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Fourth of July: A Long Road Ahead, But Reason to Celebrate

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After the past eight years, I've gotten conditioned to cringing when the Fourth of July rolls around. My wife and I once marched with a peace group in my local parade (Sausalito, California is a very liberal town), and I like fireworks as much as anyone, but the whole rah-rah America thing always seemed pretty distasteful when Bush and Cheney were running the show. So I tried to enjoy the time with family and friends, doing my best to ignore the flags and 'patriotic' festivities.

It was particularly galling to think about what America, or at least its national leadership, stood for regarding the environment in general and the emerging clean energy economy in particular. So with the Fourth approaching this year, my conditioned 'Ugh' response kicked in until I caught myself and remembered: this will be America's first birthday party since we elected Barack Obama president.

On the clean energy front, there really is much to celebrate. Although economic doldrums continue to hamper the clean-tech industry, there has been a lot of good news on the policy front. Flawed and watered-down as it may be, the House passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- our nation's first (federal) legislative act that puts a price on carbon -- is a landmark event. Yes, the bill's fossil-fuel industry giveaways and weakening of the national Renewable Energy Standard are unfortunate and concerning, but try to imagine even a weakened ACES standing a snowball's chance of passage in a Bush (or McCain) administration. As Al Gore is fond of saying, political will is a renewable resource.

Obama and his allies can't undo eight years of environmental damage, climate change-denying, and backward energy policies in less than six months, but they're making progress. This past week brought headlines that start with my three favorite words, "Reversing Bush, Obama..." -- this one granting permission for California to regulate tailpipe greenhouse-gas emissions. A few days earlier, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the fast-tracking of solar energy projects on Bureau of Land Management tracts in the West -- try to imagine that happening under Gale Norton.

Another encouraging sign is the last-minute provision within ACES for some $1 billion in job training for the clean energy economy, including an $860 million allocation for the existing Green Jobs Act primarily aimed at hard-hit, low-income communities. As the battle over this bill heats up in the Senate, it's essential that this provision be preserved. Our energy transition must include communities typically left behind. Green for All founder Van Jones has done as much as anyone to move this issue to the forefront, and Obama's recognition of Jones with a White House advisory position is another thing to celebrate on this Independence Day.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, Obama has not wavered in his conviction that the No. 1 argument for clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction is an economic one. "Make no mistake," he said of ACES, "this is a jobs bill." Hear here.

Of course, many (if not most) positive clean-tech developments occur far from Capitol Hill and Washington. What's more quintessentially American than bowling alleys and oil refineries? Both recently made clean-tech news. AMF Bowling Centers has completed energy-efficient lighting retrofits in 43 of 286 bowling alleys in seven states with contractor Lime Energy, expecting to save $3 million a year in electric bills. And oil refiner Valero Energy recently announced the nation's first completely wind-powered oil refinery in Sunray, Texas. Ironic perhaps, but it's a sign that even companies most heavily invested in fossil fuels can see the business benefits of clean energy. Valero says it wants a locked-in price for its electric power, avoiding the cost fluctuations of coal and natural gas-fired power from the grid. That may get the attention of a lot of American business decision-makers.

Huge energy and environmental challenges loom for America, of course. On a very long list: we remain way too dependent on coal, and the social and environmental travesty of mountaintop removal in Appalachia must end. Dick Cheney continues to shoot off his mouth, which (unless you're Harry Whittington) can be even more dangerous than his quail gun. And the party of No We Can't is sure to threaten to kill or seriously injure climate and energy legislation in the next few months (are you ready, Al Franken?)

So there's an awful lot of work to do, starting first thing next week. But this weekend, let's take a moment to look back at America's long overdue course correction on energy and climate change, which began on that glorious Washington, D.C. afternoon of January 20th. For the first time in a long time this Fourth of July, there's something worth celebrating.

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