The annual State of the Union Address is a time for taking stock.  Tonight President Obama will assess our nation's progress on a range of urgent issues of urgent issues, but today I want to look closely at one critical indicator of America's well being: the health of our environment.

Is America's air getting safer to breathe than it was a year ago? Are we building the wind farms and solar plants that put Americans to work and curb pollution at the same time? Do we have a plan to encourage fuel efficient technologies that allow cars to go farther on a tank of gas?

Looking ahead, the question becomes: will our leaders seize opportunities to protect our families from polluters and build a cleaner energy system for America?

The choices they make in the coming months will have major implications for the health of our air, water, and lands. If some Tea-Party driven GOP lawmakers had had their way, 2011 would have been one of record rollbacks of environmental protections. America’s leaders must decide if they want to return our nation to darker, dirtier days or move us into a cleaner, healthier future.

The Worst Attack on the Environment in Decades

Since President Obama delivered his last State of the Union Address, the Republican-led House has unleashed a relentless attack on the standards that keep our air safe, our water clean, and our landscapes vital. GOP lawmakers forced votes on as many as 190 anti-environment initiatives since last January.

They have taken aim at everything from pollution standards that protect Americans from asthma attacks to programs that help communities treat sewage before releasing it into our waterways. They have voted against protections for endangered species and restoration for Florida waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. And they have stuffed must-pass budget and tax bills with policy riders that have absolutely nothing to do with saving taxpayer money but everything to do with their war on government safeguards.

They have even blocked enforcement of a light bulb efficiency standard that will save consumers $10 million a year and that Congress and President Bush supported just four years ago. This country has never seen such a single-minded assault on environmental protections. The Senate blocked the most destructive GOP House measures, but the constant need to defend bedrock laws-in addition to the gridlock in Congress-made it impossible to pass forward-looking legislation that would make America a safer, healthier, and more prosperous nation.

President Obama Makes Progress and Allows a Few Setbacks

In a number of instances, the Obama Administration made dramatic progress by using its authority to help move our country into the future. In July, President Obama proposed raising the average fuel efficiency standard for new cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That alone will save drivers more than $80 billion a year at the pump and cut our annual oil use by more than the amount we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010. Last week, the president rejected the Keystone XL pipeline because dirty tar sands oil has no place in a cleaner, more innovative energy system—especially when Americans would get AT MOST just a few hundred permanent jobs and Asia would receive the bulk of the oil from the pipeline.

The administration stood up for the health American families when it established the first-ever national standards to limit mercury and other air toxins from power plants—an historic achievement that will help protect children from developmental delays and asthma. These standards built on the administration’s move to reduce smog and soot from cross-state power plants and factories.

The administration also has proposed a visionary national oceans policy, acted to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining and supported clean energy investments as record levels.

Yet it also ceded ground to polluters. Its decisions to expand offshore drilling and postpone smog standards, for instance, will benefit dirty industries and make it harder for Americans to protect our health and resources. So our work goes on.

Opportunity to Promote Prosperity: Expand the Clean Energy Economy

The coming year will be filled with campaign-fueled debates about jobs and the recession. Clean energy can deliver what both parties are looking for: greater prosperity and market growth.

Let's abandon once and for all the false choice of pitting economic progress and environmental protection. The two actually go hand-in-hand.

Smart standards protect our health and put Americans to work at the same time. Reducing tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, for instance, employs about 65,000 Americans and the industry generates annual domestic sales of $26 billion. Building and generating pollution-free power from wind and solar employs nearly 200,000 Americans right now, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

America already has a robust clean energy economy, but the rate of growth will be greater if our leaders encourage clean energy policies-things like a clean energy standard to expand how much power we generate from wind and solar and more energy efficiency standards that save consumers money and reduce pollution.

Opportunity to Protect Americans' Health and Resources: Preserve Safeguards

The economy is rightly a top priority for Americans. So is the health of our families, and we will continue to defend the vital public health standards that stand between us and dangerous pollution. As President Obama said in a speech earlier this month at the Environmental Protection Agency:

'We don't have to choose between dirty air and dirty water, or a growing economy. We can make sure that we are doing right by our environment and, in fact, putting people back to work all across America. That's part of our mission. When we put in place new common sense rules to reduce air pollution, we create new jobs building and installing all sorts of pollution-control technology."

That's precisely why the administration must move forward with efforts to strengthen key standards. That includes issuing limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants and developing measures to ensure that the largely unregulated practice of fracking does not contaminate drinking water or do other damage to nearby communities.

The administration needs to complete its initiative to ensure that the headwater streams and wetlands that feed the drinking water supplies of over 117 million Americans are better protected from pollution and that people who use our waterways and swim at our beaches are protected from raw sewage overflows and dirty stormwater runoff.

America's water, air, and landscapes are shared resources and we have a shared responsibility to preserve them for future generations. Tonight we will look to how the president plans to help achieve that.

Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC, New York City