BOULDER CITY, Nev.—President Obama traveled here to the Nevada desert Wednesday to highlight the future of solar energy – and ridicule Republicans for trimming back federal funding to develop it.
“If some politicians get their way, there won’t be any more public investments in solar energy,” Obama said at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 plant, about a half-hour’s drive southeast from Las Vegas.
“These folks dismiss the promise of solar power and wind power and fuel-efficient cars. They make jokes about it. One member of Congress who shall remain unnamed called these jobs ‘phony,’” Obama continued. “If these people were around when Columbus set sail, they would’ve been founding members of the Flat Earth Society.”
Although this was an official White House event, Obama employed the sharply partisan tone he has reserved primarily for campaign rallies and fundraisers in recent weeks.
The visit began a four-state swing Obama is using to illustrate the “all of the above” character of his energy policy at a time when high gas prices are threatening the fragile economic recovery and his own reelection prospects.
Obama has argued that the federal government should promote a range of energy sources – petroleum, solar, wind, battery power – in order to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil delivered in large part from the volatile Middle East. Over the next two days, he will visit a variety of sites that tell the larger story of his energy plans, which the public has yet to embrace.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published earlier this month found that 65 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama’s handling of gas prices. Half of those surveyed believe that Obama can do more to bring them down.
Earlier this week, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney called on Obama to fire the three cabinet officials he blames for high fuel costs, reflecting the political value the president’s rivals see in the issue.
Crossroads GPS, a Republican super PAC, has bought ad time on national cable networks and in some of the local markets that Obama is visiting this week to argue against the president’s energy policy.
In briefing reporters aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Republicans were engaged in “a sustained effort to try to get some political gain” out of high gas prices. He said Obama was doing what he could to bring costs down at the pump through by allowing more drilling in the short term and focusing on alternative energy sources for the long term.
The same Post-ABC News poll found that 38 percent approve of his overall energy policy, which during his time in office has been criticized by both Republicans and his liberal supporters.
Obama’s use of federal loans to encourage alternative energy development ran into trouble over Solyndra, a Freemont, Calif.,-based solar panel manufacturer that declared bankruptcy last year. A major Obama fundraisers was one of the largest investors in the company, which received a $535 million federal loan, prompting Republicans to accuse the president of cronyism.
Romney and other GOP rivals say Obama should more aggressively promote oil drilling on federal lands to help boost the domestic oil supply. But some of Obama’s liberal allies are concerned that the president has not done more to push through legislation they view as important in slowing climate change.
It is a divide he is hoping to bridge on this trip.
On his first stop, Obama came here to the Copper Mountain Solar plant, where from a stretch of desert a million solar panels power 17,000 homes. Nevada is in play for the November election.
It is the largest plant of its kind in the country – and growing. Plans call for an expansion that will eventually allow it to supply more than triple the number of homes it does now. The facility sits in a shallow, dry bowl, covered in scrub and strung for miles with power lines. Row after row of jet-black solar panels tilt toward the sun.
“This is an industry on the rise,” Obama said after a brief tour, with the solar fields as a backdrop. “It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice. They’re starting to look around for more places like Boulder City to set up shop.”
He said that on Tuesday his administration raised tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels to take steps toward “leveling the playing field. because when everyone’s following the same set of rules, I have no doubt that American workers and American companies will always win.”
“We have been talking about energy independence for thirty years, since I was 10, the age of these guys,” Obama said, gesturing to some children in the front row. And he pledged that “as long as I’m president, we’re going to keep developing every available source of American energy.”
“Now, the flat earth society in Congress would rather give another $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to oil companies this year,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense. Does that make any sense?”
He said the oil companies are “doing just fine” and that “a century of subsidizing the oil industry is enough.”
From this symbol of new energy, Obama will travel to the oil and gas production fields on federal land outside Carlsbad, N.M., another important and closely contested state in the presidential election.
More than 70 rigs are in production there, and White House officials have emphasized that, despite Republican contentions that Obama has turned his back on the domestic oil and gas industry, oil production is up 13 percent on federal lands over his term.
“The president is committed to increase the production of oil and gas in a safe and responsible way,” Carney said, adding that “those facts are difficult to like when you are trying to make a political argument.”
Much of the Republican criticism has centered on Obama’s decision to reject a Canadian firm’s application to build and operate the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile project that would have straddled the width of the United States in linking important oil sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Obama said his action was based on the “rushed and arbitrary deadline” that Congressional Republicans had placed on his decision as part of tax-cut extension legislation.
Many environmentalists celebrated the move. But the administration has said the company, TransCanada, could resubmit the application with a new route that avoids an environmentally sensitive habitat called the Nebraska Sandhills.
On Thursday, Obama plans to visit Cushing, Okla., which marks the start of the southern leg of the proposed pipeline. White House officials say Obama will call for an expedited review of that stage of the project.
Referring to the president’s position on the pipeline, Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) said in a statement Wednesday that “President Obama claiming credit for speeding up the Keystone pipeline is like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet – it is claiming credit where credit isn’t due.”
“This is clearly an attempt to deflect attention from $4 gas and his failed energy policies, and Oklahomans won’t buy it,” said Sullivan, who is vice chairman of the House Energy and Power subcommittee.
Obama will then head to the laboratories at Ohio State University in Columbus, a research and development hub for next-generation batteries for electric cars.