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.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Climate Solutions

September 16, 2013

This year, Virginians will elect a new governor (one of only two gubernatorial elections this year, the other being in New Jersey). At the moment, Terry McAuliffe is leading climate denier and attorney general Ken Cuccinelli in the polls, but a lot can happen between now and November 5. The campaign has been -- to put it politely, heated -- but I think it's worth highlighting why reasonable Americans everywhere should hope that Virginia doesn't somehow get stuck with Cuccinelli.

The problem with Cuccinelli is summed up by the address of a website that the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has created: TooExtremeKen.com. Cuccinelli's extreme record not only shows him to be on the wrong side of every environmental issue but also to be anti-science and aggressively reactionary.

How else to explain Cuccinelli's bizarre attack, as attorney general, on former University of Virginia professor and climate scientist Michael Mann? His "civil investigative demand" for university records amounted to a witch hunt that wasted hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars -- all in an attempt to discredit the scientific consensus on climate disruption. You can't say Cuccinelli lacked zeal -- he took the fight all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. In what was widely hailed as a victory for academic freedom, he lost.

In 2010, Cuccinelli also sued to make Virginia the first state in the nation to attack the scientific consensus that carbon pollution poses a threat to human health -- and that the EPA should do something about it. (Fortunately, he lost again.)

Those who engage in witch hunts often don't believe in science. But why has Cuccinelli consistently gone the extra mile to attack anyone who thinks that climate disruption is a real problem that requires action? You need look no further than the influence of fossil fuel companies, which have donated generously to his campaign.

Currently, Cuccinelli's office is under investigation because of assistance it gave to one of those companies -- Consol Energy, which extracted natural gas from many Virginians' property without paying royalties. In dozens of emails that Cuccinelli's office later tried to hide, Consol received assistance from a Cuccinelli subordinate about how it could beat a lawsuit from these landowners. A federal judge said she was "shocked" by this, and an investigation has been launched by the state's inspector general. Consol Energy, incidentally, is one of Cuccinelli's biggest campaign donors -- having given more than $100,000 over the past two years.

Cuccinelli is one of those politicians who love to talk about a "war on coal" while ignoring the reality that coal has been waging war on all of us for decades. The good news is that Virginians, like the rest of the country, are putting dirty coal in the rearview mirror. This is a state with the nation's highest concentration of technology workers. Clean, high-tech energy like wind and solar makes sense for Virginia's future -- not coal -- especially if you're talking about jobs. Virginia already has 11,000 jobs in renewable energy, with the prospect of 10,000 more if offshore wind is properly developed.

As long as the fossil fuel industries have cash to spend, they'll be able to find politicians like Cuccinelli who are willing to carry their water. The best way to fight back is with people power, so the Sierra Club's 60,000 members and supporters in Virginia will be knocking on doors and making phone calls between now and November to alert their friends, neighbors, and other voters to just how extreme Ken Cuccinelli's positions really are. And because this election is so much about what Virginia's future will look like, a big part of the focus will be on mobilizing potential voters on college campuses from Virginia Union to William & Mary to Hampton to Virginia State. Young people know what's at stake.

Across Virginia, though, it's going to take more than empty rhetoric from a climate denier about a "war on coal" to convince Virginians to turn away from a clean-energy future.

Paid for by the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club PAC. Not authorized by any candidate. 

Working on a Dream

September 02, 2013

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

-- John Muir

"We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club joins in celebrating working people everywhere. As Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said about the growing collaboration between the labor movement and other grassroots groups: "It takes all of us working together to get it done."

Fifty years after Dr. King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, and nearly five years after we elected the nation's first African American president, the movements for economic, racial, and environmental justice have made historic gains, but daunting challenges remain:

  • The clean-energy movement has momentum, with solar and wind power growing by leaps and bounds and the coal and nuclear industries on the ropes. Studies show that renewable energy and energy efficiency investments create far more jobs per dollar spent than fossil fuels. Yet well-funded climate deniers continue to obfuscate reality and slow progress.
  • More than 100,000 people gathered last week in Washington, D.C., to recommit themselves to action for racial justice, jobs, and freedom on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Yet this year, the Supreme Court eviscerated one of the core gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and white families, on average, still earn about $2 for every $1 that black and Latino families make. Meanwhile, communities of color are still disproportionately poisoned by corporate polluters.
  • Young people across the globe are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers for economic and environmental justice. But their generation faces an uncertain future. Student debt in the U.S. totals $1 trillion, and one-third of 20 to 24 year olds in the U.S. are neither employed nor studying.
  • The immigrant rights movement, with the support of the Sierra Club and others, succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Yet a recalcitrant House has caused hope to fade for comprehensive immigration reform in the near future, even though deportations are at record levels, and millions of undocumented immigrant workers remain in the shadows of our society.
  • The labor movement is surging, too, with fast-food strikes and emerging-worker organizing sweeping the nation. But there's still a long road back from historically low union density, and the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us has grown wider than ever.   

These seemingly separate problems are linked -- and so are their solutions. We can overcome those obstacles and build the "Beloved Community" that Dr. King often spoke of -- but only if we do it together. We need each other.

That's why labor, racial justice, immigrant rights, and voting rights organizations are joining with the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Greenpeace in building the Democracy Initiative.

The Democracy Initiative was formed in response to a political climate where, owing to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, wealthy corporate polluters and union-busters like the Koch brothers wield unprecedented and corrosive influence in the corridors of power. Our immediate goals include supporting voters' rights, combating voter ID laws, and curbing aggressive use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. Our real purpose, though, is to restore fairness to our democracy.

Although we may never be able to outspend the union-busting corporate polluters, we do outnumber them. By acting strategically and together, we can use our people power to beat their dollar power every time. If we want to help working families, protect our air and water, and achieve justice for all Americans, we must first defend our democracy.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club celebrates working people -- and the growing unity of the labor and environmental movements in our quest for genuine democracy and justice for all.

Why Keystone Flunks the Climate Test

August 29, 2013

In June President Obama set a climate test for his decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He said he will not approve the pipeline if it would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. Today the Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and 13 partner groups have released a report that settles the issue unequivocally: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster.

Our report, "FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test," spells out the full consequences of building the pipeline.

Start with the one fact that the State Department, the U.S. EPA, climate scientists, and even Wall Street and industry analysts all agree on: The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will create massive amounts of carbon pollution. Tar sands, after all, are the world’s dirtiest and most carbon-intensive source of oil. Oil Change International estimates that the pipeline would carry and emit more than 181-million metric tons of carbon pollution each year. That’s the pollution equivalent of adding 37.7 million cars to U.S. roads, or 51 new coal-fired power plants.

The State Department, though, tried to ignore this 181-million metric ton elephant. It argued in its environmental review of Keystone XL that tar sands development was inevitable, regardless of whether the pipeline is built. That's not true for several reasons.

Tar sands can be processed only at specialized refineries. The accessible U.S. and Canadian refineries capable of handling it are already at or near capacity. In order to expand production, tar sands producers must reach the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the heavy crude can be refined or, more likely, exported.

Although other pipeline projects have been proposed to export tar sands east, west, and south from western Canada, all of them face legal, technical, economic, and political obstacles that make them unlikely. Using rail is too expensive because tar sands transport requires special heated rail cars and loading terminals. Industry experts and financial firms like Goldman Sachs have already said this will be cost-prohibitive.

Keystone XL is critical for the Canadian oil industry to meet its goal of massive expansion in the tar sands. You don't need to take our word for it, though. Just this week, Canada's independent Pembina Institute uncovered documents from the industry itself that make that case. Briefing notes prepared for Canadian natural resources minister (and pipeline proponent) Joe Oliver state: "in order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project."

The U.S. Interior Department has already joined the Environmental Protection Agency in criticizing the State Department's environmental review for disregarding how the Keystone XL pipeline would affect wildlife and waterways. Given that we now know the State Department's review was conducted by a consultant with strong ties to Keystone XL's backer, TransCanada, and to the tar sands industry, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

In fact, earlier this month, the State Department's own office of inspector general confirmed that it has opened an into inquiry how its Keystone XL review was conducted. Perhaps the most serious charge is that State Department officials tried to cover up evidence of conflicts of interest.

For an administration that's actually done many good things on climate, the State Department’s environmental review of Keystone XL is both a failure and an embarrassment. It’s time to kick the oil industry lobbyists out of the room, listen to the scientists, weigh the facts, and reject this pipeline once and for all.

Add your voice to the growing chorus: By President Obama's own standard, Keystone XL should not be approved.

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking? Yes We Can!

August 22, 2013

One of the worst consequences of President Obama's reckless "all of the above" energy policy is the blight of oil and gas rigs that has spread across our public lands -- often right next to national parks and wilderness areas. Based on my own family's camping trip this summer, I can testify that the sight of natural gas flares in the night sky adds nothing to the wilderness experience.

What's more, most of this new drilling is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is so dangerous, destructive, and polluting that there's no reason why any additional public lands should be leased to drillers. Air-polluting gas flares are bad enough -- running the risk of contaminating the water table of a national park is unthinkable.

"All of the above" also ignores the fact that, if we want to limit climate disruption from fossil fuels, we need a policy that leaves most of them below the ground.  

Nevertheless, all summer long the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on a proposed update of federal regulations for oil and gas fracking on the public lands it manages. Presumably that's an attempt to honor a pledge President Obama made in his 2012 State of the Union address -- that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Given the effect on our climate of extracting and burning all of that natural gas, and that fracking is the primary way it will happen, the president has set an impossible goal. Yet the proposed new regulations manage to fail even to adequately address the risks of the fracking that is already occurring on leased public lands.

There are at least seven serious flaws with the current proposed rules:

1. Although the draft rules require partial disclosure of chemicals used after fracking occurs, they should require full public disclosure of all chemicals to be used before fracking starts. The industry should not be allowed to hide behind claims of "trade secrets" to exempt some chemicals from disclosure. Other statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, recognize this principle and specifically reject claims of trade secrecy in reports of discharges. Why should fracking get an exemption?

2. As has already begun to happen in states, we need to move away from the practice of storing toxic fracking waste in open-air pits. Ultimately, it should be abolished altogether. Instead, the draft rules propose to continue this outdated and dangerous practice. If states like New Mexico and Colorado are putting tight restrictions on open-air pits, shouldn't we do at least the same for lands held in the public trust?

3. The draft fails to update currently outdated well-construction rules. This is critical if we're to avoid water contamination. In fact, the BLM's current draft is even weaker in this respect than the one it circulated last year. For example, it allows the industry to test only a few wells, rather than confirm that every individual well meets construction standards.

4. The draft doesn't require baseline water testing before fracking is approved. This is essential to help protect drinking water. It is the best way to determine whether water has been contaminated by fracking.

5. The draft completely fails to address the air pollution from oil and gas drilling. Methane emissions from natural gas wells are just one of the serious problems this ignores.

6. The draft doesn't establish safe setbacks from homes, schools, and sensitive environmental features. Public lands are often very close to communities. More than 1,400 public schools across six western states are within one mile of federal oil and gas resources.

7. The draft would continue to allow the use of diesel in fracking fluids. Even the Obama administration's own advisory committee on fracking unequivocally said that was a bad idea.

All of the problems listed above should be addressed for public land leases that have already happened. But let's be clear: In the case of federal lands that haven't already been leased, the BLM should allow no new fracking at all. And sensitive and unique areas (like those adjacent to national parks) should be placed off-limits to oil and gas fracking whether they've been leased or not.

Already, hundreds of thousands of people have let the BLM know that these draft rules fail to properly protect our public lands from the oil and gas industries. Time's running out, though -- the comment period closes after August 23. Let the BLM know where you stand.

For Coal, the End Is Near

July 09, 2013

You can still find people who say they believe coal has a future. By and large, though, they're the same people who believe their future is in coal.

Perhaps that's just human nature. The more you think you stand to lose, the harder it is to accept -- much less embrace -- progress. That's why Western Union walked away from the telephone, Microsoft fumbled the Internet, and Sony ceded the LCD display industry to upstart Korean rivals.

Soon, everyone will find it hard to believe that we ever thought generating power by burning coal was a good idea. We say coal's "dirty," but that one adjective covers everything from water pollution to mercury poisoning to childhood asthma to climate-disrupting carbon emissions. Coal contributes to four out of the five leading causes of death around the world. If coal-fired power plants had never existed and someone proposed building the very first one today, the public outcry would be deafening.

Thankfully, two developments in the 21st century have sealed coal's fate. First, we have begun holding utilities accountable for some of the health and environmental costs of burning coal (the Obama administration's determination to limit carbon pollution from both new and old coal plants is the culmination of this trend). Coal was never cheap if you considered the health and environmental costs. Second, we have begun to realize there are better, smarter ways to meet our energy needs -- particularly through renewable technologies and better energy efficiency.

Of course, since coal-fired power plants are our biggest source of carbon emissions, maintaining the delusion that coal can compete against cleaner energy sources necessitates dismissing the science behind climate disruption. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity has gone so far as to convince (with the aid of copious campaign contributions) more than 150 Republican members of Congress to sign a "No Climate-Tax Pledge" that effectively requires them to vote against any legislation that addresses climate change. That helps explain why, according to a just-released report from the office of Representative Henry Waxman, Republican congressional members representing districts that suffered the most extreme warming last year nevertheless cast anti-climate votes more than nine out of ten times.

How long can these politicians successfully put the interests of polluters ahead of their own constituents? Especially when, compounding the irony, 75 percent of our wind-energy capacity is in congressional districts represented by Republicans (at least for now). In the long run, democracy, justice, and common sense will trump ideology.

Sooner than anyone could have imagined only a few years ago, coal's defenders will find themselves firmly on the wrong side of history. I believe we will not use coal for energy at all within the next couple of decades. When that day finally comes, it won't be the end of a "war on coal," but of coal's war on all of us.

Last Stop -- The Grand Canyon

July 05, 2013

As my family and I finished up our two-week road trip through the American West, our last big stop was one that's made by five million people every year. Forget about Chartres, Giza, and the Great Wall -- the Grand Canyon takes your breath away like no other wonder of the world. It did when I was 13, and it still does. I couldn't wait to show it to my own kids.

We have every right to be proud, as Americans, that we've permanently protected iconic landscapes like Grand Canyon National Park. And I'm proud that the Sierra Club and its volunteers have played an important role over the last century in making it happen. The Club's new Our Wild America campaign will continue that tradition.

That's good, because as we learned during our trip, the job of protection is far from finished. Not only are some unique and irreplaceable landscapes still vulnerable, but many of the places that we have protected are under fresh assault from drilling and mining. During our first night camping in a Utah state park near Canyonlands National Park, from our tent we could actually see natural gas flaring from nearby oil wells.

Harder to see -- but just as disturbing -- was what's happening at the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park was first protected by President Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago -- initially as a national monument. But most of the public wilderness lands immediately surrounding the park are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, President Obama imposed a 20-year moratorium (the longest allowable by law) on developing new uranium mines in that surrounding area. That made sense because uranium mines could easily contaminate the watershed that includes the national park.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. to reopen an old uranium mine located in the Kaibab National Forest, just south of the park. That should be a serious concern for anyone who cares about the Grand Canyon, but it's especially worrisome to the local Havasupai people. We met with tribal elders who shared both their fears about radioactive contamination and that the mine would disturb lands that are sacred to their people.

Shouldn't the Grand Canyon be considered sacred by all Americans? Do we want to risk contaminating it for what amounts to forever -- just so mining companies can profit from high uranium prices? Not to mention that, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, Grand Canyon tourism generates $687 million in annual revenue.

There's a solution, and it's the same one used by Teddy Roosevelt. A proposed new Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument would strengthen protections for the entire area -- just as the current new-mining moratorium has, but without an expiration date. By designating such a monument, President Obama could permanently protect the unique wilderness area near the Grand Canyon from not only uranium mining but also overgrazing, logging, drilling, and other destructive practices. The lands would remain accessible for outdoor recreation -- and for tourists like my family and the other millions of people who come to be astounded every year.

Let President Obama know -- we all care about the Grand Canyon and the beautiful lands that surround it. Let's protect them for future generations with a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.

Back in the Game

June 25, 2013

This afternoon, I had a short meeting with President Obama that left me more convinced than ever that he's serious about tackling the climate crisis. Sure enough, later under a sweltering sun at Georgetown University, I watched him calmly and forcefully restate the case for taking action on the climate crisis in one of the most important speeches of his presidency. He also outlined a Climate Action Plan that will help curb carbon pollution, develop clean energy sources, promote energy efficiency, and assert American global leadership on climate issues. Taken together, the new policies directly address what the president rightly calls "the global threat of our time."

Coming on the heels of an unprecedented string of extreme weather disasters, the plan recognizes that we must work on both the causes and the consequences of climate disruption.

But the two most significant commitments the president made were bona fide game-changers: First, he said that he will use the full authority of the Clean Air Act to limit air pollution from both new and existing power plants. Second, he declared that he will not approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it harms the climate, because to do so would not be in the national interest.

The science on Keystone's potentially catastrophic effect on climate could not be more clear. The rejection of this carbon pollution pipeline will be a major climate disaster averted.

Coal-fired power plants, however, are a disaster that has persisted for far too long and, as I listened to the president's speech, I shared the exuberance of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal activists and so many others in the movement who have fought to end this injustice. Coal-fired power plants are currently responsible for nearly one-third of U.S. carbon pollution; although only a decade ago, that share was greater than one-half. The recent and welcome decline in U.S. carbon emissions to 1986 levels is the result of a decade-long trend away from using coal to generate electricity. Extending clean-air standards to older coal plants, many of which have been polluting for decades, will speed that trend. Not only will this significantly reduce our carbon pollution, but it will also save tens of thousands of lives, since the plants emit many other toxic air pollutants, from sulfur dioxide to mercury.

To meet the challenge of the climate crisis, however, we must do much more than simply celebrate the end of the Coal Age -- we need to hasten a new era of smart, clean energy, energy efficiency, and the jobs that support them. Here, too, the president's plan lays out a practical vision for the future. The president is justifiably proud that generation of renewable energy from wind and solar doubled during his first term; now he has committed to seeing it double again. One of the ways his administration will make that happen is by responsibly siting more renewable-energy projects on public lands. The goal is to install enough such projects to power 6 million homes by 2020.

Other major initiatives will promote energy efficiency in both the public and private sectors, begin the critical work of developing a "smart grid" energy infrastructure, raise the bar on fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and tackle the problem of climate-polluting hydrofluorocarbons and methane. Leakage and flaring of methane, which currently accounts for 9 percent of U.S. carbon pollution (and has a global warming potential that is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide), is one of the reasons why natural gas doesn't deserve its reputation as a "cleaner" fossil fuel.

Is everything in the Climate Action Plan workable -- or even a good idea to begin with? Of course not. Some ideas, like pursuing "clean coal" technology, investing in nuclear power, fracking, and building overseas markets for U.S. natural gas are either wrong-headed or dead ends. On balance, though, the plan offers a way for our nation to move forward strongly. Even if not every path offered is a good one, it's never been clearer what our destination must be -- and that this president wants to get us there.

Beyond the president's specific commitments, however, the most important takeaway from his speech is that he is determined to "personally own" this issue. That means taking responsibility in the face of what he has called a "moral obligation." He is far from alone in recognizing such an obligation. A national poll earlier this year found that 93 percent of Americans agree that we have "a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged."

Although the president's desire to save the planet certainly resonates with environmentalists like myself and the Sierra Club's  2.1 million members and supporters, that alone can't account for the overwhelming support of more than 90 percent of the American population. Our "moral obligation to future generations," though, is a different matter. If I ever need to get re-energized about fighting the climate crisis, all I need to do is look into the eyes of my kids. I know the same is true for President Obama. His exact words today: "As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act."

The president's plan may one day be seen as a critical turning point, but let's not forget that this struggle is far from over. The president himself emphasized that this will be a long and rocky road. In the near term, at least, powerful special interests will continue to throw up roadblocks and obstacles at every turn. Congress, for its part, has resolutely and shamefully shirked its own moral obligation. What matters today, though, is that President Barack Obama has reasserted his leadership on climate with both words and deeds. For that, he deserves both our deepest gratitude and our whole-hearted support (and here's where you can send it to him).

Hope is back in the game. Let's win it.


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