Washington D.C.--George Fallon helped environmental regulation become a reality, according to Denis Hayes.

Fallon was a powerful congressional representative from Maryland and head of the Public Works Committee, otherwise known as the Pork Committee, in the late 60s, said Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day and is now the honorary chair of the Earth Day Network, during a dinner speech at the Creating Climate Wealth conference taking place this week in Washington D.C. Fallon also hated environmental regulation.

Following the rousing success of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Hayes and others drew up a list called "The Dirty Dozen" which identified the most anti-environment representatives. But the list was actually tweaked slightly. It didn't list the absolutely most hostile representatives to environmentalism. It listed the twelve most hostile in the districts that could be considered toss-ups for the 1970 election -- and furthermore, the districts that seemed to have the strongest pro-environment leanings.

The idea was to show that the then-nascent environmentalism movement could play a factor in determining the results. Unlike other protest movements of the era, environmentalism drew its support from the middle class, not just students, so on paper, the strategy made sense, although success was far from certain.

Fallon lost in a stunner to a then-unknown Paul Sarbanes. Six others on the list went down to defeat, too.

"If George Fallon could be defeated, anyone could be defeated," became the fear in Washington, Hayes noted. Soon after, President Nixon proposed the EPA. The measure passed 100-0 in the Senate and got through on a voice vote in congress. The Clear Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and other key pieces of legislation followed. (Side note: the first Earth Day only cost $125,000 to organize.)

Now, the U.S. needs a similar jump-start, according to Hayes. The U.S. led in the technological development of solar panels, alternative fuels, energy efficiency and even wind in the 70s. There was more excitement around energy than computing.

But then the momentum tapered off in the 80s. "We are now coming from behind," he said.

The "falling behind" theme was echoed by Gary Locke, the Secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, who also spoke.

"China is spending $9 billion a month on the energy sector," he said. "How is it that Shanghai or Berlin might become the Silicon Valley of clean energy? It is an illusion that what once was will always be."

Locke further added that many of the complaints about the high cost of alternative energy are flat-out wrong.

In the 80s, critics of acid rain legislation predicted that scrubbers and other technology to eliminate sulfur emissions would cost $50 billion a year and lead to "sky-high utility bills," he said. In reality, remediation cost less than 5 percent of the industry estimates, and utility bills declined over a 15-year period in real dollars.

Under energy efficiency regulations, refrigerators have become 10 percent bigger, consume two-thirds less energy than their early 70s counterparts, and cost half as much in real dollars.

"When you get the incentives right, the private sector responds," he said.

Fossil fuel industries, he added, have received billions in subsidies that mask their actual costs.