New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced Thursday that he will donate $50 million to the Sierra Club to support its nationwide campaign to eliminate coal-fired power plants.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described the gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, to be spread over four years, as “a game-changer, from our perspective.” The group will devote the money to its Beyond Coal campaign, which has helped block the construction of 153 new coal-fired power plants across the country since 2002. The campaign will expand from 15 to 45 states, plus the District of Columbia.
Among current targets is the Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria, which was the backdrop for Thursday’s announcement. Bloomberg, Brune and Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) spoke on the deck of the restaurant cruise ship Nina’s Dandy, which floated several hundred yards away on the Potomac River. Moran said the plant “should have been shut down decades ago.”
Bloomberg’s announcement “has no effect on GenOn business,” said Misty Allen, director of external affairs for GenOn Energy, which owns the plant. “We’d like to remind everyone that on this, the hottest day of the year, with cities across the country setting up cooling spots that need power, it’s the Sierra Club’s goal to shut down all coal-fired plants,” Allen said, noting that coal-fired plants contribute to more than 40 percent of U.S. energy production.
Brune said in a phone interview that the group will use the money “to identify the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants, retire them and replace them with clean energy.” The 62-year-old Potomac plant is among the oldest of the country’s roughly 400 coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club said its goal is to retire about one-third of them by 2020.
As mayor of New York, Bloomberg (I) has pushed for environmentally friendly policies such as investing in renewable energy and making the city’s taxi fleet more efficient. But this is his largest financial contribution to an environmental effort, and the donation will swell the Sierra Club’s $80 million annual budget.
Bloomberg also tied the coal-burning issue to his work in public health, which includes bans on smoking in New York. He said he is now “joining another front for clean air” by contributing to the Sierra Club, and he plans to commit his time and energy to the campaign.
Scott Segal, a coal lobbyist, said in an e-mail that although it is up to the mayor’s foundation to determine which contributions make sense, “the mayor well knows that the key to New York’s success lies in access to affordable and reliable power.”
Asked about the city’s energy supply, Bloomberg was frank about the choices. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and others have pressed to close the nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant, but the mayor said city residents get more than 8 percent of their electricity from the facility and lack a ready substitute. “It’s just not practical to close it down at the moment,” he said.
With Bloomberg’s donation, the Sierra Club plans to expand its Beyond Coal staff from about 100 people to nearly 200 full-time employees. Most of them will engage in grass-roots organizing, but some will work on lawsuits or social networking.
The announcement underscores the extent to which environmentalists are focused on efforts beyond the Beltway, given the opposition in Congress to nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re putting our faith in local communities to protect public health and promote clean energy,” Brune said. “Congress has failed to do the job on that. We’re confident local communities can do the job where Congress hasn’t.”
The group has just launched an extensive billboard advertising campaign in Washington’s Metro system, with pictures of young children who are described as “filters” for power plant pollution. Ads are running on a smaller scale in Chicago and New York and in some U.S. airports.