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Wed May 27, 2015 at 09:59 AM PDT

The Water of Life

by Michael Brune

Long before the hydration pack, there was the Sierra Club cup. Generations of Sierra Club hikers and backpackers kept these metal cups hooked to their belts, ready for dipping into a cool mountain stream. In his famous 1971 profile of David Brower, John McPhee wrote that "In various wildernesses with Brower I had never seen him eat or drink from anything else. In the past, in the High Sierra, he had on occasion rubbed pennyroyal-mint leaves over the embossed letters in the bottom of his cup and added snow and whiskey for a kind of high-altitude julep." 

Sierra Club cups are still around, but the carefree days of dipping them into streams are long gone. Despite passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, safe drinking water is something no one should take for granted -- whether it comes from a mountain stream or the kitchen faucet.  What many people don't realize is that divided Supreme Court decisions over the past decade have weakened the Clean Water Act by creating confusion over which U.S. streams and wetlands it covers.

To fix that, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have spent years working on a sensible Clean Water Rule that clearly defines which waterways are covered under pollution prevention and cleanup programs. The clarified standards will not only protect the drinking water for millions of Americans but also preserve fish and wildlife habitat and reduce the risk of flooding.

Without this new Clean Water Rule, though, the drinking water sources for more than 100 million Americans will remain at risk. You might think that would make this a no-brainer, but you wouldn't be thinking like some fossil fuel companies and developers. They would prefer not to be accountable for what they dump in our waterways and, unfortunately, they have friends in Congress.

Clean water is essential to the health of our families, our environment, and our economy -- not to mention our enjoyment. Forget about David Brower's "high-altitude juleps"; without clean water you can't make good beer, which is why 45 breweries have joined a "Brewers for Clean Water Campaign" and are speaking out in support of the new rule.

Tell President Obama to stand strong against congressional attacks and protect our water.

Discuss

Wed May 13, 2015 at 08:55 AM PDT

Arctic Nightmare

by Michael Brune

I had a terrible nightmare: President Mitt Romney approved Shell Oil's drilling plans for the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. He did it even though his own Department of the Interior calculated that the odds of a large oil spill were 75 percent. He did it even though no proven method exists to respond to such a spill. He did it even though indigenous Alaskan culture has centered on traditional harvests of marine resources for thousands of years. He did it even though all known, extractable Arctic oil and gas reserves must remain undeveloped if the world wants to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption. He did it even though such a spill would affect fish, birds from around the globe, and marine mammals such as polar bears, walruses, seals, and bowhead and beluga whales. He did it in spite of Shell's abysmal track record in the Arctic, which could inspire the next Dumb and Dumber sequel.

When I woke up and realized that Romney had lost the election, I was momentarily relieved. But then the nightmare started all over again. Because everything else really did happen—only it was President Barack Obama, the man we worked so hard to put in the White House, whose Interior Department decided it would be OK to spill oil in the Arctic.

How are we supposed to make sense of this?

Is it because Obama is worried about his next election? There isn't one. Is it because he's beholden to the petroleum industry? They never supported him. Is it because he thinks the U.S., as the new chair of the Arctic Council, should lead by some kind of perverse counterexample? Here's what Secretary of State John Kerry said at the council's annual meeting last month: "The Arctic Council can do more on climate change... we all know the clock is ticking, and we actually don’t have a lot of time to waste." OK, so let's release millions more tons of greenhouse gases and melt the Arctic even faster.

If this is U.S. climate leadership, then I'd hate to see what climate irresponsibility looks like.

Why is it so hard for so many of our leaders to recognize what Martin Luther King, Jr., once called "the fierce urgency of now"? We really don't have time to waste, yet our government keeps promoting drilling, fracking, and mining as if the laws of nature could be suspended at our convenience.

As for America's Arctic, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will have long since left office when, as predicted by their own experts, disaster strikes on the dark, stormy waters of the Chukchi. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. As strong currents and winds spread oil to the most sensitive marine areas and coastlines, all anyone will be able to do is watch and wish we had not been so reckless.

But it's still not too late to change the odds. The chances of a major spill are three-in-four, but only if Shell is allowed to go through with its crazy plans. Already, the idea that our government would take such an appalling risk is inspiring outraged citizens to rise up and say "no way!"

Even before the Obama administration's approval of Shell's drilling plans, "kayaktivists" in the Pacific Northwest were planning to protest the oil company's plans to lease a terminal in the Port of Seattle for its drilling fleet. This Saturday they'll stage a "sHell No Flotilla" and an accompanying rally on dry land. There will also be a solar and wind-powered, crowd-funded "People’s Platform" marine barge—with the message "Next Time Try Solar."

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Wed Apr 22, 2015 at 10:29 AM PDT

Make Earth Day Count

by Michael Brune

On its special day, what do you give the planet that has everything? How about some really good news? Last month, the International Energy Agencyannounced that "global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn."

The next time someone tries to tell you that we can't really do anything about climate disruption, you can inform them that we already are. We (and by "we," I mean people all over the planet) are replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy at a record pace. Ever since 2013, the planet has been adding more renewable energy than any other kind, and this good news about global emissions is a result. If we keep it up, this can be the turning point in limiting global warming and climate disruption.

But although emissions may have been flat for the planet last year, here in the U.S. they have risen slightly in the past two years. Fortunately, they're still below our national peak in 2007. That definitely would not be the case were it not for the incredible progress we've made in retiring polluting coal-fired power plants and, at the same time, adding new renewable energy. As President Obama pointed out in his weekly address last weekend, the U.S.currently installs as much solar energy every three weeks as it did in all of 2008. We also added four times as much wind energy last year as we did in 2013.  

The question, then, is how do we not only maintain this momentum but also build on it? And this time, when I say "we," I'm talking about each of us individually -- not just a bunch of "decision makers" somewhere. Simple: We must join our voices and combine our strength. Which, after all, is the whole purpose of a volunteer-driven group like the Sierra Club. We started doing this back in John Muir's day, when logging and mining companies tried to decimate the newly created Yosemite National Park. And we're still doing it today -- to stop dirty fuel corporations from destroying Earth's climate.

But given the scale of the challenge (and the size of our adversaries), we've had to up our game. Three weeks ago, I shared the news that we've launchedAddUp, a new website that tries to make collective action both more powerful and more personal. If you aren't one of the thousands of people who've already tried it, then I can't think of a better time than right now. We have lots of campaigns and tools, including one that lets you join us in supporting the EPA's Clean Power Plan. The plan is critical to moving the U.S. beyond coal and other dirty fuels as fast as possible, and to making sure we don't see our climate-polluting emissions go anywhere but down in the future.

What better way to make this Earth Day count?

 

Discuss

Mon Apr 20, 2015 at 09:11 AM PDT

This Was Not a Spill

by Michael Brune

Today is the anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history: the explosion of Deepwater Horizon and subsequent oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't like to call it a spill, because spills are accidents. What happened that day was not an accident; it was a crime.

BP, the giant oil company most responsible for the disaster, pleaded guilty in 2012 to 11 felony counts related to the deaths of 11 workers. Last year, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled that "BP committed a series of negligent acts or omissions that ... together amount to gross negligence and willful misconduct under the Clean Water Act." (The operator of the Deepwater rig and contractors like Halliburton also share some of the blame, although they were found "negligent" rather than "grossly negligent.")

BP, meanwhile, attempted to minimize its financial liability by, for instance, claiming that "only" 2.5 million barrels worth of oil (more than a hundred million gallons) were dumped in the Gulf. (The amount of the fine BP must pay under the Clean Water Act is based on the number of barrels discharged. The actual number was north of 4 million barrels).

No matter how many billions BP ends up paying out, of course, it can never undo all the damages caused by its crime. It can, however, pretend they didn't happen. The company launched a PR campaign claiming that the Gulf has rebounded. Reality, of course, begs to differ. Ten million gallons of oil remain on the seafloor. Multiple studies have found that the harm to fish and wildlife was not only horrific five years ago (800,000 birds; between 20,000 and 60,000 sea turtles) but is ongoing. Concentrations of toxic chemicals in Gulf marshes may persist for decades.

No wonder people question why BP is spending money to soft pedal the consequences of its crime, when it could be using those dollars toward actual restitution.

Five years on, though, what lessons have been learned? Don't trust oil companies to act responsibly? That seems to be the main takeaway for the Obama administration. Last week it announced tighter regulations for offshore oil rigs that it claims should help prevent oil-well blowouts. Those tighter regulations are directly based on what happened in the Gulf in 2010.  Does that mean future disasters don't happen? Of course not.

Yet the administration has also announced that it will allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia for the first time since the 1980s, as well as three areas for leasing in Alaska, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, where the administration estimates that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more spills. Astounding. Back east, the administration was getting ready to announce oil and gas leases for the Atlantic coast five years ago, along with the usual platitudes about "drilling responsibly" and "minimizing risk." Then Deepwater Horizon happened.

The bottom line is that we don't need the oil that can be found off our Atlantic Coast, no matter what those state governors might tell you. And even if you manage to reduce the risks, and even if no oil company ever again acts with gross negligence for the sake of profits (a bet I wouldn't recommend taking), the consequences of drilling in sensitive marine environments are just too great.

Tell President Obama to keep our coasts off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

Discuss

Wed Apr 15, 2015 at 04:42 PM PDT

Living Wages and a Living Planet

by Michael Brune

Everyone knows that today is the deadline for filing your tax return. But it's also when Fight for 15 is holding rallies all over the country to demand a living wage. And it's no coincidence that this is happening on tax day. When corporations pay starvation wages to people who are trying to support families, those companies are basically getting a subsidy from taxpayers. That's because the working poor must often rely on federal and state benefits to make ends meet.

I was honored to speak at the Fight for 15 rally in Berkeley today. What does fighting for a living wage have to do with protecting the environment? Well, as one of my predecessors at the Sierra Club once pointed out, everything is connected. Here's what I told the workers today:

I'm so proud to stand here today with my friend Mary Kay Henry in solidarity with working people all over the country who are fighting for their right to living wages on a living planet.

The Sierra Club is joining the fight for $15 because you just can't live on less. If you can't pay for food, you can't eat. If you can't pay your rent, you may not have a home and could be out living or dying on the street. If you can't pay for health care, your health and your life are in danger. The fight for $15 is not a matter of convenience. It is literally a life and death issue, just like the fight for a living planet.  

And it's the exact same fight! When fossil fuels disrupt our climate, causing killer heat waves, wildfires, and deadly floods, who suffers the most? It's the people who can't afford air-conditioning, the people who can't afford to buy gas to flee from fires and floods, and the people who must raise their kids next door to coal plants, fracking sites, and oil refineries. Because no matter how hard those people work, they can't earn enough money to save their own lives. That's why they call it a living wage!

You all are taking on the same corporate business model that is threatening our planet. The same big box and fast food stores that pay so little that their own workers can't afford to eat the food they sell are running global supply chains that are emitting carbon pollution that's destroying our climate.  

Here's what we're saying to the Walmarts and the McDonald's: You have to change your business models so that we can live. We want living wages and a living planet! And for us to get there, here's what you need to do: You need to invest in people by paying your employees enough to live on. And you need to invest in communities by sourcing your products locally.

McDonald's can no longer make french fries with palm oil that comes from destroying the tropical forests where indigenous people live -- forests that save your life and my life by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Walmart can no longer dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to ship a bunch of stuff from across the ocean just so they can avoid paying people here enough to live.

That's a death economy. We want a life economy. For that, we need living wages on a living planet, powered by 100 percent clean energy. And you are the ones who are getting us there.

Discuss

Tue Mar 17, 2015 at 02:40 PM PDT

Zombie Attacks on Rooftop Solar

by Michael Brune

In the past, I have compared big, polluting fossil fuel companies to zombies. Now I feel bad. Upon reflection, I believe I may have been a little unfair -- to zombies.

You might not like zombies, but you can't really blame them for being that way. It's not like they chose to join the walking dead. In a way, zombies are victims. You can't say the same for fossil fuel corporations and big utilities, though. In the face of urgency to act on climate and despite exciting clean energy options, too often they are choosing the dark side -- or at least obsolescence -- of their own volition.

The latest round of fossil fuel zombie attacks is coming from big utilities that want to stop the spread of rooftop solar. Just like a zombie horde, they use tactics that are clumsy, somewhat brainless, and yet potentially effective.

Here's how it works: Utilities (and the fossil fuel corporations from which they buy dirty fuels like coal and gas) convince a "friendly" legislator to introduce a bill to hit solar customers with an extra tax or fee to make solar more expensive. These bills are usually based on a template written by the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Council (ALEC). An alternate tactic is to go to the state utility commission and try to convince the regulators there to add the extra fees. The usual claim is that customers who have solar panels are "freeloading" by taking advantage of the grid infrastructure -- even though they might not be buying much electricity. If they get their  way, the zombies -- who don't know they're already dead -- win a temporary victory.

In the real world, studies like this one commissioned by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission have found zero basis for the argument that solar customers are hurting non-solar customers. No, what's actually got the utilities spooked is the prospect of an ever-increasing number of their customers generating their own solar power and reducing  their power bills. One way they're doing that is through "net metering," which utilities really hate. I wrote a whole post about this a few years ago when it came under attack in California, but basically it means solar customers get credit for all of the energy they generate and contribute to the grid.

There's one big problem with this campaign against rooftop solar. Across the U.S., people love solar power. A poll released early this year found that 80 percent of voters want the country to rely more on solar energy in the next five years. Solar may be one of the few things that almost everyone in America agrees on. What's not to like about free energy that creates no pollution? The benefits are so obvious that rooftop solar actually goes viral. One study found that as soon as solar establishes a foothold in an area, it starts spreading in a "wave-like centrifugal pattern."  

So when politicians introduce ALEC-authored bills to kill rooftop solar, they suddenly find themselves facing a crowd of angry constituents who want to know whether baseball, mom, or apple pie will be the next target.

As I said, these attacks on solar customers are both clumsy and poorly thought-out. Even so, we cannot afford to ignore them. Rooftop solar can't be completely stopped -- it's just too good an idea. But if enough of these bills were somehow to get passed, or if enough utility commissions were to adopt regressive fees, it could slow down the viral spread of solar. And that would mean fewer clean energy jobs (solar energy is a job-creating machine that employs 174,000 Americans), more air-pollution deaths, higher utility bills, and of course, a harder time meeting our goals for cutting carbon emissions and stopping climate disruption.

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Mon Mar 09, 2015 at 12:13 PM PDT

A Fast Track to Disaster

by Michael Brune

The United States is at the tail end of negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- a massive trade deal with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, and seven other countries. The negotiations have been conducted in secret. Now Congress will soon decide whether to grant the Obama administration "fast track" authority to have the "final" pact approved as is -- meaning strict limits on congressional debate and no amendments. That's a terrible idea for lots of reasons -- not least of which is that the TPP could sabotage the ability of the U.S. (and other nations) to respond to the climate crisis.

Senator Elizabeth Warren put her finger on the problem in anop-ed for the Washington Post: "Who will benefit from the TPP? American workers? Consumers? Small businesses? Taxpayers? Or the biggest multinational corporations in the world?" Here's a hint: The answer is definitely not "all of the above." Multinational corporations -- including some of the planet's biggest polluters -- could use the TPP to sue governments, in private trade tribunals, over laws and policies that they claimed would reduce their profits. The implications of this are profound: Corporate profits are more important than protections for clean air, clean water, climate stability, workers' rights, and more.

This isn't a hypothetical threat. Similar rules in other free trade deals have allowed corporations including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum to bring approximately 600 cases against nearly 100 governments. Increasingly, corporations are using these perverse rules to challenge energy and climate policies, including a moratorium on fracking in Quebec; a nuclear energy phaseout and coal-fired power plant standards in Germany; and a pollution cleanup in Peru. TransCanada has even intimated that it would use similar rules in the North American Free Trade Agreement to challenge a U.S. decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Remember how scientists and experts have warned that at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to stabilize our climate? A new study published in the journal Nature even spells out in detail which reserves must stay untapped, including almost all of Canada's tar sands, all of the oil and gas in the Arctic, nearly half of global natural gas reserves, and 82 percent of global coal reserves. But do trade pacts like the TPP take that into account?

Not a chance. In fact, as a result of the TPP, the United States Department of Energy would actually be required to approve more fossil fuel exports. The deal would greenlight fracked gas exports to countries in the pact -- including Japan, which is the world's biggest importer of natural gas. A consequence would be more fracking; more pipelines, more export terminals, and more climate pollution.

It has never been more urgent for countries to tackle the climate crisis. Now is the time to ensure that the rules of the global economy support climate action. Now is not the time to be rubber-stamping trade deals that could undermine our prospects for a better future and safer climate. Congress has a responsibility to do its job and ensure that trade pacts protect workers, communities, and our climate.

A fast track bill could be introduced any day -- so it's time to speak out now. Please, join me andwrite to your representative and senators and ask them to oppose fast track legislation for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  We can win this fight for a fair economy and a safe climate, but we need all of your help.

Discuss

Tue Feb 24, 2015 at 01:16 PM PST

KXL -- The End Game Begins

by Michael Brune

Surprising nobody, President Obama has quietly followed through on his promise to veto the bill from Congress that would have authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It's only the third veto of his presidency, and it means the way is now clear for the president to make a final decision about whether Keystone XL, and the toxic tar-sands oil it would pump across America's heartland, are in the national interest.

Why did Congress force the president to waste perfectly good ink reasserting his authority to make this decision? Certainly not because they were looking out for the best interests of the American people, who would be accepting all of the many risks associated with Keystone without seeing any appreciable benefits. The more people learn about the project, the more they think it's a bad idea. A poll just released by the League of Conservation Voters found that after hearing arguments both for and against the pipeline, a majority of voters believe President Obama should reject it.

What's more, nearly two-in-three voters (63 percent) say that if President Obama decides the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the nation's best interests, then Congress should accept the decision and move on to other issues facing the country, rather than trying to force the administration to issue a permit.

Seems like good advice. Yet tar-sands supporters in Congress will find it hard to tune out the fossil fuel interests that want to see Canada's oil sands mined to the utmost. After all, the biggest foreign lease holder in Canada's oil sands is none other than the Koch brothers. And they didn't become among the wealthiest people on the planet by taking "no" for an answer graciously.

But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, it's up to President Obama to do the right thing -- for America, for Americans, and for our planet.

Discuss

Mon Feb 23, 2015 at 10:35 AM PST

The Sun Sets on British Coal

by Michael Brune

Long ago, the expression "carrying coal to Newcastle" meant to do something utterly pointless, because the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne had a monopoly on British coal exports. But soon, though, carrying coal to anywhere in the United Kingdom will be pointless.

On February 14, the leaders of all three of the U.K.'s major political parties announced a joint commitment to phase out the use of coal and fight climate disruption.

Specifically, here's what they agreed to do:

  • Seek a legally binding, global climate deal that limits temperature rises to below 2 degrees C (i.e. 3.6 degrees F)
  • Forge a domestic agreement on carbon budgets
  • Accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy
  • End unabated coal for power generation ("Unabated coal" is any coal that causes carbon pollution. At this point, that amounts to all coal.)

Here in the U.S., the news got relatively little coverage. That's somewhat surprising -- it's not every day that opposing politicians anywhere (in the middle of an election campaign, yet) set aside their differences long enough to agree on an important, substantive issue. Heck, in this country, we can't even get the Obama administration to agree with itself on the importance of moving beyond coal and other fossil fuels. Even as one part of the administration acts strongly to clean up coal-fired power plants, another part sells billions of tons of coal from public landsat below-market rates.

But what happened in Britain is actually a really big deal for several reasons.

You can start with the1,600 lives that will be saved each year by cleaning up the air in the same country that coined the word "smog" to describe what was killing so many people. In fact, it was air pollution that led the English to make their first attempt to ban coal burning way back in 1306. Now, more than 700 years later, it looks like they are finally going to make it stick.

Next, we can add the U.K. to the growing list of "if they can do it, why can't we?" nations around the world. The British may not have the abundant renewable energy resources that we do in this country, but that won't stop them from going "all in" on clean energy as they move beyond coal. Just last week, the United Kingdom approved what will bethe world's biggest offshore wind farm -- and one of the U.K.'s biggest power stations, period. That's the kind of clean energy project that becomes easier to plan and build when you have market certainty that a nation is firmly committed to climate action -- regardless of who happens to be in power.

And you can be sure that the growing list of climate-committed nations will be critical when the next round of climate negotiations begins in Paris later this year. There's a real sense that it's time to put up or shut up, and nations are stepping up in a way we haven't seen in over 20 years of UN negotiations.

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Fri Feb 20, 2015 at 02:12 PM PST

Sweet 16

by Michael Brune

More proof that good things are worth waiting for. About a year and a half ago, my family and I hiked in Colorado's Browns Canyon, along with some military veterans, Sierra Club volunteers, and local rafting owners. At the time, local people had been trying for two decades to get permanent protection for the canyon (which has long been popular with whitewater rafters and other outdoor enthusiasts). As is often the case, they'd come tantalizingly close more than once to succeeding. Fortunately, they never gave up.

Yesterday, that dedication finally paid off when President Obama designated about 21,000 acres in Browns Canyon as one of our three newest national monuments. The other two new monuments are important historic sites: Pullman National Monument in Chicago, and Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii.

That makes a total of 16 national monuments from President Obama, who has used the Antiquities Act exactly as intended: to protect places of national importance that if lost could never be replaced. But although the president makes the designations, it also takes a lot of grassroots support and hard work locally to make them happen. 

The important thing is that these newest monuments did happen, and they belong to all of us.

Why not take a moment to tell President Obama thanks?

Discuss

Mon Feb 02, 2015 at 04:49 PM PST

We'll Be There

by Michael Brune

Earlier this month, almost every Republican in the U.S. Senate went on record that "climate change is real and not a hoax." All but a handful, however, balked at agreeing that humans are contributing to that change. The "not a scientist" club has a new line in the sand: "Climate change? Sure, whatever, but humans are not the problem."

Oddly enough, they almost have a point -- if only by accident. The blame game won't get us anywhere. When it comes to climate change, what's most important isn't whether humans are causing the problem (as the real scientists keep insisting), but whether humans can be part of the solution. Fortunately, we don't need a vote in the U.S. Senate to answer that question.

We talk a lot about "climate solutions" -- from renewables like wind and solar to energy efficiency to emissions targets to international agreements -- and rightly so. But, ultimately, those things are just tools. The most important requirement for success is not a technology, policy, or ideology. It's people -- people who recognize the incredible opportunity to transform our civilization by leaving dirty fuels behind and who won't settle for anything less.

Naturally, we want to be able to count all of our leaders among those people. Unfortunately, even many leaders who say they understand the importance of clean energy, don't always act like they do. President Obama, for instance, has done as much as anyone to advance renewable energy, yet he still boasts about the oil- and gas-drilling boom occurring on his watch.

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Wed Jan 28, 2015 at 02:47 PM PST

Good News for the Arctic, But...

by Michael Brune

When you're working toward a big goal, progress isn't always smooth. If you're lucky, though, the breakthroughs outpace the setbacks, even if it's sometimes a close call. For Alaskan wilderness protection, this week produced a breakthrough that's been a long time coming. President Obama will recommend that Congress designate over 12 million acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, including 1.52 million acres of the coastal plain.

Unfortunately, there's a greater chance the Yankees will switch to field hockey than that the current Congress will act on the wilderness designation. Even so, the Interior Department has said that it will now manage these lands as if they were officially wilderness, which means no oil and gas leasing.

Of course, "unofficially," these lands have been wilderness for millions of years and -- as long as they remain off limits to oil and gas drilling -- they will stay that way. This is one of the situations where, really, all we have to do is not mess things up.

Last year, I got to experience the wildness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge firsthand. Someone said that John Muir wrote in one of his journals that you shouldn't visit Alaska for the first time as a young man because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live. Maybe that's why Muir kept going back there in his later years. As for me, my conception of wilderness had to be completely recalibrated after spending a week in the Refuge. It truly is an incredible place, but the single most amazing thing about it may be that after so many decades we still have not established permanent protection for this unique and irreplaceable national treasure.

Ultimately, that protection will happen, though -- and not just because the American people know the value of real wilderness. It will happen because we can see an end to the threat of unrestrained fossil fuel development. Between the rise of clean renewable energy and the recognition that we must leave at least four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to limit climate disruption, the window is closing on the threat of a drilling disaster in the Arctic.

It hasn't shut yet, though. In fact, hard on the heels of releasing the very good news about the Arctic Refuge, the Obama administration also delivered a setback for the Arctic. It announced that it plans to open some new areas off the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts to oil and gas leasing (while also putting some areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off-limits). That's bad news for the Atlantic Coast and decidedly mixed news for the Arctic and its wildlife. It's also directly at odds with the president's climate goals.

(By the way, this is not the first time the Obama administration has proposed new drilling off the Atlantic coast. A previous proposal was quickly withdrawn after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico caused what Obama himself called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." Did it really take only five years to decide we're ready to risk another one?)

Clearly, even though President Obama wants climate action to be one of his presidency's chief legacies, he's not yet ready to base his policies on the reality of what actually needs to be done. In this case, he has taken two big steps forward with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which has enraged his opponents) and then followed up with an ill-advised step backward on offshore drilling (which, ironically, has enraged those same opponents). Yes, that counts as progress, and the good news is still very good. Still, it's frustrating to see this president settle for good when great is what we need so badly.

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