NEWTON, Iowa — President Barack Obama returned to Iowa on Wednesday, using Earth Day and a wind industry factory to declare "a new era of energy exploration in America" that creates jobs and cleans up the environment.
The visit to the state that launched him on the road to the White House comes as Obama's energy legislation has slowed in Congress, with skeptical Republicans and some Democrats from coal-producing states fearing the plan will increase costs for consumers, send jobs overseas and hurt businesses.
In financially struggling Newton, Obama toured — then highlighted — the Trinity Structural Towers plant as a model for job creation and energy production in a town whose biggest employer was sold and then stopped operations.
The president told cheering employees that he traveled to the factory, which makes the large towers that wind turbines sit on, in order to usher in "a new era of energy exploration in America."
New U.S. oil and natural gas finds should be developed as long as they are environmentally sound, he said, but "the bulk of our efforts" should be in clean energy like wind.
"The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy, it's a choice between prosperity and decline," he said.
Obama announced his administration had created the nation’s first program to authorize offshore projects to generate electricity from wind and ocean currents.
States such as New Jersey and Delaware have offshore wind projects pending, but some other coastal states have seen controversies over the turbines' aesthetics.
Obama said that wind, which now produces 2 percent of U.S. electricity, could generate as much as 20 percent by 2030 and create 250,000 more jobs if its full potential is pursued on land and offshore.
Video: Obama's energy strategy He also announced that he would host world leaders next week to discuss "how we can work together to address this energy crisis and this climate crisis."
Republicans were quick to criticize Obama for opening offshore areas to renewable energy while maintaining a ban on new offshore oil and gas wells on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
"An energy plan without oil and natural gas is like a bicycle without wheels," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement. "If the administration does not act soon to permanently lift the moratorium on offshore drilling, Americans will lose access to enormous amounts of new domestic energy and thousands of high paying jobs in the middle of a serious recession."
Tower factory ramped up quickly
At Trinity, Obama walked the factory floor, chatting with employees while welders working with 20-foot pipes sent sparks flying. Obama also watched a demonstration of how thick slabs of metal were made into cones.
Newton's Maytag Corp. appliances plant closed in 2007, costing the small city hundreds of jobs. But a year later, the state announced that Trinity Structural Towers would build a $21 million factory on the former Maytag site in exchange for business incentives and tax breaks.
Still, the green industry job numbers fall far short of what once existed in some cities and towns.
In Newton, Maytag once employed 4,000 people from a town of 16,000. The new wind energy plant has 90 people working, a number that could group to 140.
Obama's energy plan would drive more investments to companies such as Trinity. White House officials said that beyond the boost to the economy that such investment would bring, families also would benefit eventually from lower energy costs.
To that end, the administration's economic stimulus plan included some $5 billion for low-income weatherization programs and $2 billion for electric car research. Another $500 million was set aside to train workers for "green jobs," such as those at Trinity Structural Towers.
White House environmental advisers also say the costs of dealing with climate change can be reduced dramatically by adopting programs that will spur energy efficiency and wider use of non-fossil energy such as wind, solar and biofuels.
During his political campaign, Obama touted wind as a prime source of renewable energy. Aides say he's remains steadfast in his support for an energy plan that would reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by mid-century.
Obama's plan also calls for a series of measures aimed at reducing the use of fossil energy, such as requiring utilities to produce a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources.
In an Earth Day proclamation, Obama said protecting the nation's natural resources "not only fulfills a sacred obligation to our children and grandchildren, but also provides an opportunity to stimulate economic growth."
Climate hearings in Congress
The House began four days of hearings on climate legislation Tuesday, but the challenge of getting bipartisan support immediately became apparent. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reinforced Obama's message in testimony Wednesday.
The administration officials expressed broad support for a House Democratic bill but indicated the White House would work with Congress on the specifics of the legislation.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chief sponsor of a bill that would limit greenhouse gases, echoed the president's argument, saying his proposal to tackle climate change would spur clean energy development and won't be a drag on the economy.
In Landover, Md., Vice President Joe Biden marked Earth Day by announcing that $300 million in federal stimulus money will go to cities and towns to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles. State and local governments and transit agencies are eligible to apply for the funds, though they must agree to match half the amount they are allocated.
Obama's post-inauguration itinerary reads like a list of battleground and Republican-leaning states that helped lift him to the presidency and will be critical in any re-election bid. He's traveled to Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio and Florida. The visit to Iowa Wednesday was his first since the election.
Obama staged a surprise upset over one-time rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to win Iowa's caucuses in January 2008, giving him much-needed momentum out of the caucuses that sparked a marathon nomination struggle. His Iowa field operation for 2012 is up and running, with town-hall meetings scheduled this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.