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Happy Earth Day?

Forget feel-good rallies and one-day recycling efforts. The 40th anniversary of the environmental movement's biggest celebration calls for more drastic measures.

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Legislation

All together now

Clean Energy Works builds consensus for new energy plan

One October morning in 2009, a busload of U.S. veterans from a national organization called Operation Free pulled up to Missoula's Old Post Pub. They walked into the bar and sat down for breakfast with local veterans to discuss concerns about the impact of U.S. oil dependence on national security. Operation Free's solution: a national clean energy plan.

Operation Free is one group out of 80 organizations that make up Clean Energy Works, a sprawling nationwide coalition pushing for clean energy and climate legislation. How sprawling? In Montana, Clean Energy Works is comprised of Operation Free, Montana Audubon, Montana Business Leaders for Clean Energy, Montana Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resource Defense Council and the Alliance for Climate Protection (which works toward former Vice President Gore's Repower America campaign), among others. The coalition's motto—"More jobs. Less pollution. Greater security"—speaks to the diverse viewpoints of its organizations.

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"The breadth of this coalition is unprecedented in the U.S. conservation movement and maybe in terms of any issue that's come before Congress," says Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation.

Clean Energy Works attacks a common goal from different angles. Some groups, like Operation Free, are most concerned with national security. Others focus on the economic opportunities of clean energy technology. Still more express concern about the impact of climate change. Regardless of their primary motivation, all the members of Montana's Clean Energy Works are pushing for the same end result: the passage of a national comprehensive clean energy and climate bill through the U.S. Congress this year.

The organization's strategy calls for creating a broad base of support through meetings like the one with Operation Free and its constituents at the Old Post. Montana Clean Energy Works field organizers like Derek Goldman and Benjamin Courteau have helped to coordinate dozens of meetings with farmers, fishermen, hunters and wildlife activists, and convinced them to work toward a specific outcome.

"We find those who are in support of the issue and connect them with their representatives by having them write letters and make phone calls," says Courteau. "We get businesses to sign up in support as well. We're really pressuring Congress to act on this and support the bill."

The bill in question was written by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and is set to be introduced April 26. It promises to be a comprehensive piece of legislation covering energy use and a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That plan includes new loans and tax credits for companies that manufacture clean energy technologies, and funding for research and development. While some states have made commitments to clean energy and climate change policy (Montana has committed to 15 percent renewable energy by 2015) this bill would signal the first national plan dealing with the issues.

Passing a bill that promotes clean energy is important to Montana because once the United States makes a commitment to go down the renewable energy path, entrepreneurs are more willing to make long-term investments in the industry. In Montana, where wind energy potential is ranked second in the nation, that could mean economic growth for the state.

"There's a lot of clean energy capital that's been sitting on the sidelines for years waiting for a national policy to shift toward a clean energy economy," says Goldman. "That's where national legislation that limits greenhouse gas pollution can really help send that signal to investors. For a long time clean energy sources have been at a financial disadvantage because of the vast amount of tax breaks and subsidies that the fossil fuel industry receives from Congress."

Bi-partisan support for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill gives it a higher likelihood of passing. But like so much bi-partisan legislation, there are bound to be compromises.

"Yeah there's going to be compromises in it," says Courteau, "but it might not be that bad. Most people agree that regardless of what's going on with the climate we need to get off foreign oil and produce clean energy, that we need to be innovators in the industry so we don't get out-competed by both our allies and our competitors, like China. That's enough common ground to push the bill forward with perhaps fewer compromises than health care had."

Erika Fredrickson

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