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 both the economy and the environment.
"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 economically struggling Newton, Iowa. The wind energy plant he toured is a shadow of what it replaced, a Maytag Corp. appliances plant that built washers, dryers and refrigerators and employed some 4,000 of the town's 16,000 residents.
Trinity Structural Towers has roughly 90 people working at the plant, a number that is expected to grow to about 140. Maytag employees made about $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Mark Stiles, a senior vice president at Trinity, 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.
"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."
In Washington, Obama's energy legislation 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.
For his remarks, he chose Iowa, second only to Texas in installed wind capacity.
Obama announced that his administration is creating the nation's first program to authorize offshore projects to generate electricity from wind and ocean currents. The Interior Department on Wednesday issued long-awaited regulations governing the development of offshore wind and tides.
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. Aides say Obama 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.
Obama spoke at and toured Trinity Structural Towers wind energy plant, touting it as a model for job creation and energy production. He walked around the factory floor, chatting with employees while welders working inside 20-foot pipes sent sparks flying.
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 and employ about 140 workers, in exchange for business incentives and tax breaks.
Obama's energy plan would drive more investments to companies such as Trinity, which builds the towers that support wind turbines.
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 Structural Towers.
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 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 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.
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.