28 June 2011

What We Need: Moderation, Innovation, and Entrepreneurial Solutions

On a late September morning I walked into the FOX Business studio in New York to sit down with host Stuart Varney and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman. We were talking about why environmentalists seemed to be increasingly disgruntled as 2010 was coming to a close.

"The environmentalists were disappointed they didn't get all they wanted," I told Varney. "They thought they had a mandate with the president and Congress lined up."

"It's about over-reach and over-expectation," Governor Whitman agreed. "They want the perfect, and if they can't have the perfect they don't want to settle for anything."

Varney turned to me and asked, "Just for the record, you are an environmentalist?"

"Yes, but I'm a practical environmentalist," I answered.

Later in the segment, I expressed my concern that the environment had become a "left issue," pointing out that many of the strides made in protecting the environment had come from the Republican side, including the EPA, and the Clean Air and Water Acts.

"The environment is a universal issue. We all live in the environment. We all care about it," I offered. "But right now, the rhetoric is about panic, it's about crisis, and I don't think the American people are going to respond to that."

Governor Whitman and I share the opinion that we need a more moderate approach on the environment. One that understands what needs to be done and is practical and pragmatic, and doesn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I left the studio and went over to the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, where I was attending the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual gathering of leaders from government, business, and civil society around the world.

The day before, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group was in conversation with José María Figueres, former president of Costa Rica. He talked about the need for putting aside the issue of climate change and about investing in clean energy innovation and entrepreneurs.

"Put the idea of whether global warming is real aside," said Sir Richard. "Recognize that we are depleting resources. Demand for oil in 5 years will exceed supply. Even in the recession, the demand for oil hardly dropped. Energy is critical for society, so the demand for clean energy will be enormous. We must invest in alternative fuels."

Innovative alternative fuels like that being developed by one of the start-ups I'd been working with in Philadelphia, BlackGold Biofuels.

Emily Landsburg, BlackGold's CEO, is using a patent-pending technology that turns sewer grease from a municipal pain into a profitable biodiesel product.

Last summer, in an effort to demonstrate how the technology works, BlackGold and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned a hunk of solid fat into biodiesel.

They melted an 800-pound butter sculpture of Ben Franklin that would otherwise go to waste, strained off the water, and added methanol. The chemical bonded to the end of the chains of fatty acids in the lard, which could then be refined into fuel suitable for most diesel engines.

With their first installation in place at a water treatment facility in San Francisco, BlackGold will generate fuel for that city’s bus fleet not from butter, but from sewage fats that now plague municipal systems.

The innovation won accolades from San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, who said the project "will break new ground toward accessible, sustainable energy and serve as a model for the entire state and the country."

Moderation, innovation, efficiency, and entrepreneurial solutions. That's what we need more of if we want to turn our economy around.

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