Photo: Miroslaw Pieprzyk / Istock
By Dan Shapley
< < See Nos. 1-10, Nos. 11-22 and 23-30 in the Greenest 100 Days, The Daily Green's look at nearly 100 actions taken by the Obama Administration in its first 100 days to support environmental protection and a clean energy economy
31-50. The Environment as Economic Stimulus
President Obama has relentlessly tied environmental protection and a clean energy overhaul to the nation's economic recovery. Rather than shying away from environmental initiatives because of the sour economy, as many politicians might, he has gone whole hog. Here's a look at how the economic stimulus spending -- $100 billion of it -- will benefit the environment: (Also note No. 1-3 above.)
- $8 Billion for High-Speed Rail: The U.S. lags behind other nations in the use of high-speed light rail, but as many as 10 rail corridors will benefit from upgrades to move people and goods efficiently and quickly -- not to mention the jobs created to build the engines, lay the lines and improve stations.
- $6 Billion for Water Quality, Wastewater and Drinking Water Infrastructure: On the list of least-sexy, most-important public investments, sewers rank at the top of the list. The Clean Water Act, in the 1970s, vastly improved water quality through a huge infusion of federal money in public works projects to create sewers, drinking water treatment plants and related infrastructure. Since then, not even a simple revolving loan program has remained unscathed...until now. Anyone who has followed this issue -- and many have followed it all too closely in a sewage-filled basement -- knows that these are true shovel-ready projects that have been long waiting investment.
- $6 Billion to Clean Up Contamination at Old Weapons Sites: The Department of Energy is responsible for a staggering number of contaminated hazardous waste sites, and it hasn't always been willing to pony up for the cost of cleanup. The stimulus bill helps motivate action, putting to work environmental engineers, construction crews and countless others.
- $3.9 Billion for Smart Grid Improvements: You can generate all the Midwest wind energy you want, and pave the Southwest desert with solar thermal power plants, but if you can't deliver it to the power-hungry coasts at the time when they need electricity, it doesn't solve the nation's energy problems. You can develop electric cars, but you can't run them efficiently if electricity isn't there to charge them at the right times. A smart grid may not be sexy, but it's essential (oh, and someone has to earn a paycheck building the thing).
- $3.2 Billion to Improve Energy Efficiency at Public Buildings: This money will put contractors to work and ultimately reduce municipal tax bills by improving the energy efficiency of public buildings in states, counties, towns and schools across the nation.
- $2.4 Billion for Plug-in Hybrid and Battery Research: The car of the future is just not here yet (otherwise, it wouldn't be called the future). Getting from today's gas-fired internal combustion engines to plug-in hybrid engines that run mostly on juice from the electrical grid will take additional breakthroughs in battery technology -- breakthroughs that need investment to occur.
- $1.2 Billion for Science Infrastructure: You can't have research without lab space and equipment (built and manufactured by someone earning a paycheck).
- $750 Million for National Parks Projects: Politicians tend to be much better at press conferences in scenic locations, announcing the protection of high-profile landscapes, than they are at the year-to-year funding of parks maintenance. Our National Parks System will look a little better to visitors in the coming years -- all the more important, with so many Americans looking for a cheap stay-cation close to home.
- $600 Million for Superfund: Once upon a time, a tax on polluting industries paid for the cleanup of derelict hazardous waste sites...but that tax expired early in the Clinton Administration, and the "Superfund" -- that pot of money available for cleaning up old toxic waste sites -- has dwindled to nothing. Now, the stimulus will put engineers and construction workers on the job of carefully cleansing our most polluted sites, so that they no longer pose a health risk to surrounding communities.
- $300 Million for Local Clean Car Initiatives: The Clean Cities program pays for investments in alternative fuel vehicle fleets and fueling stations in states and cities. If we have U.S. car companies in the coming years, they will benefit from an expanded market for clean cars.
- $280 Million for Wildlife Centers: When the goal is putting people to work, it doesn't matter all that much what is being built if it employs workers to do the building. And wildlife centers typically get shorted on capital spending.
- $211 Million for "Clean Diesel": "Clean Diesel" has the ring of "clean coal" -- a misnomer. But unlike with coal-fired power plants, diesel engines are primed and ready for real-world technological upgrades that vastly reduce harmful pollution. Retrofitted engines mean less pollution causing asthma, smog and other ills on and off our roads.
- $200 Million for LUST: Just what is the EPA involved in? What is this all-caps LUST? Nothing sexy, unfortunately. The Leaking Underground Storage Tank program addresses an often hidden but insidious public health threat: gasoline and chemical spills originating from old buried tanks. These spills contaminate groundwater, which supplies many Americans with drinking water, and they can cause long-term health problems when the often colorless and odorless contamination goes undetected for years at a time.
- $140 Million for USGS Research: The U.S. Geological Survey has one of those relics of a name that obscures its useful function to Americans. True, it does maps. But more than that, its scientists prepare communities for floods by monitoring streams, protect mountain ecosystems from acid rain, study groundwater to protect people from drinking harmful contaminants, consider the impacts of global warming on U.S. soil...and a host of other studies critical to our understanding of our environment, and our relationship to it.
- $114 Million to Develop Fuel Cell Capacity: Fuel cells promise low-emission source of energy, but developing and deploying them for a variety of uses is still just out of reach...For now.
- $100 Million for Brownfields: Cleaning up so-called brownfields -- those old industrial sites that aren't horribly toxic, but too toxic to redevelop without special attention -- is a critical sustainable development strategy. Why? Most brownfields are in cities and other population centers: blighted, they degrade from urban areas where people's lifestyles have a smaller carbon footprint; redeveloped, and they invite new people to invest and live in those transit-oriented hubs.
- $100 Million for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: With goals that include producing the nation's most energy efficient office building at no extra cost, boosting biorefinery research and developing on-site geothermal and fuel cells that offset electricity buildings would otherwise have to purchase, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is an incubator for research that could change the way we live -- for the better -- in the near future.
- $93 Million for Wind Energy: If the nation is to produce 10% of its power from renewable energy, as President Obama wants to do by 2012, wind power technology will have to advance. This helps toward that goal.
- $84.8 Million for Watershed Protection: Watershed protection isn't just good for trout fishermen. It is critical for maintaining the quality and quantity of drinking water supplies and irrigation sources; it aids in the prevention of floods; and it protects important habitat for fish and other aquatic species, as well as those that inhabit the riparian zone.
- $10 Million to Help Develop a Hybrid Plug-In School Bus: With air pollution from school buses a contributor to childhood asthma, and all those diesel-miles driven a concern for global warming pollution, this investment could pay dividends for many years to come.