What a Week!

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San Francisco -- I spent inaugural week in DC, but the most interesting stuff happened after I left. Less than a week into the new administration, we can already see the Bush legacy unraveling. President Obama has restored the integrity of the Freedom of Information Act and is bringing the cleansing disinfectant of sunlight to Dick Cheney's Augean stables. And the global gag rule that crippled family planning assistance and increased abortions around the world has been canceled.

When the House marked up the economic recovery package, the critical changes needed to ensure that wind and solar entrepreneurs could make use of the tax credits even in today's tight credit markets were adopted with support from the new administration -- and with pressure from oilman-turned-renewable-energy-advocate T. Boone Pickens, who mobilized his 1.5 million-person army on behalf of the tax credits.

And in its first response after being freed from the lawlessness of the previous administration, the EPA broke eight years of Bush precedent and opposed a coal-fired power plant permit -- this one for the Big Stone II project in South Dakota. As Sierra Club "Beyond Coal" campaign director Bruce Nilles put it, "This is a new day."

Then on Saturday, in his remarks to the nation, the President himself laid out more exciting details on his economic recovery package:

"To accelerate the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and biofuels over the next three years. We'll begin to build a new electricity grid that lay down more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines to convey this new energy from coast to coast. We'll save taxpayers $2 billion a year by making 75% of federal buildings more energy efficient, and save the average working family $350 on their energy bills by weatherizing 2.5 million homes."

Finally, over the weekend, the news broke that President Obama will grant California and the 13 other states that have completed the process of adopting California's clean car standards the right to implement them. Another five states are well along into the process, so this means that soon 18 states will have gone ahead of Congress. And Obama has also announced that he will complete the process of setting federal standards that are very likely to be better than what Congress mandated as a minimum.

The California waiver was one of the four ingredients in the Sierra Club's "Clean Slate" package of the most important administrative actions the new President could take to break with the Bush administration. The other three -- regulations on coal-fired power plants, tough interim goals for a climate plan, and an end to lawless dumping of coal-mining waste in rivers and streams -- are still to be done, but let's thank the President for the first step and keep on urging the next three (http://action.sierraclub.org/cleanslate).

And just think -- we've got 1,450 more days to work with -- this is just the beginning.

I'm taking three weeks of vacation in a few days -- so you'll hear only occasionally from me -- but I'm leaving with a good feeling about the start we're off to and the change that's underway.

Well, Someone Got It Right -- Way Back Then

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San Francisco -- During the past eight years, the idea that people with expertise could make reasonable estimates of "what would happen if" has taken a big hit. The Bush administration, of course, was particularly bad at foreseeing consequences in places like Iraq -- so bad that it made light of the whole idea. ("Stuff happens.") But the failure to foresee the meltdown of the financial system had the fingerprints of experts from both political parties and several ideological stripes.

So does anyone ever get it right? Yes, actually, and in the environmental arena this is particularly true when thoughtful science is brought to bear. President Obama's newly appointed science adviser, John Holdren, is an old friend of mine. I just got a copy of this prediction he made with Peter Gleick 28 years ago -- way back in 1981. Take a look. It turns out that wars in Iraq, the emergence of global warming as a crisis, and the fear of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists were not only in principal foreseeable, they were foreseen:

…the most important environmental liability of oil as an energy source is probably not air pollution or oil spills but the chance that war will be waged over access to the world's remaining supplies. The most important environmental liability of coal is not the occupational toll of mining or the public toll from coal-transport accidents (the most easily quantified impacts of coal), or the direct damage to public health from airborne sulfates (quantifiable in principle, but highly uncertain in present practice); rather it is the threat of global climate change posed by accumulating atmospheric carbon dioxide, the consequences of which (through disrupted agricultural productivity) are potentially enormous but highly resistant to convincing quantification. The most important environmental liability of nuclear fission is neither the routine nor accidental emissions of radioactivity, but the deliberate misuse of nuclear facilities and materials for acts of terrorism and war. (American Journal of Public Health, September 1981)

Of course, what's equally stunning is not that Holdren and Gleick predicted these dangers more than a quarter of a century ago -- it's that so many commentators still deny their relevance today.

Welcome, President Obama

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Washington, DC -- Forty-five years ago, I stood on the west tip of the Mall and heard the first great speech of my life -- Dr. King's "I have a dream." Today I stood on the east end, on the slopes of Capitol Lawn, to hear Barack Obama redeem that dream. "The son of the sharecropper" that Dr. King envisaged turned out to be the son of an African villager -- but the moment came, I suspect, sooner that any of us dreamed it would during that summer of 1963.

And it was almost unreal that this same historic occasion marked the moment when energy, climate, and the environment emerged from their long status as part of the "add on list" that our leaders talk about and was instead defined as a central thrust of what we must do as a nation. It's sobering that both milestones came at a time when the nation's old pathways -- economically, environmentally, and in foreign policy -- are crumbling under the weight of their own contradictions and Bush's mismanagement. (And that's all the summing up of the past eight years I'll dwell on.) But the President set the bar for us all and, if the management of his transition is a sample, he's going to ask more of us than any President in my lifetime -- even John Kennedy, whose inaugural address, down to its generational framing, Obama's most resembled.

And judging by yesterday's response to the call by then President-elect Obama for a new spirit of service, I think America is ready. But will the rest of our leaders join us and our new President?

Stay tuned.

The Spin Room

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Washington, DC -- Just how green is the new Obama team, anyway? If you read the Wall Street Journal, you might think that King Coal was back on top of the roost. The Journal did a piece this morning headed  "Coal Industry Digs Itself Out of a Hole in the Capitol." (I was interviewed for the piece and am quoted.) But the headline writer seems to have gotten out ahead of the story and the facts. The article points out that both EPA nominee Lisa Jackson and Energy Secretary designate Steven Chu described coal as a part of America's energy future, even though Chu, in particular, has been much harsher in comments he made before his appointment. It also says that in doing so Jackson and Chu were trying to "steer towards the center."

But the comments Chu and Jackson made were simply restatements of President-elect Obama's positions during his campaign. Obama always agreed that coal has a future -- if it can be clean, including cleaning up its CO2. But what the Journal (and most of the media) has missed is that truly clean coal is actually the coal industry's worst nightmare, not its salvation. Because if and when scientists figure out a scalable and affordable way to get the CO2 out of the flue gases emitted by coal-fired power plants, public utilities burning coal will be expected to use that technology. And right now they're not even willing  to use the air pollution devices we already have to clean up sulfur, nitrogen, particulates, and mercury from their old power plants.

And far from digging coal out of the deeper hole created by the disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, the events of the week have been anything but kind. What did Jackson actually say in her hearing about the policies she will pursue? Well, she virtually committed herself to adopting federal regulation of coal ash, something the Clinton administration refused to do back in 2000. She also said that "Much of the initial agenda for the EPA administrator and EPA is now set by court decisions," and specifically cited the Supreme Court's April 2007 opinion giving the EPA the obligation to use the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2. She then went on to say exactly what the coal industry feared: "The Supreme Court has ordered EPA to make a finding, and EPA has yet to do it. When the finding happens, when EPA makes a decision on endangerment, let me put it that way, it will indeed trigger the regulation of CO2 for this country." She didn't say "if" that finding happens -- she said "when."

The Bush administration, of course, has hung its whole approach to the problem on ignoring that Supreme Court ruling -- as well as a subsequent EPA Environmental Appeals Board ruling that, yes, the Supreme Court ruling applies to coal-fired power plants. So today the Sierra Club filed what will be one of our final lawsuits against George Bush, challenging EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's last-minute issuance of an "interpretive memorandum" instructing the Agency to ignore its own Administrative Law Judges. "EPA Administrator Steve Johnson has acted in brazen defiance our nation's highest court, Congress, his own staff and the law for years," said David Bookbinder, Sierra Club's Chief Climate Counsel. "In a new twist, he is now openly and unlawfully ignoring EPA's own judges in order to protect polluters in the waning days of a dangerously irrelevant administration."

If the coal industry really wants to make coal clean, they still have time -- but so far, there's no evidence that they've learned anything in the past eight years.

First Fruits of Victory

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Washington, DC -- George Bush has one more week in the White House, but the new Congress is up and running. The first fruits of November's election victories came this morning when the Senate broke the first filibuster of the year, on a major new public-lands initiative that would protect 2 million acres of new wilderness. The vote was 68-24.

The bill, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, contains a number of legislative provisions that were blocked in the last Congress. In addition to the more than 2 million acres of new wilderness in nine states, it would establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails. It would enlarge the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units, and establish ten new national heritage areas.

The bill also will protect more than 1 million acres of the Wyoming Range from oil and gas development, and it and includes the Forest Landscape Restoration Act and the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, as well as important marine-protection bills also held up in the last Congress.

The opposition was led by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, but all the Democrats who voted (as well as an unusual number of Republicans from Western states) voted for cloture because of the broad support in the Senate for public-lands protection.

During the eight years of the Bush administration, for the first time in American history, the extent of "protected landscapes" in the country actually declined, as Bush stripped conservation protections from millions of acres. We now, it appears, are resuming our historical progress towards protecting our wild legacy. (The bill's not perfect -- it's got two provisions that the Sierra Club opposes and which we hope the House will fix, the most important relating to wilderness areas in Washington County, Utah.)

But the fact that Coburn was able to muster 24 votes to prevent the Senate from even voting on such a popular piece of legislation is a warning sign that Minority Leader McConnell plans to do exactly what his predecessor Bob Dole did after Bill Clinton was elected in 1993 -- filibuster everything as a means of preventing the new President from successfully governing.