Obama's Big Green Mess

By Stone, Daniel; Clift, Eleanor | Newsweek, October 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Obama's Big Green Mess


Stone, Daniel, Clift, Eleanor, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Stone and Eleanor Clift; With Eve Conant and Laura Colarusso

How the White House lost its eco-mojo.

This summer, federal inspectors made a routine visit to 11 homes in St. Louis to see what taxpayers got for the $5 billion that President Obama spent to help Americans weatherize their homes to save energy.

What they found was quite a surprise. Some of the energy-efficient furnaces installed at taxpayer expense spewed carbon monoxide that could poison occupants. New water heaters lacked required pressure valves, putting them in jeopardy of exploding. And a handful of contractors--unfamiliar with the nuances of specialized weatherization work--had used air blowers in homes with asbestos, potentially dispersing the cancer-causing agent, according to several Energy Department inspector-general reports.

As it closes in on retrofitting 600,000 homes, the government's weatherization program--a key element of President Obama's green-energy initiative--has had its share of happy, energy-saving customers. But it has also been riddled with problems. In one review, Energy Department investigators found that 14 percent of weatherization projects surveyed, from Tennessee to West Virginia, failed to meet safety or quality standards. Many customers were poor or elderly, with few resources to pursue wayward contractors.

It turned out that as so much money was being spent so quickly, a lot of state and local governments, as well as contractors, simply weren't ready for the job at hand. "You don't have trained people to do those jobs in places like Arizona or Florida," says Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery Board and Obama's handpicked watchdog to oversee stimulus spending. "It turned into a cottage industry." A senior Energy Department official agreed: "We were clearly not ready to take all this money, especially at the state level."

Washington's scandal du jour has been Solyndra. The California solar company received a rushed half-billion-dollar clean-energy stimulus loan from the Obama administration, only to go bankrupt and potentially leave taxpayers on the hook--despite warnings from career officials that both Solyndra and the larger solar industry were facing financial pressures.

But it is far from the only blemish on the administration's much-touted green agenda. In addition to weatherization problems, an internal Labor Department report disclosed this month that a multibillion-dollar program to retrain workers for green-energy jobs met only 10 percent of its goal of creating 80,000 jobs. A federal renewable-energy lab in Colorado that got nearly $300 million from another green-energy program began laying off 10 percent of its workforce last month.

Overall, as the $787 billion economic stimulus--the primary engine for the green-energy agenda--came to an end Sept. 30, it is clear that the program created far fewer jobs than promised. So-called green-collar jobs are notoriously hard to tally, but numerous estimates by gleeful Republicans put the taxpayer cost of each green-energy job created by the stimulus at more than $1 million.

The White House acknowledges it hit bumps but insists the payoff will become clearer down the road. "Any time you take historic action you're certainly going to learn lessons," says Heather Zichal, Obama's chief energy and environment adviser. "These investments are not just about the jobs they are creating today but also support the long-term competitiveness and health of this important sector of our economy."

Some of the biggest immediate beneficiaries of the green revolution, ironically, may have been politicians themselves. Executives of the top 50 recipients of the government's green-energy aid have donated more than $2 million to federal campaigns since Obama took office. Some of the biggest recipients of green stimulus money--including NRG Energy and Consolidated Edison--made six-figure donations to candidates and interest groups. …

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