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Terry Winckler's blog

After cancelling oil and gas leases in Utah last week, Interior Sec. Ken Salazar is strongly hinting that he might do the same with a crown jewel of Colorado -- the Roan Plateau. The Roan is a rippling expanse of natural riches that rises dramatically 3,000 feet above a plain in the state's northwest quadrant.

The Roan was leased off for oil and gas exploitation last August despite massive public outcry from a remarkably diverse group of folks, including hunters and fishers, Republicans and Democrats, locals and people from across the country, and of course dedicated environmentalists. Salazar, then a U.S. senator from Colorado, was among those urging the Bureau of Land Management to not proceed with the lease sale.

Now, as boss of the BLM, Salazar is in position to put money where his mouth was last year -- $113 million in lease payments already divvied up between the state and feds. But it's a pittance compared to the priceless wilderness qualities that would be displaced by industrial drilling operations.

A bunch of utility operators are still trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to let them pour poisonous mercury into the air - but after today, they are standing alone. The Obama administration said it is withdrawing its support, and in fact, wants the court to drop the case.

Label this a victory for Earthjustice, its clients, and those thousands of citizens eating mercury-contaminated fish and forced to breathe in all the toxic fumes that the Bush administration would allow. Over eight years, that amounted to 700,000 pounds of mercury and other toxic stuff. We sued to stop this awful practice and won, but Bush's lawyers partnered up with the utilities and appealed to the Supreme Court so that it could continue.

Now, if the Court agrees, we can start breathing easier.

Obama has quickly switched from the bump to the boot. All week he's been kicking over Bush-era dominoes, and today's was a whopper. The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to review its 2007 refusal to let California regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The review affects 16 other states that also want to control emissions. It's a big deal that we've long been pushing for.

But, the biggest domino of all is still standing in the way of EPA really cracking down on greenhouse gases. We're talking about that shameful "Johnson memo" issued by the Bush-EPA administrator of the same name just before Obama took office. The memo told EPA employees to ignore CO2 - the single largest contributor to global warming. Without saying it, the memo also said: Ignore a Supreme Court ruling that authorizes EPA to control CO2.

What an irresistible target for a bump from Obama's boot.

In those cold days of last December -- as Bush feverishly tried to finish crippling the nation's environmental protections -- the new day promised by Obama seemed only a flicker at the end of an 8-year tunnel.

After today's news out of Utah, that flicker is looking more like a flare. Interior Sec. Ken Salazar announced the cancellation of oil and gas leases on 110,000 acres of public land abutting some of the West's purest wilderness. Aside from validating Earthjustice legal action challenging those leases, the cancellation could be interpreted as the first sign of Obama turning back the Bush tide.

Contradictory actions by the coal industry this week illustrate how treacherous the road is to a clean energy future for America.

On Tuesday, to our delight, developers of the proposed Highwood coal-fired power plant in Montana surrendered and announced that they would instead build natural gas and wind-powered generating plants. The credit for this should go to Earthjustice attorneys Abigail Dillen and Jenny Harbine, whose two years of legal action against the plant obviously paid off.

Just a few weeks ago, I stood with my two young sons in the Southern Sierra, gazing at the fortress walls of the Great Western Divide and marveling at how peaceful it seemed compared to 30 years before.

Those decades ago, I had come to this same spot as a newspaper reporter to write about the early struggles of the environmental movement - struggles that saved Mineral King from development, halted clearcutting on the national forest, created the Golden Trout Wilderness, and gave birth to Earthjustice.

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