By Philip Elliott
NEWTON, Iowa (AP) — President Barack Obama delivered an Earth Day pitch for his alternative energy plan and environmentally friendly jobs Wednesday in a return to Iowa, the state that launched him on the road to the White House.
The visit came as Obama's energy legislation has slowed in Congress, with skeptical Republicans and some Democrats from coal-producing states fearing the plan will increase costs for consumers, send jobs overseas and hurt businesses.
In financially struggling Newton, Iowa, Obama toured — then highlighted — Trinity Structural Towers wind energy plant as a model for job creation and energy production in a town whose biggest employer was sold and then stopped operations. He walked the factory floor, chatting with employees while welders working with 20-foot pipes sent sparks flying. Obama also watched a demonstration of how thick slabs of metal were made into cones.
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.
The administration contends that the president's plan will create jobs and protect the environment.
In an Earth Day proclamation, Obama said protecting the nation's natural resources "not only fulfills a sacred obligation to our children and grandchildren, but also provides an opportunity to stimulate economic growth."
Obama's post-inauguration 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 traveled to 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.
Obama's energy plan would drive more investments to companies such as Trinity, which builds the towers that support wind turbines. White House officials said that beyond the boost to the economy that such investment would bring, families also would benefit eventually from lower energy costs.
To that end, the administration's economic stimulus plan 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.
White House environmental advisers also say the costs of dealing with climate change can be reduced dramatically by adopting programs that will spur energy efficiency and wider use of non-fossil energy such as wind, solar and biofuels.
Yet wind-produced electricity still totals just under 2 percent of all electricity generated, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.
During his political campaign, Obama touted wind as a prime source of renewable energy. Aides say he's 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.
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. State and local governments and transit agencies are eligible to apply for the funds, though they must agree to match half the amount they are allocated.
Associated Press Writer Brian Westley in Landover, Md., contributed to this report.
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