New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also happens to be the 10th richest person in America, with a personal fortune of some $18 billion, likes to pick a fight — especially fights where the line between good and evil is particularly stark. In his decade or so as a public figure, he has taken on the gun lobby, the tobacco industry and opponents of gay marriage. Today, he took on his most formidable opponent yet: Big Coal.
This morning, in the sweltering heat, Bloomberg stood on a boat in the Potomac river near the Alexandria coal plant in Virginia — a 60-year-old beast without modern pollution controls — and pledged to help put Big Coal out of business. “If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal, ” Bloomberg said. “Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source the impact on our environment and the impact on public health is significant. Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to the water we drink and the leading cause of climate disruption. ”
To hasten the end of coal, Bloomberg announced that his philanthropic foundation is giving $50 million over the next four years to help the Sierra Club expand it’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. It’s a serious chunk of change, and one that will allow the Sierra Club to expand its anti-coal campaign from 15 states to 45. “Our goal,” says Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, “is to use this money to retire one-third of the coal plants in operation America today.”
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which began in 2003, has been one of the few bright spots in environmental activism in recent years. Headed by a shrewd Washington DC lawyer named Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club’s campaign distanced itself from beltway politics and went after Big Coal at the ground level, helping to organize local opposition to new coal plants that were proposed around the country and using every legal means at their command to derail the necessary permits. The result: 153 new coal plants stopped in their tracks.
“Now we’re shifting our strategy,” says Nilles. “We’ve stopped all the new plants. Now we want to start shutting down plants that are already operating.” Working with other environmental groups and local citizens, Nilles says that, since January 2010, 93 coal plants have already been locked into retirement. Now, with the help of Bloomberg’s $50 million, they want to accelerate the pace. “Our goal is to put Big Coal out of business,” says Nilles.
For Bloomberg, joining up with the Sierra Club to shut down coal plants is hardly a surprise move. Bloomberg may be the greenest billionaire on the planet — certainly the greenest with any political stature or capitalist street cred. During his term as mayor, he has pushed hard for tougher building efficiency standards, forced out dirty heating oil from the city, converted 40 percent of the taxi fleet to hybrids, and planted a half-million trees. Also, Bloomberg has a history of pushing hard on public health issues — it took cajones, after all, to ban smoking in New York City bars and restaurants. And coal, which kills 13,000 people a year from air pollution, is flattening the mountains of Appalachia, poisoning lakes and streams with mercury — not to mention cooking the planet with carbon pollution — is the mother of all public health issues.
Taking on Big Coal also gives Bloomberg the chance to play outside the sandbox. Bloomberg is famously impatient with beltway politics and believes that to get anything done you need to work from the ground up. Funding local activists to launch a guerilla war to replace coal plants with clean energy is exactly his style. As Rohit Aggarwala, the environmental program lead at Bloomberg Philanthrophies, puts it: “The fact that Washington is broken can’t stop the United States from moving into the future.”
Bloomberg’s $50 million is not going to revolutionize the electric power industry. But his willingness to fight is already inspiring others to see Big Coal differently. “He’s a rich guy, and he likes to take on bad guys — he took on tobacco, he took on gun lobby,” says the head of one environmental group. “Coal is an awesome villian.”