President Obama has been lavished with praise for his focus on competitiveness and clean energy in his State of the Union Address. In the midst of that praise, however, I must bring up some clear issues of concern.
First, the president has not actually made a concrete promise to protect the Clean Air Act from impending congressional attacks; he has only alluded to it.
Second, his version of clean energy includes elements such as the industry-spun concept of "clean" coal -- a gaping loophole for a dirty industry hell-bent on reinventing itself with money rather than scientific innovation.
The fact is that both the Clean Air Act and actual clean energy are essential to the very competitiveness the president was addressing. Coal companies have had many opportunities to prove their commitment to public health, and have responded by spewing toxic pollution into our air. Alongside other dirty energy industries, they have had numerous chances to keep climate change in mind, and they have responded by leaving countless scars across the landscape of America's air, water, and land.
The Clean Air Act is the only thing standing between us and staggering levels of climate pollution. The president alluded to it in this passage of his speech:
"I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That's what we've done in this country for more than a century. It's why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe. It's why we have speed limits and child labor laws." [Emphasis added]
But I want more. Now is not the time for allusion -- it's time to spell things out. The fossil fuel industry poured more than $500 million into lobbying and political campaigns in 2010 alone, which tells me they mean business. Along with their allies in Congress, they are waging an all-out assault on the Clean Air Act. We cannot leave any room for compromise in the face of such severe threats. We're talking about our last line of defense to address climate change and stop toxic dirty coal. This is the line in the sand. We need the president to stand up for the American people against polluters on the most critical global issue of our times.
Another aspect of the president's speech that caught lots of attention from climate advocates was the president's inclusion of "clean" coal in a list of energy sources he would support as a part of our clean energy future. Let me be clear: "clean" coal is unproven, unsafe, and unlikely to last beyond the short term. If we're going to invest in "clean" coal, we might as well invest in unicorns while we're at it. It's time for us to stop encouraging the myth of "clean" coal and get to work on the solutions that will truly help avert the worst effects of climate change, put Americans to work in the clean energy economy, and protect the health of our kids from the impacts of coal. We need to work smarter, not harder, to build the clean energy future, and coal plants have no place in that.
President Obama has set the tone, concrete goals, and standards to secure America's future with clean energy. Without any pending legislation, we must focus on safeguarding the Clean Air Act and on debunking the myth of "clean" coal. I call on President Obama to publicly pledge to support the Clean Air Act as it stands and to debunk the myth of "clean" coal. It's time we see President Obama roll up his sleeves and let polluters and their allies in Congress know that he'll defend the Clean Air Act and stand up for the American people. Polluters need to hear loud and clear that this is a line in the sand for the president that will not be crossed on his watch.
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