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A just transition to a clean energy future off coal can happen

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andybessler | Nov 08, 2010 01:20 PM

In my first opportunity to join the blogosphere of High Country News, I wish to extend a big thanks to all those who have come before and are currently working towards achieving environmental justice (EJ) in the west. Many EJ struggles are a real challenge, rooted in a complex history with timelines and landscapes that cross vast distances both cultural and natural. As someone who has remained on the front lines of some of the EJ struggles in the Southwest for the past several decades and lived to tell the ongoing tales, I welcome the opportunity to share my perspective. Through my position with Sierra Club, and the Club's commitment to achieving a clean and just energy future for all, I've been able to work in partnership with many great organizations and individuals.

Most folks who are crazy enough to do community-based work know that grassroots organizing is tough work. The hours are long, and complex legal and hydrological details are hidden in thick documents and often get lost in translation. The unique rural communities across the Colorado Plateau operate in their own timeframe and in their own pace, which you must respect. Most folks I work with will likely be out working in a corn field or looking for sheep in some remote canyon rather than of sitting in an office charting the progress of a mining permit application. When I get lucky enough to reach a scratchy voice on the phone, the calls often get cut short as they descend into a canyon on some remote stretch of highway without cell service. In these tough economic times, funding is scarce for all EJ advocates and looking over the looming stacks of the Navajo Generation Station (the fiery horns on my headshot), we are reminded that coal remains a key contributor to regional haze and global warming as Lake Powell's bath rings creep lower and lower.

Yet it is not all gloom and doom. One of the most inspiring events I get to help organize is the Hopi Water is Life (Paatuwaqatsi) Run with my good friend and run founder Bucky Preston. This year’s run was amazing and the traditional Hopi feast that followed the 30-mile ultra-prayer run for water was off the charts.

The issues surrounding a transition off coal have an element of gloom and doom as well as real opportunities for positive change. I work with tribal and local leaders to offer real solutions to help us transition from dirty coal into a clean energy future where thousands of workers no longer wear the stain of coal dust on their faces but will instead install solar panels on remote hogans and weatherize homes for dusty sheepherders. I continue to urge the Obama Administration and our newly elected leaders to help speed us on a just and fast course towards a clean energy future. On the Navajo Nation at least, as the New York Times reports, this transition is gaining ground and a new slate of council leaders and a new Navajo President will hopefully help lead the way. I am also proud to be part of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition,  working with partners groups to bring green economy opportunities to the Navajo Nation.

The work continues. Recently, The Sierra Club along with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), and To' Nizhoni Ani (Beautiful Water Speaks)  partnered on a legal complaint represented by the Energy Minerals Law Center in Durango, Colo. We had to file suit in order to make sure the federal government releases a copy of Peabody Coal’s current operating permit in a timely manner so that grassroots community members had adequate access to information about Peabody’s ongoing operations. There is no justice if impacted communities do not have a voice in what happens in places like Black Mesa. The Sierra Club remains a trusted partner in the tough issues surrounding coal and the long struggle for EJ.

From where I sit near the sacred Peaks outside of Flagstaff, AZ, the landscape across the Colorado Plateau looks ready to transition off coal, but the challenge remains to make sure it happens quickly while ensuring justice for all. 

Andy Bessler is a Field Organizer for the Sierra Club based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he raises his two kids Noah and Ruby with his wife Erin. Andy represents the Sierra Club in the Southwest on the nexus between environmental justice and a clean energy transition for local and regional economies off dirty coal. He is also a sitting board member of several non-profits including Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, The Plateau Chapter of the Society of Conservation Biology and is an adviser to the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

Coal and justice
Jackie Wheeler
Jackie Wheeler
Nov 15, 2010 12:30 PM
It's heartening to read about Bessler's on-the-ground efforts to shift the plateau's reliance away from coal. As I've blogged here, one threat is uranium, not as a local power source, but as a re-emerging extraction industry. For plateau folks it's familiar and it pays well, two variables that also complicate the coal controversy. The recession is making the terrible physical and environmental costs of both seem less pressing, a phenomenon that is certainly being exploited by companies such as Peabody and Dennison. The trick for advocates of green energy and justice will be to work with locals, as Bessler is, to reinforce the long-term benefits of wind and solar for the region.

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