America needs jobs, and working families are hurting. At the same time, the war in Iraq has heightened awareness of our dependence on foreign oil and the vulnerability of our energy system. The time is right for a national commitment to energy independence on the scale of John Kennedy’s Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon. A bold program to advance energy efficiency and promote renewable energy, like wind and solar power, and drive investment into new technology and public infrastructure would create 2 million jobs and offer stimulus to our flagging economy.
At the time of the 1973 oil embargo, the United States imported 35 percent of its petroleum. Today we import well over half. Since we consume a quarter of the world’s oil yet have only 3 percent of its reserves, there’s no way we can solve this problem with more drilling at home. But our problems go deeper than oil: We use 25 percent of the world’s energy, nearly three times the amount of any other country, while deregulation has upset the energy sector and environmental impacts threaten to limit our growth.
For too long, Democrats have allowed the GOP to exploit old fault lines between economic populists and environmentalists, pitting jobs against the environment. But an energy Apollo project represents good policy and good politics. Clean energy means jobs rebuilding the infrastructure of our cities, supplying new markets for leading-edge technology and using skilled labor and ingenuity to replace waste and pollution. At a time when states and cities are struggling under the worst fiscal crisis since World War II, investing in energy savings offers both stimulus and budget relief. In the manufacturing sector, which has suffered 75 percent of the 2.7 million private-sector jobs lost since George W. Bush took office, new investment in energy efficiency could anchor existing plants and create demand for American-made technology.
A recent poll in the swing state of Pennsylvania showed strong approval among voters–72 percent supported a federal program to invest $200-$300 billion in energy independence. Even more striking, support for an energy Apollo program jumped to 81 percent among non-college educated Democratic white men–a segment of the population that often breaks with progressives and that could determine the outcome of the next election. These “Reagan Democrats” have been burned by the current economy, and they respond to a message of hope for good jobs and reinvestment. Democratic presidential candidates, led by Dick Gephardt and John Kerry, have made major policy addresses calling for large-scale public programs to achieve energy independence. Gephardt predicts that “alternative energy has the potential to be America’s largest growth market and job producer in the next ten years.”
An Apollo project is attractive to swing voters, but it would also unite the progressive base. By focusing on good jobs and new investment to solve persistent energy and environmental problems, Apollo offers common ground both for labor unions and for environmental advocates. “By building fuel cells and wind turbines, by retooling American plants with efficient technologies, we can create good jobs, a strong economy and a sound environment,” contends Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists. Says Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, “In the face of a trading system that’s devastating both workers and the environment, an Apollo project for energy independence has the potential to unite trade unionists and environmentalists in building an economy that values every worker’s right to bargain for a decent living and every citizen’s right to live in a healthier world.”
So what might an Apollo project for energy independence look like? The New Growth Initiative, a joint project of the Institute for America’s Future and the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, has laid out a bold $300 billion plan for the next ten years. It would be broad-based, sharing the benefits of investment widely across the economy while insuring that no single sector bears all the costs. And it would be immediate, deploying proven and cost-effective technologies that exist today, not placing all our hopes on long-term R&D, like the Bush plan for a hydrogen “freedom car.”
Such an Apollo project would promote renewable energy sources like wind and solar. It would convert assembly lines to put American-made cars using advanced technology on the road. It would help older plants improve their environmental performance, preserving domestic manufacturing jobs. It would deploy new technology for pollution control as well as research how to capture carbon from coal plants, and it would invest in research and development to deploy hydrogen fuel cells.
The Apollo project would promote high-performance “green” building and push a new generation of energy-efficient appliances to market–driving up efficiency without driving jobs overseas. It would support smart growth and mass transit, increase brownfield redevelopment and rebuild transportation and water infrastructure, relieving municipal budget pressures. And an Apollo project would strengthen, not repeal, regulatory protections for consumers, workers and the environment.
Unlike tax cuts for the rich, investing in new construction and deployment of new technology would offer real stimulus to help working families and people in need. As Michael Sullivan, president of the Sheetmetal Workers’ International Association, says, “We need to rebuild and revitalize our economy. Working toward energy independence will make a giant contribution toward that end–it means more economic security, lower energy costs and healthier environments. The Apollo project offers a long-term solution for energy independence that reinvests in communities and the future of our nation.”
The Apollo Alliance–a broad coalition including labor unions, green groups, consumer advocates and socially responsible businesses–is now forming (www.apolloalliance.org) and will be unveiled at a major conference in June. By building on the example of past national challenges, the Apollo project reminds us that the public is ready for Democrats to be Democrats again, facing tough problems and believing again in the power of collective action. Americans are ready to pull together and get to work for the good of the economy, the nation and the planet.