Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described the gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which will be spread out 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.
As mayor of New York, Bloomberg 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 significantly swell the Sierra Club’s $80 million annual budget.
The announcement, which Bloomberg and Brune will make together Thursday morning at the GenOn site, also underscores the extent to which environmentalists are focused on efforts beyond the Beltway, given the opposition in Congress to climate legislation. After the federal government failed to pass legislation imposing nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions, several environmental groups have shifted more resources to the state and local levels.
“We’re putting our faith in local communities to protect public heath 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.”
Coal industry officials, however, questioned whether the campaign to phase out coal plants was realistic given the fact that they now supply close to half of the nation’s electricity.
“If their program were successful, where does the Sierra Club suggest we get our energy?” asked Lisa Camooso Miller, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group. “Coal is American. It’s affordable. It adds to our quality of life.”
In some cases, the Sierra Club has joined with unusual allies in working to prevent new power plants, like in southwestern Arkansas, where the advocacy group and the Hempstead County Hunting Club are suing to block the construction of Southwestern Electric Power Co.’s $1.7 billion John W. Turk plant.
With Bloomberg’s donation, the Sierra Club plans to expand its “Beyond Coal” staff from about 100 people to nearly 200 full-time employees, which it will deploy in 46 states. Most of the staff will engage in grass-roots organizing, but some will work on lawsuits or social networking.
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.
Brune said the group had chosen to focus its most recent advertising campaign in Washington because when it comes to the future of electricity production, “What happens in the larger D.C. area is quite important.”