In the world of conservation, we’re used to the mantra that our victories are temporary while our losses are for ever. I was surprised therefore to hear Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, talk about some permanent conservation wins.
He and I were guests at the Santa Monica Green Book Awards earlier this week. We’d been invited to have a conversation about the legacy of John Muir while others listened in. In his opening remarks, Michael discussed the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. It’s a great campaign — seeking to move the United States away from coal to renewable energy sources by the end of the next decade – skipping natural gas where possible. Visionary stuff. And they are making progress – largely because economics are on their side.
As he said, every coal plant that is closed is a permanent win. I agree, but I am less optimistic that it means the coal will just sit in the ground undisturbed forever. After all, forever is a long time. I believe history has shown us that we need groups like the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay to be vigilant against the next threat that the ingenuity of mankind concocts.
Take a small example here in Southern California. Heal the Bay secured a huge win when the state directed power plants in Southern California to move away from “once-through cooling” to a closed cycle system. That means less sea-water sucked in and less disruption of marine life. Roll the clock forward a few years and those very same locations are now the subject of a vigorous debate about desalination of seawater — not only would it suck in water, but it would leave brine, and use massive amounts of energy. We’re advocating that the state adopt strong policies to protect against this.
For me, the same goes for coal. Yes, it’s a win to close down a coal-fired power plant and open up a new wind farm. But I also know some ingenuous person will be thinking up new ways to make money off that coal, while the environment be damned. I’m confident that the Sierra Club and others will be ready to take that battle on should the time come. Right Michael?