02/16/2012 12:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2012

Historic Progress on the Environment Under President Obama

President Obama had good reason to stand tall as he touted his commitment to clean energy and to environmental and public health protections in his Jan. 24 State-of-the-Union address and as he unveiled his 2013 budget on Monday.

During his administration, America has made historic progress toward curbing harmful pollutions that contaminate our air, water, lands and wildlife -- and contribute to asthma attacks, heart attacks and even premature deaths.

These achievements are all the more noteworthy because the president faced down polluters and a hostile House of Representatives that, led by Tea Party extremists, cast almost 200 anti-environment votes last year. We and our supporters all across the country have stood with him in this fight and we will continue to do so.

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first-ever national standards to reduce mercury, lead, and other dangerous pollution from coal- and oil-burning power plants. These safeguards are likely to be among the Obama Administration's most significant environmental accomplishments.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that damages developing brains in children and fetuses. Prenatal exposure to even low levels of mercury can cause life-long problems with language skills, fine motor function, and the ability to pay attention.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury emissions, yet they have dodged mercury and other air toxics rules for decades. Virtually every other major industrial sector in the United States has been subject to such standards for more than 10 years.

Thanks to the new standards, these polluters will finally have to clean up their act. As a result, the standards will prevent 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.

While cracking down on polluters, the Obama Administration also has been promoting clean energy solutions that will create jobs and unleash innovation.

In July, the president proposed a new round of fuel-efficiency standards for cars, SUVs, and pick-up trucks that will almost double vehicle miles per gallon to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Such improvements to automobiles within 20 years will reduce carbon pollution by 280 million metric tons -- the equivalent of shutting 70 coal-fired power plants for a year. And by 2030, the fuel efficiency standards will also cut our oil use by more than we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010 and save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump.

Building more efficient vehicles has already put Americans to work. More than 150,000 Americans currently have jobs making parts for and assembling clean cars -- hybrids, electric cars, and other advanced vehicles that weren't available 10 years ago. That's why the car industry, labor unions, and the environmental community are united in supporting the president's clean car standards.

To be sure, the Obama Administration also has ceded ground on some issues to polluters. Its decisions to postpone smog standards and leave the door open to offshore drilling in the Arctic will benefit dirty industries and make it harder for Americans to protect our health and resources. So our work goes on. And we're in this for the long haul.

In the meantime, all Americans benefit from having cleaner skies and more home-grown clean energy.

Even in the face of a year of unprecedented and unrelenting congressional assault on the environment, President Obama has proven that prosperity fits hand-in-hand with clean air and clean water, and strong public health protections.

We have a shared responsibility to protect our environment and health. Future generations deserve nothing less. Let's keep building on this progress.

(Frances Beinecke is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Margie Alt is executive director of Environment America.)