NEWTON, Iowa – Marking Earth Day with a pitch for his energy plan, President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for a "new era of energy exploration in America" and argued that his proposal would help the economy and the environment at once.
"The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy — it's a choice between prosperity and decline," Obama said in his first post-election trip to Iowa, the state that launched him toward the White House. "The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy."
But Obama's promise of preserving natural resources and jump-starting the economy ran smack into the reality of this economically struggling town about 30 miles east of Des Moines. The wind energy plant where he spoke, and received a tour beforehand, is a shadow of what it replaced — a Maytag Corp. appliances plant that built washers, dryers and refrigerators.
It employed some 4,000 in a town of 16,000 residents in jobs that paid about $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
Trinity Structural Towers has roughly 90 people working at the old Maytag site, a number that is expected to grow to about 140. Mark Stiles, a senior vice president at Trinity, which builds the towers that support wind turbines, said workers at his factory make about $17 an hour, plus benefits.
"This is a piece of the recovery, but we think it's a nice piece," Stiles said.
Newton Mayor Chaz Allen said many are still trying to recover after the loss of Maytag in 2007.
"You know, 115 years with one company was a great thing, but it's a different world now," Allen said. "Our economy has to be diverse and we can't put all of our eggs in one basket."
Obama was at the plant to highlight his energy proposal that has slowed on Capitol Hill. Skeptical Republicans and some Democrats from coal-producing states complain that it will increase costs for consumers, send jobs overseas and hurt businesses.
Obama said the nation needs more domestic production of oil and natural gas in the short term. But "the bulk of our efforts," he said, must focus on transitioning the U.S. to more renewable energy.
He pushed personal responsibility, calling on every American to replace one incandescent light bulb with one compact fluorescent. The president also said the leaders of the world's major economies will meet next week to discuss the energy crisis.
For his remarks, Obama chose Iowa, second only to Texas in installed wind capacity.
He announced his administration is creating the nation's first program to authorize offshore projects to generate electricity from wind turbines and ocean currents. The Interior Department on Wednesday issued the long-awaited regulations governing how leases will be issued for the development of such energy sources and how revenue will be shared with coastal states.
Obama said that wind could generate as much as 20 percent of the U.S. electricity demand by 2030 if its full potential is pursued on land and offshore. It would also create as many as 250,000 jobs, he said.
"As with so many clean energy investments, it's win-win: good for environment and great for our economy," the president said.
But wind-produced electricity totals just under 2 percent of all electricity generated, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.
Obama's energy plan would reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 83 percent by mid-century. It 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.
The House began four days of hearings on its version of climate legislation on Tuesday.
GOP lawmakers have criticized the "cap-and-trade" portion of the measure, calling it a massive energy tax because it will put a price on carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. But Obama defended it, saying, "My hope is that this will be the vehicle through which we put this policy in effect."
Obama's energy plan would drive more investments to companies such as Trinity.
The administration's economic stimulus plan also 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.
Obama's post-inauguration travel 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 visited Colorado, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Florida and now Iowa.
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 that sparked a marathon nomination struggle. His Iowa field operation for 2012 is up and running, with town-hall meetings scheduled this week.
In Landover, Md., on Monday, 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.
Associated Press Writer Brian Westley in Landover, Md., contributed to this report.