Club, the lead lobbyist on the stimulus package, Melinda Pierce, enthused, "It's amazing that so much of the plan for economic recovery is predicated on these green technologies, green energy and green jobs. We are talking about literally billions of dollars that are going to be invested in programs that have suffered for years, including clean-energy programs that were waiting to be launched."

Other key green investments include $6 billion for cleaning up toxins on former military sites and $1.2 billion to fund the Environmental Protection Agency's environmental cleanup programs, including the much neglected Superfund.

Greenies also found much to cheer about what the final bill left out, most significantly $50 billion in federal loan guarantees to the nuclear industry, which had provoked righteous outrage when it was proposed.

Another significant win: The package extends tax credits for wind-energy production for three years. Wind-energy advocates had previously had to lobby to get those tax credits extended annually. "Finally, this gives the market some certainty that tax credits will extend for three years," Pierce said. "That really is going to help level the playing field for the development of renewable energy."

The package also adjusted those credits to make them more useful in hard economic times. "Perhaps the most important thing in the bill is that it contains language that allows renewable-energy developers to get cash grants in exchange for the tax credits, a crucial provision in the time of economic downturn, when companies don't have profits against which to take a tax credit," said Salon contributor Joseph Romm, who served in the Clinton administration's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy within the Department of Energy. "I think the provisions in this bill will allow Obama to keep his difficult but important commitment to double renewable energy in his first term."

After years of the car running America's transportation policies, the bill provides more than $17 billion for public transportation. “Setting the course for years to come, this legislation will begin to craft a greater intermodal transportation system that our nation desperately needs,” said American Public Transportation Association president William W. Millar.

However, if there's one area about which environmentalists care to quibble, it's the funding for public transportation, which while substantial, does not measure up to what was in earlier versions of the bill. The House had proposed $12 billion for transit, but the final number came from the Senate bill: $8.4 billion (which still would save 10.3 million barrels of oil). The bill also allocates $9.3 billion for high-speed rail, intercity rail and Amtrak, with a chunk of the money possibly going to a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route.

Although this might sound like a lot of dough, transit advocates were irked that highways got a whopping $27.5 billion. "Transit investments put a down payment on transforming America's transportation system and create 19 percent more jobs than traditional highway spending," said Warren from the NRDC. "This is why America should prioritize fixing our crumbling roads and bridges and building rail systems, rather than new highways."

Even so, some of that $27.5 billion for highways could still go to fund transit, if states and municipalities decide it should. "It's incorrect to call it highway money, because some of it could go to public transportation," said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director for NRDC. Advocates will be pressuring their states and cities to make that happen.

Yet while environmentalists were generally thrilled about all this spending for causes for which they've longed advocated, some cautioned that we shouldn't expect the stimulus bill to fix all our environmental problems. For instance, the bill includes $6 billion for improvements to drinking-water systems, which means a lot of very labor-intensive construction and civil engineering jobs. NRDC estimates that $6 billion alone will create more than 200,000 jobs.

Yet that $6 billion can't be expected to bring clean and safe drinking water to all Americans. "In 2008, 24 million Americans were served water that didn't make the federal drinking-water standards," said Elizabeth Royte, author of "Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought it." In 2005, the EPA estimated that we need $390 billion over the next 15 years for clean-water infrastructure. A single drinking-water-filtration plant now being built in the Bronx is on track to cost over $2 billion.

Still, any way you look at it, there's much for environmentalists to celebrate. After laboring on the margins of the Bush administration for eight years, they now find themselves in the mainstream of Washington, taking part in addressing the economy, the country's most urgent crisis.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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