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March 27, 2012

A Big Step Beyond Coal

A couple of days ago, I took President Obama to task for relying too much on fossil fuels and his "all of the above" energy strategy. We need stronger leadership from the president on clean energy, and the Sierra Club will continue pushing him to provide it.

Today, though, his administration took an important, historic step away from dirty energy when the EPA announced proposed new safeguards that would limit the amount of carbon pollution from new power plants.

On the face of it, this announcement seems self-evidently sensible -- like announcing that you're going to stop hitting yourself on the head with a rock. We know carbon pollution is bad for our health and our climate. We also know how to generate power with clean energy like solar and wind. So why keep hitting ourselves on the head by building more dirty power plants?

Believe it or not, it was only ten years ago that the conventional wisdom was that we had no choice besides dirty energy. Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force proposed a massive effort to build new coal-fired power plants all across the country. It was going to be a new "Coal Rush."

That Coal Rush never materialized. What happened instead was a coordinated grassroots movement that, to date, has stopped 166 proposed new coal plants from ever being built. How did we do this? By pointing out that the emperor has no clothes -- that building new dirty coal-fired power plants makes no sense economically, environmentally, or for the communities in which they’d be built. So today's announcement from Obama's EPA is as much a testament to determined grassroots organizing as anything else. And every person who has been part of this effort -- whether through comments, emails, or on-the-ground action -- deserves the credit.

For more than a hundred years, our country has relied heavily on coal to generate electricity. Along the way, we somehow learned to live -- and die -- with the problems that burning coal brings -- from unhealthy air to environmental devastation. We've blasted mountains, destroyed communities, and polluted watersheds. Our babies have been poisoned by mercury, our children have struggled with asthma, and our parents have died prematurely from respiratory disease, both from working in coal mines and also from breathing dirty air once that coal is burned. Our climate is already changing -- with once-in-lifetime unsettling weather events coming one after another.

These new carbon pollution protections won't put an end to that overnight. But they do put an end to the proposition that coal belongs in our energy future.

Is this a turning point in the transition to clean energy? That depends on what we do next. If we just switch our allegiance to another polluting fossil fuel like natural gas, then we've only traded our rock for a pipe wrench. Ultimately, the only way to stop hurting ourselves will be to do everything we can, everywhere we can, to accelerate the development of clean, renewable energy like solar and wind. Call it a "best of the above" strategy, if you will.

Yes, we still have a ways to go, but the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, as Laozi said. Today the Obama administration took an important one.

One important, final point: this particular fight is not yet finished. These are only proposed standards, not final ones. The EPA is collecting comments on its new carbon pollution standards. Let them know you support the strongest possible protections that will give us cleaner air and healthier communities.



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Michael Brune

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