The man trying to rid the world of new coal plants is moving on to the next stage of his fossil-fuel battle.
Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's "Move Beyond Coal" campaign, recently moved to Washington, D.C., from Wisconsin, with an optimism that the Obama administration will make his job a lot easier. In his new perch a few blocks from the Capitol, the environmentalist plans to ramp up the group's goals beyond getting rid of power plants to targeting the entire coal infrastructure, including its financiers and transmission routes.
"In the last two years, we've really seen the country turn against coal, but it's unfinished business," said Nilles, sitting in his office behind a door where a black t-shirt hung, bearing the words "Coal is Filthy." He has been at the helm of the campaign since its genesis in 2006.
Nilles' entrance to Washington comes at a time when advocacy groups ranging from Rising Tide USA to the Powder River Basin Resource Council increasingly are organizing anti-coal protests and in some cases are watching their members get arrested. The Sierra Club, which does not engage in civil disobedience, is in a unique place because of its size to attack the industry from every regional nook and cranny, including through multi-court legal maneuvers.
That has been evident in places like Kansas, where the group filed lawsuits against plans by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build two coal plants in the state. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) later blocked the construction of the facilities, although the utility is saying it may make another attempt.
Nilles, who has a law degree, also has spearheaded company- and region-specific efforts that at the least have created headaches and bad press for the industry. The latest example is the new "Coal Free Zones" initiative in the Northwest, which aims not only to shut down a power plant near Portland, Ore., but to stop coal shipments into the region from Montana and elsewhere. Additionally, Nilles is preparing for a yet-to-be-announced initiative in Colorado.
With chapters in every state, the campaign's staffers have the ability to generate a multipronged assault through tactics such as phone calls to company headquarters, large protests with hovering television cameras, attendance at shareholder meetings and conversations with corporate CEOs.
The group also operates with a mathematical precision that includes distribution of Google maps and Internet lists of every proposed coal facility in the United States. An internal Sierra Club document, for example, breaks down 24 shelved or delayed projects in 2008 by financial quarter with their accompanying carbon dioxide reductions, cancellation dates, aborted megawatt capacities and "level of [Sierra Club] involvement" ratings.
Campaign balloons from 5 to 70
In the past several years, there have been some 80 coal-plant delays or shutdowns, with more than 40 happening in 2007 alone. The campaign employee roster has grown from five to 70 in just two years, according to Nilles.
Critics of the Sierra Club say that the closures have little to do with the environmental group, and that Nilles is claiming credit for shutdowns that would have happened anyway, either because of financial woes or because of looming concern among utilities about potential climate legislation.
"It's like taking credit for the sun rising," said Frank Maisano, an energy consultant who represents utilities and transportation companies. "Bruce Nilles is playing a political game."
Maisano said many companies already were looking to expand into renewables and were located in states with Democratic governors who were talking about the hazards of coal before Nilles came into the picture. A 2008 report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory attributed cancellations to regulatory uncertainty and "strained project economics."
Nilles counters that the chronology of the closings and legal rulings reveals a clear reaction to the Sierra Club's actions in many cases.
And many industry representatives acknowledge that the group is loud enough and big enough to have an impact, particularly since Sierra Club leaders like Jack Darin, head of the Illinois chapter, sat on Obama's energy and environment team during the transition. The campaign also has a growing number of associations helping it in state-to-state initiatives, including medical groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Adding legal 'paper jammers' to the protests on the ground
Activists willing to engage in civil disobedience, like 23-year-old Virginian Kim Kirkbride, said Sierra Club organizers on the ground have been extremely helpful in providing information and friendship, even if the organization is forbidden to participate in sit-ins and other illegal activities.
"What we do is completely complementary with them," said Kirkbride, an activist with Rising Tide North America, whose members have been arrested at coal protests. "If you look at history, the most successful campaigns had the paper jammers working the legal side [like the Sierra Club] and the people on the ground pushing the limit."
Coal's backers warn that if the Sierra Club's efforts work, they simply will lead to a shift toward fuels that are so expensive that already-struggling American taxpayers will suffer. Considering that coal currently fires 50 percent of U.S. electricity, there is no way to take it out of the mix, they say.
"The Sierra Club is going to be responsible for driving up American costs of energy," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, which represents many coal companies. "It's going to be on their head."
Nilles said he is not opposed to the idea of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a technology that envisions capturing greenhouse gases from a power stack and shooting them into deep underground aquifers. The Sierra Club did not oppose FutureGen, a government-sponsored project that would have constructed a near-zero emission coal plant, although it lists the plant on its "defeated" list for 2008.
Going after the banks
He does make the argument, however, that CCS technology will be so expensive that solar and wind automatically would leap to the forefront of cheap energy. It's a message that the campaign intends to send to federal lawmakers, along with urgings to slow down the export of coal from state to state and to countries like China. As part of the campaign's upcoming focus, Nilles and his team will make an attempt to shut down the coal plant powering the U.S. Capitol.
The group also plans to increasingly target banks providing financing to build the next generation of power plants. Nilles already is in early discussions with some of them, and is considering an expansion of protests started by the Rainforest Action Network against Citi and Bank of America, among others.
Asked about that, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, Britney Sheehan, said the company wasn't worried and added, "we respect everyone's right to free speech."
Despite the new areas of interest, Nilles said 90 percent of his work in 2009 will be on the operation's bread-and-butter tasks: blocking new coal plants and trying to shut down existing ones. Toward that end, he urged Obama to undo many actions of his predecessor, including tearing up a memo by outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson stating that the agency doesn't need to consider carbon dioxide emissions in issuing new power plant permits.
He said the new president would make a "180-degree" difference and expressed hope that bureaucrats would tighten multiple regulations on the coal industry, including those governing mountaintop removal and mining near streams. Yet even with the new president's stated intention of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, he said there was a limited time period for the EPA to step in and stop the permitting of at least 70 coal plants working their way through the pipeline.
"If those get built, Barack Obama simply won't be able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, no matter what else he does," Nilles said.