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November 21, 2013

The Road Ahead (and Some Bumps Along the Way)

Between the devastation in the Philippines, deadly floods in Sardinia and Vietnam, and the COP 19 UN climate change summit in Poland, the last ten days or so have delivered more than the usual collection of global stories on climate and energy issues. But a lot was going on here at home, too, and those stories speak both to why we need a 100 percent clean energy future and the road that will get us there.

Even if they weren't a threat to our climate, fossil fuels would still be dangerous enough to make getting rid of them a good idea. A week ago today, a small town in Texas had to be evacuated after a construction crew accidentally drilled into a 10-inch liquefied petroleum gas pipeline owned primarily by Chevron. Thankfully, no one was killed by the resulting massive explosion. The incident was a reminder that both fossil fuels and the pipelines used to transport them are by definition "accidents waiting to happen."

It was also sobering last week when CBS News reported that the tar sands pipeline TransCanada is building from Oklahoma to Texas appears to be rife with defects like bad welds. This is the same pipeline that President Obama was talking about in March of last year when he boasted he had directed his administration to "cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority." Priority or not, the 125 faulty sections of pipeline that TransCanada is being forced to replace are ample evidence that the company is too irresponsible to be allowed to complete the entire Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the U.S. from north to south carrying toxic tar sands crude that is more likely to spill, more toxic in the air and water, and nearly impossible to clean up.

Fossil fuels are inherently dangerous, but it's especially frustrating when that danger is amplified because of bad decisions by people who should know better. Last week we had an especially egregious example of that when the EPA caved in to the state of Kentucky's request to weaken clean water standards for selenium pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mines. The standard Kentucky wanted -- and which the EPA approved -- is even weaker than a similar one that George W. Bush's EPA proposed but ultimately withdrew after strong objections from government scientists. This was new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy's first ruling on coal, and she failed miserably.

Don't worry, last week also brought some very good news. The Tennessee Valley Authority will retire coal-burning generating stations at three locations in Alabama and Kentucky, which brings the total number of announced coal-plant retirements to 154. And in Colorado, the final tally of ballots in the town of Broomfield made it official (pending one last recount) that all four fracking-moratorium measures in that state passed.

Of course, the essential complement to taking dirty fuels out of the equation is adding more clean fuels in their place. Last week, Pennsylvania, one of the states most ravaged by fossil fuel drilling in recent years, saw major progress on that front, too, with the introduction of a bill in the state legislature that would almost double the renewable portion of its energy generation (going from 8 to 15 percent) by 2023. If the bill passes, Pennsylvania will close much of the gap between itself and neighboring states like Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, which have all adopted renewable energy goals of 20 percent or more in the next decade or so.

In all, 30 states now have renewable electricity standards requiring utilities to generate a percentage of their power from clean sources. Someday, perhaps the entire nation will. A bill introduced by Senator Ed Markey would establish such a standard by requiring utilities to obtain at least 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass by 2025. That would put the U.S. in the company of 118 other nations that have already adopted national clean energy targets.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and we won't replace fossil fuels with clean energy based on the events of a single week, either. But the important thing to remember is that, once they happen, clean energy victories are irreversible. No one will tear down wind farms because they are nostalgic for fracking in our watersheds. And nobody will pull down their solar panels because they miss having mercury in their tuna or asthma inhalers for their kids. Because once we leave fossil fuels behind, we are never going back.

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