WASHINGTON — Hoping to earn support from coal and farm states for a languishing energy and climate bill, President Barack Obama on Wednesday created a task force to push for cleaner coal and unveiled a plan to help finance biofuels.
Moreover, a presidential committee recommended spending more money to make biofuels such as ethanol, saying the U.S. is likely to otherwise fall short of mandates for more environmentally friendly energy.
"I happen to believe that we should pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill," Obama told a White House meeting of governors, many from coal-producing states. "It will make clean energy the profitable kind of energy, and the decision by other nations to do this is already giving their businesses a leg up on developing clean energy jobs and technologies.
"But even if you disagree on the threat posed by climate change," he added, "investing in clean energy jobs and businesses is still the right thing to do for our economy. Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is still the right thing to do for our security."
The task force will focus on ways to capture and store carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. "Rapid development and deployment of clean coal technologies, particularly carbon capture and storage (CCS), will help position the U.S. as a leader in the global clean energy race," the White House said.
On biofuels, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to start a financial aid program for "folks delivering biomass for the collection, harvest, storage, and transportation of biomass to eligible biomass conversion facilities."
Biofuels, which are made from biomass — organic matter such as wood, crops and animal waste — are used to power vehicles, but critics do not see them as the perfect replacement to high-polluting fossil fuels.
Since his State of the Union Address last week, the president has been embracing a range of fuel alternatives including nuclear and clean coal technology in a move likely to win support of some wavering Democrats in coal states and Republicans.
Obama's push for ethanol could also shore up his support in farm states where ethanol helps support demand for corn.
Many pieces of those proposals were likely to win Republican support on Capitol Hill, where GOP allies have been elusive for a Democratic White House looking to pass controversial cap-and-trade legislation that would limit the nation's emissions.
Energy has served as a major plank of the president's domestic agenda, finding places on his travel schedule, in his speeches and in his budget proposal released on Monday.
"Well, you're not going to get any argument from me about the need to create clean energy jobs," Obama said Monday in a YouTube forum. "I think this is going to be the driver of our economy over the long term. And that's why we put in record amounts of money for solar and wind and biodiesel and all the other alternative clean energy sources that are out there."
The president added: "In the meantime, though, unfortunately, no matter how fast we ramp up those energy sources, we're still going to have enormous energy needs that will be unmet by alternative energy. And the question then is, Where will that come from?"
Biofuel promise, concerns
That was a question Obama asked a biofuels task force — led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson — to explore.
Its first report, issued Wednesday, shows how production of fuel from plants or animals was unlikely to meet the goal Congress has demanded. The current production of 12 billion gallons annually is hardly the 36 billion lawmakers have mandated by 2022.
The group recommended more aid for the biofuel industry with a combination of federal dollars and private-sector investments.
Officials said their recommendations would build on some $786 million allocated for environmental projects ranging from ethanol research to pilot programs at biorefineries. The plans also would mesh with Obama's budget proposal, which called for ending oil and gas subsidies, a move that could save $36.5 billion over a decade.
The struggling biofuels industry is concerned that the Obama administration will move too quickly away from ethanol, which is mostly made from corn, to more difficult techniques using wood chips and other biomass.
Obama charged the biofuels task force with retooling the nation's policies toward biofuels in many areas.
The group was asked to develop a strategy to increase biofuels production, investment in the industry, and the use of "flex fuel" cars, which can run on either gasoline or fuel that is mostly ethanol.
Environmentalists and some scientists say production of U.S. biofuels from corn and other grains can drive out production of other crops, forcing farmers in other countries to burn down forests and clear land to grow those crops — creating new sources of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.
Boosting production of home-grown biofuels such as ethanol would help achieve more energy independence while also creating jobs in rural regions of the United States as the country battles double-digit unemployment, the administration argues.
The Obama budget proposal, meanwhile, would retrofit 1.1 million housing units to improve energy efficiency through next year and increase batteries for plug-in hybrid vehicles to 500,000 a year by 2015. Both are examples of a tangible program that could help residents' pocketbooks and Democrats' chances at the ballot box.
Obama's political team is already making that case. He toured a company that produces energy-efficient light bulbs in Nashua, N.H., on Tuesday and late last month visited an Ohio community college that trains students to work on wind turbines. He has also been talking up the energy sector's potential to move out-of-work Americans off unemployment rolls.
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