How to Build a Clean-Energy Future

October 24, 2013

By now, we know what to expect if we fail to act on climate disruption: more severe storms, wildfires, droughts, and destruction. To avoid that future, we have to make stopping carbon pollution a priority.

But at the same time, people are also realizing that this is more than an urgent challenge -- it's a fantastic opportunity. We have the chance to do something that's never been done: build a society that is 100 percent powered by clean energy. Instead of being daunted, we should be thrilled.

When he laid out his Climate Action Plan last summer, President Obama touched on both the challenge and the opportunity ("I want America to build that future"). Then, last month, the EPA unveiled one of the most important elements of that plan: proposed safeguards to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants. The new standards are a huge step toward meeting the challenge, but they also show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to seizing our historic opportunity.

The good news is that these safeguards set the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that can be emitted by coal-fired power plants, which are our single biggest source of that pollution. Tough standards for carbon pollution will not only address climate disruption but also prevent life-threatening air pollution like toxic mercury, dirty soot, and the smog that triggers asthma attacks, so this is really good news indeed.

The not-so-good news is that the standards reveal the current limits of President Obama's vision. Because the standards do nothing to reduce carbon pollution from natural-gas-fired power plants, they stop short of going "all in" on clean energy. By giving natural gas a free pass, the president's policies haven't really committed to a clean-energy future.

To reach that future, we (and the president) need to do more than move beyond dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil. We need to move beyond pessimism -- the kind of thinking that limits our ambition and our willingness to fight for big ideas.

Once that happens, we'll have reached the true tipping point for clean energy. The change won't be linear: As we get bigger inventories of clean energy, the costs will come down and renewables will go head to head with fossil fuels everywhere -- and they'll win.

We're already seeing that begin to happen in places like Southern California, where a new gas plant was shelved because solar came in cheaper, and in Colorado, where the state's largest power provider plans to triple the amount of solar and wind that's coming online because it's cheaper and more reliable than gas or coal.

Although these carbon pollution safeguards will be a partial victory, the ground we gain will never be lost. That's the great thing about clean-energy progress. Once we leave fossil fuels behind, we will never go back. No one will tear down wind farms because they're nostalgic for fracking in our watersheds. People won’t rip off solar panels because they miss having mercury in their tuna or asthma inhalers for their kids.

Not only are the EPA's proposed new carbon pollution safeguards taking us a step closer to the future we want, they also are building momentum for another, even greater step: proposed carbon pollution protections for existing power plants, which are due in the middle of next year.

You can help. After a delay because of the federal government shutdown, the EPA has begun holding a series of listening sessions across the country to solicit "ideas and input from the public and stakeholders about the best Clean Air Act approaches to reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants." Find out here if there's a session near you. If there is, speak up! Let the EPA know that the only way to go "all in" on a clean-energy future is to put polluting fossil fuels behind us for good.

Fracking: The Other EPA Shutdown

October 16, 2013

Positive news stories during the shutdown of government services were scarce, so it was nice to read this one about furloughed scientists from the Water Protection Division of the EPA in Atlanta deciding to volunteer some of their (unexpectedly) free time cleaning up a local creek. "All of us really believe that our life's work is to protect and restore rivers and streams for people and animals that rely on them -- paid or not," said EPA biologist Lisa Gordon.

Sometimes we overlook that the EPA (and the rest of our government, for that matter) is made up of people who take pride in serving their community and doing a good job. And as I've written before, we need the EPA to have our back when it comes to protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe. If they don’t, we're in big trouble.

Unfortunately, when it comes to hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the EPA has let down its guard. Go to the EPA's webpage on fracking, and the first sentence sounds like it came from a fossil fuel PR flak: "Natural gas plays a key role in our Nation's clean energy future."

Even if you defined "key role" as a dirty and dangerous drilling boom with lax and inconsistent regulation as the result of loopholes in seven major federal laws and regulatory programs, that sentence would still be only half-true. That's because natural gas is unequivocally not part of any clean energy future. As long as we're still drilling and burning gas, we still have at least one foot stuck in the dirty-fuel past.

Far worse than Orwellian website rhetoric about the future, though, is the EPA's failure to respond to on-the-ground harm that fracking is causing to communities right now. Over the past year, the agency has shut down its own fracking-related water contamination investigations in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, in at least one case (Dimock, PA), this happened in spite of evidence from the EPA's water tests that the drinking water was polluted with fracking chemicals.

Next week, I'll join thousands of young activists who care about a real clean energy future at Power Shift in Pittsburgh, PA. One thing we'll be doing is challenging EPA Director Gina McCarthy to reopen the investigations into fracking contamination of local water supplies in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming. You can add your voice to our message here.

The problems with fracking aren't limited to just a few states, though -- they extend across the U.S. and around the world. If you care about the drinking water where you live, you owe it to yourself to join Global Frackdown, which is this Saturday, October 19. The EPA may have taken its eye off the ball, but many good people around the world are refusing to stand by while the oil and gas industries recklessly threaten our drinking water. Global Frackdown Day is a good opportunity to find out who's fighting that good fight in your own community and learn more about what's at stake. 

A Game Without Winners

October 10, 2013

As the shutdown of the federal government drags on, Americans are angry. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching with nervous disbelief as we edge toward defaulting on our debts. And with each additional day the shutdown continues, the damage gets worse.

The national parks, of course, have been closed since the beginning, which has meant both bitter disappointment and increasing economic hardship for millions. But the damage doesn't stop there. We're seeing everything from coal-mining accidents to cancellation of this year's polar climate research to delays in implementation of life-saving clean-air standards by the EPA, along with other parts of President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

We have good reason to be angry, frustrated, and worried. But even if the current crisis is resolved, those emotions will have been wasted if we don't find a way to deal with the underlying problems that have led to this chronic governmental dysfunction. Chief among these is that our members of Congress spend more time pleading with wealthy donors for campaign funds than working on problems that affect the rest of us.

At the same time, Congress has come unmoored from basic democratic principles to the point where a minority can hold the government hostage. To do so by threatening something as radical as defaulting on the federal debt is not negotiation -- it's pulling the pin on a grenade.

The mentality of Tea Party Republicans that brought us to this debt crisis is the same one that exacerbates the climate crisis: a rigid ideology devoid of facts, reason, or any desire to identify common ground.

The recklessness and irresponsibility that we're seeing from Republicans in the House are symptoms of a system that demands reform. If nothing else good comes of the current mess, let's hope it raises awareness of that fact. The solutions need not be radical. In Iowa, a Democratic representative and one of his Republican colleagues discussed adopting redistricting reforms that would encourage more-competitive races. President Obama, too, raised the issue of gerrymandered districts during his press conference this week, as well as noting the corrosive effect of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign spending.

As I noted in my previous post, the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission case currently before the Supreme Court could make things even worse by removing limitations on individual contributions to political campaigns. That's why the Sierra Club and its partners in The Democracy Initiative were out in force this week to call attention to the issue.

The media like to talk about who's "winning" in the blame game. The real answer is that, without real reform, nobody can win. Only by restoring our democracy, will we be free to tackle the real challenges of this century. Congress needs to get its act together. It can start by ending this shutdown and reopening our national parks. Then let's makes sure it doesn't stop there.

Coal by Numbers

October 08, 2013

Great news: In the past three years, 150 coal-fired power plants either have been retired or have announced a retirement date. Plant number 150 was Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts. Like lots of people, I enjoy tracking things by the numbers. If you have a quantifiable goal, reaching a big round number is a good time to reflect both on how far you've come (and still have to go).

For the Sierra Club and our local, regional, and national allies, reaching this milestone of 150 coal plants means that we're further along in our campaign to get America completely off coal-fired power by the year 2030 than almost anyone believed possible just a few years ago. To put it in perspective, just three years into a 20-year campaign, we've already secured the retirement of nearly 30 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants.

The most important numbers, though, don't tally the number of coal plants retired. They tell us how our world will change simply by not burning coal. Much of that change can be measured by what won't occur. With 150 fewer coal plants, 4,000 Americans won't die as a result of coal pollution each year. More than 6,300 heart attacks and 66,600 asthma attacks will never happen. Americans won't have to pay $1.9 billion in annual health costs. As for the personal suffering and heartbreak that those 150 plants will no longer cause -- I don't think there's even a number for that.

Something we can measure, though, is the positive change to our nation's energy future. As we've retired 60,493 megawatts of coal power, we've also added more than 32,800 megawatts of clean energy like wind and solar -- enough to power the equivalent of 9 million American homes.  Across the country, this growth in clean energy is creating local jobs -- nearly 200,000 so far -- while providing clean, affordable energy and dramatically reducing the carbon pollution that threatens our climate.

As far as we've come, though, and as much as we've accomplished, I'm even more excited about the future beyond coal plant number 150. The transition from coal is gaining momentum for several reasons. First, the grassroots movement that is the heart of the Beyond Coal campaign is gaining strength and diversity as entire communities realize they can cast off the curse of coal. Second, the steadily falling cost of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar has made it even easier to replace coal with clean, non-polluting power. And last but not least, the long-overdue regulation of carbon pollution from old, out-of-date coal-fired power plants is going to tilt the energy economics even more decisively toward cleaner sources.

The Beyond Coal campaign could never have reached this milestone so quickly without the hard work and passionate dedication of many, many people -- all of whom deserve to feel proud about what we've accomplished together -- and even prouder about the great things we're going to do next. You can count on it.

 

Steal This Democracy

October 05, 2013

America's best idea is in trouble -- but I don't mean our national parks. Yes, the parks are closed, which is inexcusable. It's not only a crushing disappointment for millions of would-be visitors but also an economic gut punch for neighboring communities -- to the tune of $76 million dollars a day. But what's really under attack is something even older than our national park system: our democracy.

How did we reach a point where a small fraction of one party in one branch of government believes it is entitled to demand everything it wants, or else it will drive our government into the ground? It's like a firefighter standing on the hose to stop the rest of the company from putting out a blaze until he gets a million-dollar raise -- all while the building burns around him.

We didn't reach this nadir in our democracy by accident. It's the result of a systematic attack on the basic democratic principles of justice and equality by a handful of people who have no interest in a healthy, functioning democracy. While there is no excuse, there is an explanation -- with three major elements.

It starts with the money that has corrupted our Congress. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the floodgates that have allowed a tidal wave of corrupting corporate money into our political system. But where is the money coming from and where is it going?

Not surprisingly, huge amounts are coming from polluter-backed groups, which promoted a dirty fuels agenda by spending more than $270 million on television ads in the last two months of the 2012 election cycle. The Koch brothers alone reportedly spent $400 million on their political operations in the 2012 election -- that's two people spending more in 2012 than the entire McCain campaign did in 2008.

That influx of cash explains why this Congress has taken more than 300 votes attacking clean air and clean water. The same people who are poisoning our democracy are also determined to poison our air and our water. I know, because we are on the ground fighting them every day.

Not only are they churning out a steady stream of bad legislation but they are also making it impossible to pass solid, bipartisan bills -- such as the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency measure -- that would benefit everyone. Somehow, they have concluded that if everyone wins, they lose. And all this is happening at a time when 80 percent of Americans agree that political money is preventing our most important challenges from being addressed.

Which brings us to the second cause of this dysfunction. Obstructionists don't need to worry about what those 80 percent of Americans think, because gerrymandering -- the process of redrawing congressional districts to favor a particular political party -- has given them "safe" seats.That's why even though more Americans voted for Democratic candidates to the House of Representatives in 2012, the Republicans won their second-biggest majority in 60 years. And redistricting happens only every 10 years.

Finally, big polluters and other special interests are spending millions to keep anyone who disagrees with them away from the polls and out of office. No sooner did the Supreme Court gut a key part of the Voting Rights Act, than state houses across the country with Republican legislatures pushed through suppressive legislation to keep young people, seniors, students, and people of color away from the polls. It's no coincidence that those are the same citizens who have voted against them.

These direct challenges to our democracy have led the Sierra Club to team up with the NAACP, Communications Workers of America, and Greenpeace to form The Democracy Initiative. The goal is bring together labor, civil rights, voting rights, environmental, good government, and other like-minded organizations with broad memberships to build a movement to halt the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, prevent the systemic manipulation and suppression of voters, and address other obstacles to significant reform.

Challenges to our democracy might get even worse. Right now, the Sierra Club and many of our allies are fighting a frightening Supreme Court challenge to campaign finance limits on individual contributions to candidates. And who was it that brought this Supreme Court case on behalf of those who would like to write million dollar checks to buy influence? Shaun McCutcheon -- the climate-change-denying CEO of a coal company in Alabama.

Let's be clear -- only about 1,200 people in America last year even came close to reaching the spending limits that McCutcheon wants to see overturned. We're talking about the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. These campaign-donation limits apply to an amount of people that couldn't even fill a high school gym. And a good number of them are oil, gas, and coal executives. Those sectors directly contributed $40 million to candidates in 2012. Give them free rein to write whatever size of check they want, and we'll see that number double, triple, or quadruple.

The faster that money pours in, the quicker the voices of ordinary Americans will be drowned out. We can't let that happen. And we won't. They may have millions of dollars, but we have millions of people. And, thanks to efforts like the Democracy Initiative, we are organizing and coming together to make sure our voices are heard. We already know we have common foes -- the way to beat them is to recognize that we have common goals.

If we want to see more shutdowns, then we should maintain the status quo. If we want to see more debt crises, then we'd better not rock the boat. If we want more attacks on our air, our water, and our climate, then all we need to do is roll our eyes and turn away in disgust at the political posturing on Capitol Hill. But if we want to restore a democracy that works for Americans and will preserve a healthy planet for future generations, it's time to stand up and fight back. For our people, for our parks, and for our democracy. 

Let 'Em Blow in New Jersey

October 02, 2013

Although we're both New Jersey born and raised, Governor Chris Christie and I disagree on many important issues -- not least his misguided love for the Mets. One thing we do agree on, though, is the real Boss of New Jersey. We both have seen our fair share of Bruce Springsteen performances. Unfortunately, neither of us started going to shows before Bruce stopped playing that great Fats Domino tune "Let the Four Winds Blow." (Never heard it? Try YouTube.)

Well, it's time to bring that song back, and New Jersey's the place to do it. According to a new poll conducted by Monmouth University, 75 percent of New Jerseyans favor building offshore wind in the state, and about two-thirds favor Governor Christie making offshore wind a priority for his administration. The poll also found that two-in-three New Jerseyans believe building offshore wind would strengthen New Jersey's economy.

Three years ago, Governor Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act but, ever since, his administration has done nothing to advance offshore wind. That has squandered the opportunity to make New Jersey a double-barreled clean-energy leader, since the state already ranks fourth nationally in total solar installations.

The benefits of offshore wind for New Jersey would be immediate and substantial. The proposed five-turbine demonstration wind farm for state waters off the coast of Atlantic City would power 10,000 homes and bring more than $150 million in economic activity and hundreds of jobs to the state.

That's why the Sierra Club is urging Governor Christie to see the light of day and direct the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to propose and implement a financing mechanism for offshore wind. They should then solicit bids for offshore wind project development. All we'll need to do then, in the words of Fats, is "let 'em blow, let 'em blow." 

5 Things You Need to Know About the Big New Climate Report

September 27, 2013

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up in 1988 by two UN agencies as a way to collect and disseminate the current best science on climate disruption. Since then, it has issued four assessment reports. Today, the IPCC began releasing its fifth assessment (known as the AR5). The first part is a "Summary for Policymakers." You can find it here, but there are five things you really need to know about it.

1. The scientific work reported by the IPCC in the AR5 is the gold standard for getting a big-picture understanding of what's happening to our climate. The report itself has 259 authors from 36 countries. They are scrupulous about quantifying the certainty of both findings and projections. This report is the best tool we have for making informed, rational decisions on how to deal with climate disruption.

2. There is a lot of bad news: Several effects of climate disruption have accelerated during the past decade, such as the loss of Arctic sea ice, the melting of big glaciers, and the rise of sea levels.

3. The effects of climate disruption are not only happening today, but they're also speeding up. In fact, 12 of the warmest years in recorded history occurred during the last 15 years -- and the IPCC report says it's only going to get more intense.

4. Although global warming and climate disruption are the best-known consequences of carbon pollution, they're not the only ones we should worry about. The oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere and, as they do, become more acidic. This acidification is already killing coral reefs around the world. Ultimately, it could disrupt the entire marine food chain. Ours is a water planet -- do we really want to risk killing our oceans?

5. OK, enough with the scary stuff. Here's the single most important thing you need to know about the AR5: It's not too late. We still have time to do something about climate disruption. The best estimate from the best science is that we can limit warming from human-caused carbon pollution to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- if we act now. Bottom line: Our house is on fire. Rather than argue about how fast it's burning, we need to start throwing buckets of water.

We're going to need a lot of buckets. We'll also need to be smart about how we use them.

Our top priority must be to reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, while boosting clean energy such as wind and solar. The proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants that the Obama administration announced this week are aimed at our single biggest source of carbon pollution: coal. If you care about climate disruption, the most important thing you can do right now is voice your support for these protections, and get ready for an even more important fight next year to clean up pollution at existing power plants already in operation.

But President Obama also has some other big tools at his disposal: Rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, ending destructive oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and on public lands, stopping mountaintop-removal mining, curbing fossil fuel exports, and closing loopholes that exempt drilling and fracking for oil and gas from fundamental environmental protections. You can bet that the Sierra Club and our millions of members and supporters will work hard to see that he uses them. Just as importantly, we'll also work to help build the clean-energy solutions that will take the place of those dirty fuels. Every wind turbine, every solar panel, every energy-efficient building is another step toward a clean-energy future.

The best climate scientists on the planet have sounded the alarm. Let's get to work!

Coal's Days of Future Passed

September 25, 2013

Now that the EPA has released its draft carbon pollution standard for new power plants, coal apologists -- those who are left, anyway -- are doing their best chest-clutching Fred Sanford impressions.

Why is no one taking their cries of doom seriously? Because coal already had no future. In the 21st century, investing in a new coal-fired power plant makes as much sense as building a typewriter factory. The market has already decided that coal is no longer competitive.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy wants to triple the amount of utility-scale solar power on its grid while also adding another 450 megawatts of wind power. For the first time, the utility says, it's finding that new solar projects are bidding cheaper than coal and natural gas.

It's not just Colorado. Nationwide, the price of clean energy sources has plummeted compared with coal. The cost of wind is down 50 percent since 2009, and solar panels are down 80 percent since 2008. That trend will only gain momentum.

Michael Yackira, CEO of NV Energy, said earlier this year that "coal is not part of the long-term future of Nevada… we think the costs are too great, the environmental concerns and the costs associated with those environmental concerns are too great." The heads of major energy providers like American Electric Power and Duke Energy have also signaled the end of new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

The writing has been on the wall since at least 2009, when the global head of asset management at Deutsche Bank said that coal was "a dead man walking."

At this point, it's more like a crawl. "There aren't any new coal plants being built now," said Warren Buffett earlier this year. "You'll see wind, you'll see solar." Goldman Sachs recently forecast that Asian demand for coal would weaken and downgraded its price projections for international coal, and Citibank joined them in their analysis.

But even if the new carbon standards only confirm an existing trend, they're still both important and extremely welcome. They show that the United States is serious about its commitment to reduce carbon pollution. Even more important, they show that the Clean Air Act is still effective at protecting Americans from dangerous air pollution.

Time to Draw the Line

September 21, 2013

Some great things have happened since that freezing day last February when I marched to the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., with 50,000 of my closest friends. Looking back, it did feel like the start of something big. From the stage, the sight of that sea of faces on the National Mall was unforgettable. For the first time, activists from all kinds of backgrounds were standing together to say that we are not just activists fighting a single pipeline, or waging isolated efforts to combat fracking, coal, and dirty fuels; we are one climate movement, we are determined and hopeful, and we will act to solve the climate crisis.

With one voice, we challenged the president, the Congress, and our fellow Americans to stop waiting, stop listening to deniers and special interests, and start working on solutions.

President Obama may not have been in town that day, but he heard our message. Just a few months later, he delivered the first national address on climate policy in U.S. history, put his Keystone XL decision squarely into a climate context, and promised to use his executive authority to act.

Yesterday, he delivered on part of that promise, with new limits for the nation's single largest source of carbon pollution: coal-fired power plants. That's an important step forward on climate, and the president deserves credit for seeing it through.

Our momentum is building. Today Americans are taking to the streets again (this time in more than 200 cities) to Draw the Line against the Keystone XL pipeline and dirty tar sands. And again, we have reason to be both determined and hopeful. We're hopeful because, in California, Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, South Dakota, and places all across the country, solar and wind are being installed at rates cheaper than new coal or new gas. Why build out fossil fuels when clean energy helps stabilize our planet, is cheaper, and puts more people to work?

Why are we determined? Because the verdict is already in: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster. The pipeline is the lynchpin of the oil industry's plans to extract and burn the dirtiest source of oil on the planet. Every year, it would create carbon pollution equivalent to 37.7 million cars (or 51 coal-fired power plants). If we are serious about addressing climate disruption, Keystone XL cannot be built.

At the Draw the Line events, the Sierra Club, 350.org, and our many other partners around the nation will demonstrate the urgency of rejecting this tar sands pipeline in favor of clean-energy solutions. Join us! You can find the Draw the Line events nearest to you here.

Can't make it to an event today? Then send your message directly to the Obama administration.

The worst time to stop fighting is when you're starting to win.

Hokum and Bunk in the Senate

September 20, 2013

The ghost of the great cowboy philosopher and political humorist Will Rogers visited me last night. He showed me some new lariat tricks, commiserated about the recent Red Sox sweep of the Yankees, and shared a "salty one" he heard from Mark Twain. Inevitably, the talk turned to politics.

"How about that Congress?" Will asked. "They playing any better than the Yankees these days?"

"Not exactly," I said, "the Senate has been considering a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill that was introduced by Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican. It's the first energy bill the Senate has even come close to passing in six years. And they're whiffing."

Will looked skeptical. "Energy efficiency? Sounds like one of those patent medicines they sell on the radio. Mostly hokum."

"No, it's actually a straightforward, commonsense bill," I said. "It's about improving building codes, offering incentives to save on energy bills, and providing job training on new energy technologies. It would create between 66,000 and 81,000 jobs and save folks between $2.1 billion and $3.3 billion in annual energy costs by 2020. If it passes, it will be like a stimulus and a tax cut rolled into one. Everybody would save money, and we'd reduce climate pollution, too."

"Sorry," said Will. "I lost the trail at straightforward and commonsense. As I always said, the Senate thinks its job is to sit and wait till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him."

"The more things change, the more they stay the same, Will. The problem this energy-efficiency bill is running into is that senators who don't like the president's energy policies keep trying to tack on amendments that have nothing to do with energy efficiency -- or even energy, in at least one case. Senator Vitter wants to use the bill to defund the president's healthcare initiative."

"Maybe he thought it was about patent medicine, too," said Will, always ready to give even a politician he'd never met the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think so," I said. "And, then, of course, other senators want to load up the bill with industry giveaways and rollbacks. It's all political gamesmanship, of course, but it's infuriating to see it obstruct a bill that would actually do so much good."

But Will was gone, leaving only the faintest scent of sagebrush in his wake.

You don't need to be a cowboy philosopher to appreciate what an embarrassment the U.S. Senate's handling of the Shaheen-Portman bill is. Frankly, as Will would say, it's bunk. If you think it's time for our senators to do their job and pass an energy-efficiency bill that would save money, create jobs, and help stop climate disruption, take a few seconds to send them a message.


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