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Energy independence is patriotic

“As goes General Motors, so goes the nation.” A year and a half ago, that old saying seemed ominous. GM was in bankruptcy, and our country was in the depths of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

But for a feel-good story, it’s hard to top what’s happened since: Federal investment helped General Motors get back on its feet and return to profitability, and GM has come out with a game-changing new car, the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt. Motor Trend magazine named the Volt its 2011 Car of the Year. GM is investing $163 million in three plants (including one in hard-hit Flint, Mich.,) to help produce the car and is hiring 1,000 engineers to continue work on the Volt and develop other electric vehicles that will cut America’s dependence on oil.

Who wouldn’t be happy to witness the comeback of a major American industry, especially one that makes a down payment on American energy independence and produces new jobs?

Conservative columnist George Will for one: He sees it as an example of “meretricious accounting and deceptive marketing … foist[ing] state capitalism on an appalled country.”

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Radio host Rush Limbaugh derides the Volt as " Obama’s new car,” and labels it part of the electric car industry’s “century-long history of failure.”

This animosity toward modern technology is not limited to electric vehicles. The knives are also out for — of all things — energy-saving light bulbs. Fox News commentator Glenn Beck described Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton as “all socialist” for cosponsoring the 2007 energy bill (signed by then- President George W. Bush), which included tougher standards for light bulbs to limit wasted energy. Limbaugh chimed in too, deriding the moneysaving bulbs as “nannyism, statism, what have you.” Stung, Upton said he would be “reexamining the light bulb issue” if he became chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

What other innovative technology has been turned into a political punching bag? There’s high-speed rail, which Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich called “one of the dumbest ideas” he’s ever heard — although it’s wildly popular in Japan, much of Western Europe, China and beyond.

Then there’s wind power: Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander recently derided Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm — OKd to be built off the coast of Massachusetts — as a “taxpayer rip-off,” although wind is the fastest-growing energy source in the country.

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But even as many so-called conservatives are bending over backward to bash American ingenuity, some leaders are embracing the can-do attitude that will lead to both a greener future and a new prosperity. Unfortunately, many of them are in China.

“We will accelerate the development of a low-carbon economy and green economy so as to gain an advantageous position in the international industrial competition,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in a speech to the World Economic Forum last year. “We will make China a country of innovation.”

It wasn’t so long ago that innovation and industrial know-how were a source of bipartisan pride, an all-American value. Then President Obama made clean-energy jobs and technology centerpieces of his new administration, and suddenly a swath of the Republican Party concluded that saving energy and supporting the growth of green industries were indications of incipient socialism.

Fortunately, some conservatives don’t buy this U-turn away from support of new technology and job growth. At a November House subcommittee hearing on climate change, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who was defeated by a “tea party” opponent, mocked his “free-enterprise colleagues, especially conservatives,” for their absurd assertion that clean technology is “hooey.” The Chinese don’t see it that way, he said. “And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century.”

Replacing dirty energy sources with solar and wind will rebuild America’s manufacturing base and improve our economic competitiveness. Clean energy will cut air and water pollution, and help us to stabilize our climate. Energy independence is both patriotic and principled, and should be bipartisan once again. I have greater faith than ever in America’s ability to forge a clean-energy future — and more cause than ever to wonder what Limbaugh is smoking in that cigar of his.

Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club and the author of the recently updated “Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Coal and Oil.”


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