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Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and the Coal Rush That Wasn’t

Originally posted at Ecocentric.

As a new mom, Mary Ann Hitt knows that “this fight is the single biggest thing” she can do to protect her daughter’s future.

The fight? To foil plans–conceived about a decade ago–for a new “coal rush” that would have put 150 new coal-fired power plants into operation.

“People said we were crazy to take on one of the most powerful special interests in the country,” says Mary Ann, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “But we decided to launch a campaign that would move the conversation out of backrooms in Washington and challenge every one of these new coal plants, doing what the Sierra Club does best — grassroots community organizing, powerful communications, and litigation.”

The campaign started as a three-person effort in 2002 and has since developed into a powerful and highly effective campaign: “A force to be reckoned with,” says Mary Ann.

To date, the campaign has played a key role in stopping the construction of 153 proposed coal plants that would have emitted roughly the same amount of carbon pollution as 36 million passenger vehicles, as well as other toxic pollutants that have been linked to birth defects, developmental problems in babies and young children, asthma and heart disease. Threats to the environment and public health are also associated with each step in the life cycle of coal, from cradle (e.g. mining) to grave (e.g. coal ash waste).

The campaign has garnered interest and praise from Michael Bloomberg (known in some circles as the Mayor of New York City). In July, Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has made climate change a key issue, committed $50 million over four years to the Beyond Coal campaign.

“The Beyond Coal Campaign has had great success in stopping more than 150 new coal-fired power plants over the past few years, and is empowering local communities to lead from the front while Congress continues to watch from the back,” says Bloomberg. “That is why I’m pleased to support the Sierra Club and its allies, and I encourage others to do the same.”

“If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal,” states Bloomberg. “Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source the impact on our environment and the impact on public health [is] significant.”

Sierra Club has brought the coal rush to a halt.  But they’re not finished yet: Mary Ann explains, “Now we’re turning our efforts to making sure that the existing fleet of outdated coal plants gets cleaned up or phased out — and is replaced by solar and wind energy that’s ready to fill our energy needs, create new jobs, and jump-start the green economy.”

The partnership between Sierra Club and Bloomberg Philanthropies will be crucial to helping the Sierra Club achieve their big picture goals of:

  • Cutting coal production by 30% by 2020;
  • Reducing mercury pollution by 90% by 2020; and
  • Replacing a majority of coal-fired power with clean energy.

Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s Executive Director, refers to the partnership with Bloomberg as a “game changer” in the battle against coal that will help his organization work with communities across the nation “as they tell one coal plant after another that inflicting asthma and other diseases on their children is unacceptable.”

“We can’t do it alone,” says Mary Ann.  “The chance to move our nation beyond coal and toward clean energy is in our hands.”

Author’s note:

Beyond Coal Campaign successes to date include:

  • Stopping 153 new coal-fired power plants from being built, preserving market space for clean energy.
  • Pushing existing plants closer to retirement. Nearly 10% of the current coal fleet is now slated for retirement.
  • Slowing the issuance of new mountaintop removal mining permits to a trickle.
  • Achieving victories at 16 colleges and universities, where Sierra Student Coalition members have won fights to shut down coal plants on their campuses.
  • Mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in support of strong clean air and water protections.
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