Sierra Club targets half of US coal-fired plants

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The Sierra Club set a new, ambitious goal Wednesday to close half of the country’s coal-fired power plants by 2017.

The target, based on a starting point in 2010 when there were 523 such plants, goes beyond the group’s initial goal to close a third of them by 2020.

Sierra Club leaders announced the goal at the same time they accepted $30 million from media mogul Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic operation for their Beyond Coal campaign. More than a dozen donors pledged to match Bloomberg's contribution, doubling it to $60 million.

“That will help move America to cleaner energy sources faster and help millions of lives be longer and healthier,” Bloomberg said at a rally at the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Washington.

“Beyond Coal is taking our country in the right direction,” Bloomberg said. “It’s the direct that will help our country, not hurt it, because the price of pollution and environmental damage is suffered in our economy as well as in our lives.”

Since the campaign launched in 2011, 187 coal-fired power plants have shut down, and the Sierra Club took credit.

“It’s because of you that we have knit together a movement of Americans for clean air, clean water, clean energy that is ringing from coast to coast,” Michael Brune, the group’s executive director, told staffers.

Bloomberg Philanthropies gave $50 million to the project at its 2011 launch, so its total contribution is now $80 million. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, said the coal plant shutdowns have been the largest contributor to the United States’s greenhouse gas reductions, and have had large positive effects on health as well.

“Almost 6,000 fewer Americans will die prematurely this year,” he said, adding that thousands of heart attacks and asthma attacks will also be avoided because of the reduction in pollution from coal.

Coal currently accounts for about 39 percent of the country’s electricity needs, the most of any source.

“We are in the middle of a transformation,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Beyond Coal campaign. “This energy transformation was not made possible by Washington or Wall Street. It happened on Main Street, thanks to regular people fighting in their backyards for the safety of their families and the future of the communities.”

While the Sierra Club took credit for the shutdowns, Obama administration policies have had a significant effect. The 2011 toxic air pollution rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could cause 24 percent of the nation’s coal fleet to shut down in the coming years, according to the Energy Information Administration, and upcoming limits on carbon dioxide emissions are likely to do more damage.

The coal industry quickly criticized Bloomberg and the Sierra Club.

“Instead of trying to make headlines, environmentalists could be partnering with industry to make headway in providing cleaner, reliable energy to Americans across the country and around the world,” Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement.

“Sierra Club’s effort is purely a political campaign that ignores the energy realities and needs of our nation."