POLITICS

Bloomberg, Sierra Club Direct $60 Million To Closing Half Of U.S. Coal Plants By 2017

04/08/2015 04:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Sierra Club and Michael Bloomberg are upping the ante in their effort to close down coal-fired power plants, announcing on Wednesday another $60 million in funding for their anti-coal campaign.

The Sierra Club is also raising its target for coal plant closures, setting a goal to close half of all coal plants in the U.S. by 2017. The group’s previous goal, set in 2011, was to close a third of coal plants by 2020. So far, the organizers have claimed victory on 187 plants, all of which have closed or are slated for closure in the near future.

If successful, the Sierra Club wants to see 166,000 megawatts of coal-fired power shut down or slated for closure in the U.S. in the next two years. Coal plants are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists have found are causing climate change.

"Dirty, outdated, deadly coal is a thing of the past," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said at an event Wednesday announcing the new goal.

Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York whose philanthropy donated $50 million to Sierra Club's anti-coal work in 2011, announced another $30 million in support for the campaign on Wednesday. About a dozen additional donors such as the Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Grantham Foundation have pledged another $30 million to the effort.

“Coal's days are numbered," said Bloomberg. "It is an outdated technology. It is holding back our economy and hurting our health."

The group says its success has come through grassroots efforts in communities across the country to retire older, polluting power plants. Sierra Club organizers have claimed victories in places like Nebraska, where the Omaha Public Power District announced last year that it will retire three coal units by 2016.

"This energy transformation was not made possible by Washington or Wall Street," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "It happened on Main Street, thanks to regular people fighting in their backyards for the future of their communities."

Their efforts have had a boost from Washington in recent years, however, as the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled out draft rules on greenhouse gas emissions and ozone pollution, as well as rules on mercury and other air toxins that will likely speed the shutdown of additional coal-fired units across the country. The EPA's draft rules on both new power plants and existing power plants have yet to be finalized.

"Each step that EPA has taken to update their safeguards on health, whether it's mercury , soot, smog, coal ash -- each one has helped make it really clear that investing in clean energy is a better bet than coal, for utilities as well as rate payers," said Brune.

Brune added that the declining prices for wind and solar have also helped their case. Of the plants that have already closed, three-quarters of the power will be replaced with renewable energy or efficiency measures, he said. The other quarter has been replaced with natural-gas fired units -- a power source that the group has also opposed.

"Our goal overall is to move beyond coal and gas and get to 100 percent clean energy," said Brune. "We think it's possible to have zero carbon in the energy sector by 2030, which means no coal and no gas."

The coal industry isn't a big fan of the Bloomberg-Sierra Club effort, as might be expected. “Instead of trying to make headlines, environmentalists could be partnering with industry to make headway in providing cleaner, reliable energy to Americans across the country and around the world," said Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents coal interests, in a statement. "Sierra Club's effort is purely a political campaign that ignores the energy realities and needs of our nation."

Bloomberg pushed back on the notion that their effort was eliminating jobs in the coal industry, which he said have also fallen victim to mechanization and to low natural gas prices. "Saying we’re destroying the coal industry isn’t as true as people would want you to believe,” he said. Instead, he pointed to growth in the number of jobs in solar and other renewable energy.

"We should be making investments in helping find jobs and careers in industries that will continue growing," he said.

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