Environmentalists are taking the fight over coal beyond Capitol Hill and onto college campuses.
The Sierra Club is targeting coal-fired power plants located at 60 college campuses. Setting its sights initially on 22 schools, the group is recruiting student activists to gather signatures on petitions, ask faculty members to endorse their cause, organize rallies outside administration buildings and lobby school leaders. There are more aggressive messages, as well, like students dumping coal on the administration doorsteps.
The group today unveiled a cheeky Web video to draw attention to its mission. It shows a young man and woman atop a bunk bed, with the man handcuffed to the bed and gagged with a necktie. The word "dirty" pops up. The camera pans below to another man in bed with a pile of coal that he then kisses. The words "too dirty" appear. "Coal is too dirty," it says. "Even for college." The video will run on youtube.com and hulu.com, with the goal of getting students to spread them via social networking sites.
The campaign believes it can use college campuses as an incubator for solutions to replace coal, and also to drive action beyond the campuses.
"Students, once they learn, they take action in their community," said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's national coal campaign. "That can have a ripple effect out in the larger community. They obviously are a very important constituency for a lot of reasons. They care about global warming and want to do something about it. That translates into broader social awareness and responsibility."
But the Sierra Club and its Sierra Student Coalition go up against the financial and political power of coal. The campus effort comes after coal's biggest lobbying group, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, spent the summer sending activists to 264 cities in eight states, where they attended community events and visited college campuses. ACCCE calls the campaign "America's Power."
"Reaching out to college students was an important part of our outreach," said Lisa Camooso Miller, ACCCE spokeswoman. "We visited 43 campuses in eight states. We visited most campuses multiple times."
"For every one student protesting, there is another working in a lab to develop clean coal technology," Miller added.
Targeting coal country
The Sierra Club activists have a big goal, seeking to eliminate coal entirely. In some cases, they're aiming their student weapons at the heart of coal country.
Activists are rallying students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., a campus that sits not far from coal mines and in the congressional district of Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher, one of coal's staunchest defenders.
In the House's bill funding the Energy Department and water projects, Boucher obtained $500,000 in funding that would go to Virginia Tech for research and development of technologies to remove "impurities from coal including ash, sulfur and mercury," Boucher said in his letter seeking the money.
ACCCE's America's Power activists also have been to Virginia Tech recently, once this summer and once after school began, Miller said. Virginia Tech student Lyndsay McKeever, 20, who is part of the Sierra Club's effort, encountered those America's Power workers the first day of school as they sat at a table outside the main student center. The coal backers were handing out T-shirts, McKeever said, that had the words "clean coal" and references to its abundance and affordability.
Although they had a cordial conversation, McKeever said, "I was a little bit angry that they would be on our campus."
Virginia Tech is among 11 schools that also are getting help from U.S. PIRG's Green Corps, which is training the students in environmental activism. A kickoff meeting at Virginia Tech the last week in September brought out 63 people. The campus has 28,000 students.
The school, with its engineering expertise, can help develop solutions, said Haiz Oppenheimer, a Green Corps field organizer working at Virginia Tech.
"What we're looking for from the university is to recognize and openly acknowledge the cost of coal," including the environmental ones, Oppenheimer said, and "commit the resources" to finding alternatives.
The power plant adjacent to Virginia Tech uses steam to heat and cool the campus, said Mark Owczarski, the university's director of news and information. The school receives electricity from the larger power grid.
"It's been with the university for a long time," Owczarski said of the power plant. "That is the most cost-effective and efficient way for us to heat and cool. While Virginia Tech is working very hard to really address environmental issues and our carbon footprint, it's an issue that's going to require a long-term solution."
Virginia Tech has a long-term sustainability plan for the 250-acre campus, he said. "It's very, very hard to take one part out of the whole equation and 'This has got to go' or 'This has got to stay,'" Owczarski said. "I wish it were that easy."
For student McKeever, there is no alternative except to find a way to stop using coal. She joined the Sierra Student Coalition after doing an internship this summer at the Sierra Club's Richmond, Va., office. An environmental policy and planning major, she said she became active after learning more about mountaintop removal mining.
"I had no idea when I turned on a light switch" that a mountaintop had been blown up in the past to help make that power, McKeever said. "It really just devastated me."
Other schools where Sierra Club is working: Indiana University, Bloomington; State University of New York, Binghamton; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Colorado, Boulder; Ohio University; Pennsylvania State University; University of Missouri, Columbia; University of Southern California; University of North Dakota; University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Ore.; Susquehanna University, Pa.; University of Iowa; University of Georgia; Indiana University of Pennsylvania; University of Pittsburgh; Slippery Rock University, Pa.; University of Washington; Portland State University; Oregon State University; and Washington University, St. Louis.
The Sierra Club campaign has no real solutions, ACCCE's Miller said.
"Sierra Club is calling for the elimination of coal-fired plants on college campuses, but not making any recommendations for what would go in its place," Miller said. "Coal continues to be the low-cost, reliable source of energy in this country, and it's getting cleaner every day. Can you imagine the outrage when tuition starts to rise because colleges choose to switch to higher-cost sources of energy rather than improving on their existing sources of energy?"
The cost argument is a false one, said Oppenheimer with Green Corps.
"Coal is the No. 1 cause of global warming," Oppenheimer said. "How cheap is it if we decimate our global economy," make it difficult to grow food and create refugees from parts of the world hardest hit?
"Coal can only be seen as cheap if you refuse to account for its true costs," Oppenheimer added.
In some cases, the Sierra Club said, there are ready alternatives. Power conservation also cuts the need for some coal, said Kim Teplitzky, Sierra Club's national coal campaign coordinator. Schools like Harvard University and Oregon State have created revolving loan funds, and money saved on power bills through conservation goes into those funds to go toward either additions of renewable power sources or increased conservation efforts.
There are small successes at some schools, she said.
The power plant at SUNY Binghamton uses mostly coal, some natural gas and some biomass in the form of wood chips, said Lucy Midelfort, Green Corps organizer at that school. Student activists are asking school officials to make the wood chips a bigger proportion of the fuel, Midelfort said.
During a test in the summer, the plant burned only wood chips in the smallest boiler in the heating plant.
Engineering students at Virginia Tech proposed using a wood-burning turbine at that school, as well, Virginia Tech student McKeever said.
But wood biomass can't be a permanent solution, said Ryan Yarosh, SUNY Binghamton's assistant director of media relations.
"The amount of heat generated from this small boiler with 100 percent wood fuel can adequately supply our summer load but is insufficient for the winter demand," Yarosh said. "For our winter heating, it is necessary for us to supplement with other fuels. Considering the fact that New York state is in a seeming insurmountable budget deficit, it would not be prudent for the university to choose a more costly fuel [like] natural gas, when we have the capability to utilize cheaper fuels to meet our heating demand.
"We are also cognizant of potential environmental consequences of over-demand on biomass fuels," Yarosh said, "With more and more companies and institutions starting to burn wood to offset other fossil fuel usage, there will eventually be a shortage in wood fuel supply."
Renewables push at SUNY Binghamton
SUNY Binghamton is looking at ways to incorporate other renewable resources in its energy mix, Yarosh said, "to gradually remove all fossil fuel usage from the campus. All these efforts will require time and financial supports but we have full confidence of achieving our commitment as long as we keep moving in the right direction."
"The university is keenly aware of the effect of coal burning on environment and we are taking steps to make changes," Yarosh said.
Activists at SUNY Binghamton are optimistic, given that the school has a greening effort under way, Midelfort said. There are currently about 100 members of the Sierra Student Coalition at that school, and 2,000 have signed a petition. The student body is about 16,000.
Students met Oct. 2 with two school officials, Midelfort said, and "they were glad we had come in to talk with them." The activists are asking university administration to commit to coming up with a plan to eliminate coal from the university power plant "as soon as possible," Midelfort said.
"It seems like they're moving in the right direction," Midelfort said. "We're just asking them to move a little faster."