Marking Earth Day with a trip to an Iowa manufacturer of wind turbine towers, Obama said he is determined to use his presidency to "break the bonds of fossil fuels" and cast oil as an energy source destined to become part of America's past.
"The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline," Obama said. "We can remain the world's leading importer of oil, or we can become the world's leading exporter of clean energy."
Since taking office in January, Obama has placed the development of new energy sources and clean-energy technology at the heart of his plans to fundamentally reshape the U.S. economy over the coming decades.
To underscore those efforts, the White House announced it was set to begin leasing tracts of federal water off the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts to generate electricity from wind and ocean currents. Obama predicted the U.S. could generate up to 20 per cent of its electricity from wind energy by 2030, up from two per cent today.
Separately, Vice-President Joe Biden announced the administration would spend $300 million from its economic stimulus package to help U.S. cities buy fuel-efficient vehicles.
"We're not going to transform our economy overnight. We still need more oil, we still need more gas," Obama said. "But the bulk of our efforts must focus on unleashing a new, clean-energy economy that will begin to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
His remarks came as the White House prepares for a protracted legislative battle over Democratic climate legislation that seeks to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 per cent by 2050.
The House energy and commerce committee opened hearings on draft climate legislation broadly supported by Obama that seeks to achieve those goals by imposing a market-based cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. The Canadian and Alberta governments are watching closely and somewhat anxiously as that congressional debate over energy and climate unfolds. Environment Minister Jim Prentice is expected to visit Washington soon his second trip to the U.S. capital in two months to participate in a White House summit on energy and climate.
Among the items Canada is watching, for example, is a proposal in the House climate bill for a low carbon standard on transportation fuels. The government of Alberta is worried such a measure could force U.S. refiners to reduce future imports from the vast but greenhouse gas-intensive oilsands.
Canada is the largest exporter of crude to the U.S., shipping 1.9 million barrels a day in February. Obama has studiously avoided any criticism of the environmental impact of the oilsands since a presidential campaign aide last year branded Alberta's oil as "dirty" during the election campaign. The president also has not singled out Canadian oil as distinct from other sources of "foreign oil" a favoured standing Ottawa and Alberta consistently seek.
In his remarks, Obama said the U.S. appetite for oil comes "at a tremendous cost to our economy" because oil accounts for 20 per cent of what the country spends on imports.
"We send billions of dollars overseas to oil-exporting nations, and I think all of you know many of them are not our friends," he said.
The president said he favoured a "cap-and-trade" system as the best way to reduce carbon emissions. But the measure faces strong opposition from Republicans who denounce it as a job-killing energy tax.
Representative Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House energy committee and a global warming skeptic, said the proposed carbon emissions reductions would "de-industrialize" the American economy over the next 40 years.
"If you want an idea of what that's like in terms of carbon footprint, you might try living in Nigeria today because that's the emission level that they have right now," Barton said of the U.S. targets.
"I don't think most of today's citizenry in the United States would... enjoy that type of a lifestyle too much."