Exxon's First Prick of Conscience?

October 20, 2014

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has been on a roll lately to the tune of $50 billion, but one of its biggest successes happened last month: The world's most profitable oil company squirmed. Exxon Mobil's vice president of public and government affairs published a critique of divestment that concluded by saying that destroying our planet's climate by recklessly extracting and burning fossil fuel reserves is necessary to relieve global poverty.

This sudden concern is interesting from a company that holds the record for the highest corporate profits ever posted in the U.S. and whose CEO made more than $100,000 a day in 2012 (including Sundays). Exxon Mobil hasn't earned those kinds of profits by worrying overmuch about the poor of the world. As the Sierra Student Coalition's Anastasia Schemkes put it: "This is the oil industry saying 'please don't be mean to me' after bullying vulnerable communities around the globe for decades."

The real message of Exxon Mobil's blog post was unintentional. The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started on college campuses but has since spread to foundation boardrooms and beyond, is achieving its principal goal, which is to raise awareness of how morally indefensible the actions of companies like Exxon Mobil really are. I'm not just talking about its core business of extracting as much oil as it can, wherever it can, while it can. This is a company that pretends to care about climate disruption (with lots of talk about "mitigation," which is code for "do whatever it takes to keep burning fossil fuels"), while simultaneously funding the climate-denial industry and lavishing its largesse on obstructionist legislators.

How can we begin to get companies like this to change? It's tough to beat such a Goliath through financial pressure alone. Even the most wildly successful divestment campaign is unlikely to dent this mega-corporation's profits in the near term. But let's not forget that even the hugest corporation is made up of real people. And real people start to get uncomfortable when it's clear that not only is what they are doing terribly wrong -- but that other people are taking note.

That's when they start to get defensive -- and we can see that divestment really is making a difference.

The San Gabriels: Obama's Lucky Thirteenth

October 13, 2014

California may be famous for its beaches, but what really defines the state's geography are its many mountain ranges (and I'm not just saying that because the Sierra Club took its name from one of them). Last Friday, President Obama permanently protected one of those mountain ranges -- the San Gabriels that bound Los Angeles to the north and east -- by designating almost 350,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest as our newest national monument.

At a time when the U.S. Congress has all but abdicated responsibility for protecting public lands, designations like this one are crucial to protecting treasured landscapes before it's too late. Although it's his thirteenth monument designation, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is only President Obama's third designation of an extensive natural landscape. The previous two were Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments, both in New Mexico. (At 490,000 square miles, last week's much-needed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is by far Obama's biggest designation, but you can't really call it a landscape.)

But the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument stands out for another reason: These magnificent mountains rise above one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the United States (and the second most populous). That means they can provide much-needed natural open space and outdoor recreation opportunities for Angelenos and other Southern Californians. The Sierra Club was founded on the principle that people can benefit from getting closer to nature. Sometimes, that means bringing nature closer to the people -- in this case, at least 15 million people, who live less than 90 minutes away.

Although the Antiquities Act has given presidents the authority to make national monument declarations since 1906, the real power to save landscapes like the San Gabriels comes not from the White House but from locally based grassroots campaigns. In this case, San Gabriel Mountains Forever (a coalition that includes the Sierra Club) devoted years to building community support, including public meetings, thousands of public comments, letters, and postcards. Last week, all that work paid off.

But our work isn't finished yet. We still have important, critically endangered public lands, such as the Grand Canyon Watershed and Greater Canyonlands that deserve permanent protection, and those of us who love wild places won't rest until that happens. Today, though, let's take a moment to congratulate the people of Los Angeles on their brand new national monument and thank President Obama for making it official.

Why Lisa Cried When Eric Dumped ALEC

October 07, 2014

Exactly 54 days after Lisa B. Nelson, the new CEO of the American Legislative Council (ALEC), started her job, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, dropped the bomb: Google wanted out of its relationship with ALEC. "That was some sort of mistake," Schmidt said on The Diane Rehm Show when a caller asked why Google was supporting the organization. "We're trying to not do that in the future."

"It's like breaking up via text with your girlfriend when you're 16," said Nelson, presumably before throwing out the mixtapes and Google hoodie Eric gave her and unfriending him on Facebook. Wait a minute, she couldn't do that, because Facebook is also leaving ALEC. Well, then maybe she could post a picture of her trashed hoodie and mixtapes to Yahoo's Flickr site? Nope, Yahoo's ditching ALEC, too.

How about leaving mean reviews of Google, Flickr, and Yahoo on Yelp? Sorry, Yelp already gave ALEC the thumbs down. And before she opens Outlook to send some "actually-I'm the-one-who-broke-up-with-YOU" emails, she might recall that even Microsoft has Ctrl-Z'd its relationship with ALEC.

Any way you look at it, Lisa B. Nelson's first 60 days on the job were, as they say, character building. But, really, she shouldn't take it personally. It's not her -- it's ALEC.

What is it about ALEC that has given so many Big Tech firms cold feet? For that matter, what is ALEC, exactly? It calls itself a nonpartisan organization that focuses on the principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism. Not quite. The New York Times, reporting on Google's defection, described ALEC as "a conservative-leaning group that has urged repeal of state renewable power standards and other pro-renewable policies." And the Times was being kind.

ALEC is actually one of the most brazen attempts to steal our democracy that corporate interests have yet conceived. The "council" is composed of representatives from corporations, along with state legislators. Corporations like Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries pay fees along with other generous financial contributions. The legislators pay nominal dues but are forced to bring their families on all-expenses-paid vacations, where they mingle with their corporate benefactors and receive "model" bills (written by the corporations for the corporations). The rested-and-relaxed lawmakers can then take these Stepford bills home and introduce them in their state houses. The only way to make this easier would be to cut out the middleman and just let the corporations pass the laws themselves.

Because this all happens at the state level, it tends to fly under the national radar. It's also aimed dead at the heart of our absolutely critical local campaigns to develop clean energy and combat climate change.

ALEC exists solely to do the will of the corporations that bankroll it, which is how technology firms got seduced into supporting it in the first place. They hoped ALEC could help them with issues aligned with their own values, such as an open Internet.

What changed? The Climate Movement, which reared its head and roared on September 21 around the world, has made it a lot harder for some companies to keep turning a blind eye to the harm that ALEC does by undermining clean energy and funding climate denial.

Eric Schmidt was blunt: ALEC is "literally lying" about the reality of climate change, he said. "[They] are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people." I can see how that would be a problem for a company whose official corporate motto is still "Don't be evil."

"Our citizens keep marching," said President Obama at the UN Climate Summit last month, one day after hundreds of thousands around the world mobilized to demand climate action. "We cannot pretend we do not hear them."

That is the strength of a movement like this one. It blazes a light that makes it impossible to miss the difference between what is good and what is evil. And here's how strong we have grown: Last week, Occidental Petroleum -- an oil company! -- announced it was leaving ALEC rather than be associated with its positions on climate change and EPA regulations. Other tech (and non-tech) companies that have severed ties with ALEC include Amazon, General Electric, Apple, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Bank of America, and Proctor & Gamble. Many of these companies left a few years ago after Color of Change and other grassroots organizations called out ALEC for its support of voter-suppression and "stand your ground" laws around the country.

Unfortunately, ALEC still has plenty of corporate funders who are willing to ignore the difference between what's good and what's evil. Perhaps Lisa Nelson shouldn't have been so quick to toss that Google hoodie -- she could have sold it on eBay!

That's right: eBay is still supporting an organization that Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yelp, Yahoo, and Facebook have all unfriended.  

Send a message to CEO John Donahoe today and tell him that it's about time eBay, too, opened its eyes and saw the light.

Tigers Don't Want Their Forests Liquidated

October 02, 2014

You shouldn't have to worry that installing a new hardwood floor in your kitchen will rob Siberian tigers of their home. Since 1900, we've had a law in this country, the Lacey Act, that prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. And since 2008, that law has also prohibited the importation of illegally sourced wood products. The problem is real: According to a report from the United Nations and Interpol, between 15 and 30 percent of the wood traded in the world comes from illegal logging.

That deforestation not only threatens endangered species (like the world's last 450 wild Siberian tigers), it's also a leading driver of climate disruption. According to that same report, 17 percent of all carbon pollution worldwide is caused by deforestation.

A law like the Lacey Act is only truly effective, though, if companies know that it will be enforced and that they will be held accountable. Although some companies have taken steps to ensure that their wood products are sourced legally, others may succumb to the temptation of easy profits if they think they can get away with it.

In 2013, after a multi-year undercover investigation, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published a detailed report, "Liquidating the Forests," that described illegal logging in the Russian Far East, home to the last 450 Siberian tigers in the wild. EIA's investigation alleged that Lumber Liquidators, the top-selling flooring retailer in the U.S., knowingly bought millions of square feet of oak flooring from Russia that had been illegally harvested and laundered.

One year ago, federal agencies launched an investigation. Currently, several government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture are determining whether Lumber Liquidators violated the Lacey Act.

This week, a broad coalition of environmental, science, and labor groups called on the Obama administration to enforce the law and hold Lumber Liquidators accountable. This coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rainforest Action Network, and the United Steelworkers, knows that reducing illegal logging around the world will not only keep carbon pollution out of the air but will also protect communities abroad and jobs at home that are undercut by cheap, illegal products.

Already this year, prompted by the Lumber Liquidators case, more than 100,000 Sierra Club members and supporters have written to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking them to fully enforce the Lacey Act.

Strong environmental protections only work if they're enforced. If you haven't already voiced your support for the Lacey Act, do it here.

If a Tar-Sands Project Fails in the Forest…

October 01, 2014

Back in March, I wrote about the Keystone XL "it's not about the pipe," saying that any rejection of new tar sands pipelines serves the purpose of keeping this dirty oil in the ground. Some good news from last week proves the point that I and others have been making. The Norwegian energy firm Statoil announced that it would pull the plug on a planned multibillion-dollar, 40,000 barrel per day destructive tar sands project in Alberta. What reason did they give? Rising costs and "limited pipeline access which weighs on prices for Alberta oil, squeezing margins and making it difficult for sustainable financial returns." (Translation: We are kicking Keystone's keister.)

In fact, Statoil's is actually the third Canadian tar-sands cancellation this year. This latest one, though, is both the largest and the first in-situ project to get the axe. The other two were strip-mining operations, which carry a higher overhead. If you can't make the numbers work for an in-situ tar sands mine, then your business model is in trouble.

And if Statoil's project is in trouble, you can bet the whole tar sands industry is looking over its shoulder. They may wish they hadn't, because we're gaining on them.

Unless you've watched tar sands mining firsthand (an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone but a couple of Wichita billionaires), it's impossible to comprehend how nightmarish it really is. (Last week's "In Focus" photo feature from The Atlantic comes close, though). No rational reason exists for doing this to our planet -- unless you count greed. Sadly, some people do. But even if you are willing to destroy 50,000 square miles of boreal forest just to make a profit, there's no way to justify destroying our future in the process.

No one knows exactly how much oil lies under Alberta's tar sands fields -- perhaps as much as 3 trillion barrels. But we do know that it would take far less than that to put our planet on a path to runaway climate disruption.

I've said before that we cannot let that happen. Today, I'm proud to say that we aren't letting that happen. Over its lifetime, the Statoil project alone would have released a total of  777.4 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 into our atmosphere. For comparison, the EPA projects that its Clean Power Plan will be eliminating up to 555 MMT of CO2 emissions annually by 2030. Every single tar-sands project cancellation is a huge victory for the hundreds of thousands of people who've stood up to fight Keystone XL.

But as I said, it's not about the pipe. It's about stopping the expansion of tar-sands mining while we still can. The three dominos that have fallen this year in Alberta are just a beginning.

Let's keep 'em falling: Tell President Obama he needs to reject this pipeline for good.

A Shout Heard Round the World

September 24, 2014

If anyone doubted the existence of a mighty climate movement in this country, then the sight of more than 400,000 determined, joyful, vociferous people marching through midtown Manhattan in the People's Climate March in New York City last Sunday has set them straight. Even for those of us who knew that people are ready for climate action, the sight of so many people from so many different backgrounds, all united behind the same righteous purpose, was both exhilarating and humbling. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking, "So this is what it feels like to be part of history."

Only time will tell exactly how big a turning point Sunday was in our progress in stopping climate disruption. Personally, I think it was a huge one. But I also know that what matters most right now is not what we did last weekend, but where we go from here. Our job now is to build on this incredible moment.

Let's not forget, though, that the march in New York was only the largest and most dramatic event on this historic day. People took action at over 2,700 events in more than 150 countries. This was a shout heard round the world -- but it was also heard seven blocks away at the United Nations.

The march was timed to coincide with the UN Climate Summit because, after all, this is the ultimate global issue. We all share the world's climate, and everyone stands to lose if the nations of the world can't agree on a plan to limit carbon pollution. This week's summit and the climate talks scheduled for Paris next year will be critical. As President Obama and representatives from other nations spoke on Tuesday, no one denied the urgency of the crisis, and several countries announced major new commitments.

Among the European nations, France promised $1 billion for the Green Climate Fund, Germany announced that it would not directly finance any new coal plants, and Denmark said it will become fossil-fuel free by 2050. The European Union committed to cutting emissions 80 to 95 percent by 2050.

Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli made his country's first-ever commitment to peak its carbon emissions, but would only set a deadline of "as early as possible." Coming from the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, that's a start.

As for the U.S., President Obama said only that his administration would announce new carbon reduction goals by next year. He focused instead on how the U.S. will step up its international efforts -- including a new executive order that requires federal agencies be guided by the need to build climate resilience into all international development programs and investments. The president spoke of how "Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them." On Keystone XL and the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipelines, on LNG gas exports, and on coal and oil leases, the president will have the opportunity to show us he's listening.

Even before the UN Climate Summit started, though, we were seeing results of the growing moral pressure exemplified by the People's Climate March (and also by the following day's Flood Wall Street protests, which shut down a 10-block stretch of lower Broadway for nearly seven hours).

On Monday, Google chairman Eric Schmidt revealed that his company would no longer help fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free-market lobbying group that has worked to kill renewable energy programs and teach climate denial in schools. "We should not be aligned with such people," Schmidt said, "they're just literally lying."

The Google news was great, but Monday's addition of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the fast-growing list of philanthropic organizations that have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies was both welcome and wonderfully ironic. These are the heirs, after all, of John D. Rockefeller, the world's first oil billionaire. More importantly, though, divestment is a trend with momentum. The number of institutions that have committed to divest from fossil fuels since the beginning of this year has more than doubled -- and they represent more than $50 billion in assets. Double that a few more times and -- you do that math.

Ultimately, though, the most important message of the People's Climate March was one of empowerment. Although most people believe we have a responsibility to act on climate, the challenge can seem overwhelming to just one person. After this week, no one ever needs to feel alone in this fight. We are millions of people, all around the world. Together, we have power that even the wealthiest corporations in the world will be unable to resist.

The march may have ended on Sunday, but the movement is just getting going. 

One Woman's Amazing Work

September 19, 2014

We're right in the middle of Wilderness Week, and this year it's a special one because we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act -- which is still a high-water mark for the protection of our most precious wild places. On Wednesday night, I attended a big gala in Washington, D.C., along with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and plenty of other political, movement, and environmental big shots.

Vicky-HooverFor me, though, the real star of the evening was Vicky Hoover, the humble, unassuming Sierra Club volunteer superhero who received  the "A Wilderness-Forever Future" award. Nobody I know has put our motto "explore, enjoy, and protect" to better use. Vicky has done all of those things, with a zest and ageless energy that radiates from her. When I see her well-used blue commuter bike locked up in front of our headquarters, I know stuff is gonna get done.

Like so many wilderness champions, Vicky started by falling in love with the wilderness experience. She took up backpacking in the mid-sixties, after she already had two young children. She and her husband brought them along, much as my wife and I do with our kids today. Soon their whole family was climbing Sierra peaks and, by 1981, Vicky had summited all 247 peaks on the Sierra Peaks Section list. You can find her own version of that story here.

But one thing anyone learns about Vicky in a hurry is that she's not content to be a follower. As I said, she's a doer. Very quickly, she graduated from outings participant to trip leader -- mostly in the Sierra Nevada, but also in Alaska, Utah, and even New Zealand.  She may have been born in Manhattan, but I'd bet her wilderness skills and Sierra knowledge would match even old John Muir's. And word has it she's a much better cook.

Another thing she shares with the Sierra Club's founder is a deep appreciation of the mountains and meadows she's explored. Eventually, that led her to realize that someone must have worked to make sure those places were protected. Vicky was also quick to figure out that wilderness exploration is a gateway to wilderness protection. "When I started leading trips, I took it for granted that these wild places were just there," she once said. "But all those years of leading outings made me think that I should try to get more places protected.

She did a lot more than try.

Vicky had already volunteered with her local chapter's office, but in 1985 she stepped up her game. She got a part-time job in the national Sierra Club office as an assistant to Dr. Edgar Wayburn, himself one of the greatest wilderness activists of all time. She started working hard for Dr. Wayburn's Alaska Task Force -- and has kept going for almost three decades.

She also began serving on local and then national wilderness committees. One of the great conservation campaigns at that time was to pass the California Desert Protection Act. Right away, Vicky was in the thick of it. She started leading outings to some of the Southwestern lands that would be affected by the act -- so she could be an even more effective advocate. When President Clinton signed the bill in 1996, the American people gained two national parks (Joshua Tree and Death Valley), as well as more than half a million acres of Wilderness Area in the new Mojave National Preserve. I doubt Vicky even paused to catch her breath before plunging into the next campaign. That California and Alaska are the states with the highest percentage of their lands set aside as wilderness is in no small part thanks to Vicky Hoover.

Vicky finally retired as a Sierra Club staffer four years ago, but her idea of "retired" isn't one you'll find in a dictionary. She still chairs the Club's California/Nevada Wilderness Committee (also serving as its newsletter editor). As co-chair of Wilderness50 -- a coalition of federal agencies and nonprofit organizations -- she's also spent the past four years using the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act as a way to publicize and promote wilderness to as broad and diverse an audience as possible. Oh, and she continues to lead outings -- including five service and other outings already this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

Over the years, Vicky's received lots of awards for the incredible work she's done, including the Club's highest honor, the John Muir Award, in 2004. But as much as she deserves this latest accolade, I know it's only a small measure of how much all of us who love wilderness owe to this remarkable woman. What's the best way we can really thank her? Get out and experience some wilderness!

And while you're at it, take a moment to ask Congress to continue the 50-year legacy of the Wilderness Act by passing some of the current wilderness bills with bipartisan support that have been stuck in gridlock for years. Hey, not even Vicky can do it all single-handed!

The World's Most Ambitious Disaster

September 08, 2014

I've long known how wasteful, destructive, and dangerous the process of extracting oil from tar sands is. To get one barrel of oil, you have to dig up four tons of dirt and rock. Beautiful old-growth boreal forest becomes a wasteland. And that single barrel of oil? It creates three times as much climate pollution simply to produce it as a barrel of conventional crude.

So, yes, I knew that tar sands were bad news. That's why I was willing to go to jail for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. But it's impossible to really comprehend the brutal reality of tar sands mining without seeing it firsthand.

I spent four days in Alberta with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and First Nations leaders. We met with officials from Suncor Energy, one of the companies most involved in extracting tar sands, and walked through the dismal wreckage of what the company calls a "reclaimed" area. We took a tour of the massive open-pit mines that spread across the landscape, and received a sobering briefing from Erin Flanagan at the Pembina Institute. We also visited with leaders from the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, whose communities have been devastated by the immediate environmental consequences of tar sands extraction.

  Tar Sands2

First Nations communities downstream of tar sands operations have suffered a higher than normal incidence of rare and deadly cancers. Photo: Niko Tavernise

The tar sands are the most outsized example I can imagine of misspent energy and ingenuity. About a fifth of tar sands oil is extracted using open-pit mines -- some of the largest strip mines on Earth. But the other four-fifths of the oil is extracted with an even more dangerous process. Basically, they pipe in natural gas, which you can think of as clean energy's antithesis. They then burn that fuel to generate steam to liquefy and extract the bitumen. The bitumen then gets separated and "upgraded" using massive amounts of water and, frequently, toxic chemicals.

Tar Sands3

There is no dirtier, more inefficient way to get oil than by tar sands mining. Photo: Niko Tavernise

As part of this process, the boreal forest is fragmented, cut down, or completely obliterated. And all of this happens before the bitumen is diluted (more toxic chemicals) and then piped under high heat and intense pressure up to a thousand miles or more to where it's refined and stuffed into our cars and trucks. It is immense, complex, and at a scale that arguably dwarfs any other industrial activity on the planet. When you see it happening, you can't help but be impressed by the scale and audacity of the whole crazy process.

What a waste -- not just of forests, habitat, energy, air, water, health, and our climate. What a waste of human talent. Watching all this, I found myself contemplating how much could be achieved if all of this effort, ingenuity, and engineering prowess were instead directed toward developing clean power? What if, instead of extracting oil by brute force using mining trucks and shovels the size of apartment buildings, these engineers and technicians were designing better wind turbines or perfecting advanced battery storage? Why go to so much trouble to do something so difficult and so destructive when you could invest the same effort into something positive that can literally save the world and power it to boot?

Tar Sands4

Tar sands mining destroys entire landscapes. Photo: Niko Tavernise

Maybe it's just a question of human nature. History is filled with examples of those who stubbornly clung to old paradigms even when it was against their own best interest. Of course, the better way of doing things eventually wins out. But in the case of tar sands and other carbon-intensive, extreme energy-extraction methods, we simply can't afford to wait any longer for common sense to prevail. Not if we want to stop climate disruption.

That's why it is so important that, as a society, we increase the pressure on our leaders to take action right now to advance clean energy solutions and to resist the temptation to drill, mine, and frack as if there were no consequences and no tomorrow.

In a couple of weeks, on September 21, I will be marching along with thousands of Sierra Club members and so many others in New York City. The People's Climate March will be the biggest climate demonstration in U.S. history. The march will include a "Tar Sands Bloc" of people affected by tar sands at every stage -- from First Nations communities in the north to refineries in the south and along the pipelines and train routes in-between. There'll be blocs of families with young children, gatherings of clean energy advocates, and much more. We'll be calling on President Obama other world leaders to take more-significant action to curb carbon pollution. Join us, and take a stand where you stand.

Because we're starting to move in the right direction toward clean energy. We are already building an economy based on clean energy that is creating more jobs than building pipelines or stripmining forests for oil. We're replacing power plants, switching to wind and solar, and improving fuel efficiency. It's not fast enough, nor at the scale that we need -- yet -- but momentum is building. Every day, smart people are coming up with new ideas and innovations. But just think what we will accomplish once our civilization commits all of its genius to making this transformation happen and stops working overtime to prolong the use of fossil fuels.

Forget about "if we can put a man on the moon" analogies. Any society that can conceive of and execute something as recklessly ambitious as tar-sands mining should find the transformation to a clean-energy economy to be a walk in the park.

See you in NY. Please RSVP and find out more about the People's Climate March here.

Landmark Victory in Fight Against Coal Exports

August 19, 2014

Years ago, the conventional wisdom was that going up against the coal industry was a losing proposition. After all, there was a reason the industry was called "King Coal." But after a decade in which more than 180 proposed coal plants were defeated or withdrawn -- and an additional 170 coal plants have been or will soon be retired -- dirty coal's size, power, and influence is rapidly diminishing. And this week's defeat of a proposed export terminal in Oregon will only accelerate that trend.

This is good news. When the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) rejected a permit for Ambre Energy to build a coal export terminal on the Columbia River at Boardman, Oregon, the winners weren't Ambre and its deep-pocketed financial backers. Victory went to the families, doctors, tribal nations, businesses, and local, county, and state-level leaders from across Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest who have come together to form the nation's largest movement to stop coal exports.

But there's more work to be done. Even as global demand for coal falls and its financial picture continues to dim, coal export companies want to build two other export facilities in Washington State. Millions of tons of coal would travel by rail in open-top cars from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to both terminals.

These mile-long trains would spew coal dust along rail lines, snarl traffic in communities along the route, and create lengthy delays for the passengers, goods, and services that rely on already-congested train lines. (Just this month, a transporter of refrigerated goods from Washington State to the rest of the country ended its express rail service, citing poor railway performance.) Once Powder River Basin coal reaches the export facilities, it would be shipped overseas to be burned, and return to our shores in the form of mercury contamination, air pollution, and acidifying oceans. In a relentless drive for profits, Big Coal is willing to risk the health and safety of individuals, families, and communities across the American West.

But the DSL's August 18 rejection of the permit for the Morrow Pacific project at Boardman makes it clear: coal exports are not in the best interest of the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else on our coasts.

The reason for the decision is clear -- there is no way to transport coal that will do no harm to communities and natural resources near the facility. Knowing of those impacts, a broad, deep coalition of Oregonians and other Northwesterners united in opposition to Ambre's project.

We're on a roll. From the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico, communities are rolling up the welcome mat to coal exports. Just last week, hundreds of people showed up to a city council meeting in Gretna, Louisiana, asking them to reject coal exports in their community.

But the fight is far from over. The DSL's rejection of the Morrow Pacific permit is a major blow to Ambre, but the company will undoubtedly continue to search for new ways to try and push their dirty and troubled project forward.

We can't let up until we have stopped every single coal export facility. Big Coal's window of opportunity is closing. To date, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and a broad coalition of organizations have retired one third of the nation's existing coal-fired power plants. But we have to keep fighting coal export terminals if we want to keep Powder River Basin coal in the ground. This week, it's worth pausing to celebrate how much we've accomplished against such powerful opponents. But our work is not nearly done, so let's keep organizing!

 

Who's Cool?

August 12, 2014

For the eighth year in a row, Sierra magazine has dedicated a big chunk of its September/October issue to higher education. So why is the "Cool Schools" issue such a big deal? I'll give you a hint: It's not because of the schools.

Over the last few years, I've spoken to many different audiences about how clean energy is going to change our world -- I never get tired of talking about it. And people seem to appreciate hearing the good news that we're already well on our way to a future without fossil fuels. But one particular audience always leaves me with a net surplus of energy -- and that's college students. I don't know if it's because young people have always been passionate about social issues or because our planet's future is especially important to the people who'll be spending the most time there, but young people seem to possess a singular fervor for making the world a better place.

So, although the "Cool Schools" sustainability rankings of universities around the country are interesting in and of themselves, their most important function is to foster accountability. Colleges and universities should be leading the charge on sustainability and the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. When they don't, students will be the first to speak up.

Here's how the Sierra Club is going to help them do that. Tomorrow, the Sierra Student Coalition will launch a new Campuses for Clean Energy campaign. Its goal is to build on the growing student-led movement around the country calling on school administrations to demand enough clean energy from their utility providers to power campuses with 100 percent renewable energy. Universities are often some of the biggest energy users, which means they're well positioned to put significant pressure on utility providers.

Universities can apply pressure in other ways, too, such as divesting from fossil-fuel companies. Sierra's "Cool Schools" issue examines a partial but significant victory along those lines: Stanford University's decision to divest from coal-mining stocks. The U.S. currently has more than 400 student-led campaigns to persuade institutional investors to divest from fossil-fuel stocks.

In addition to committing to renewable energy and divesting from dirty fuels, colleges and universities can use their influence to advocate for statewide policies that will bring more clean energy online. Given the current inertia in Washington, D.C., such campaigns will be crucial for years to come.

Regardless of how "cool" they may be, though, colleges and universities are still institutions, and institutions tend to accumulate quite a bit of inertia of their own. You can't say the same, thank goodness, for their students. The issue may be called "Cool Schools," but really it's awesome students whom we're counting on.


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