Environmentalism's communications problem


On Sept. 22, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the most recent development in an ongoing dispute over the future of the Boardman power plant, located in the north-central part of the state. To meet state environmental  regulations for emissions, Portland General Electric – the utility that operates the plant – has to figure out what to do with the coal-fired Boardman plant. The utility says closing the plant by 2015 to save money it would otherwise spend on retrofits to meet emissions requirements could cause a spike in electricity costs. An alternative solution, outlined by reporter Rob Manning in the OPB story, would be to run the plant through 2020.

As the Northwest Environmental Defense Center details, the 585-Megawatt Boardman platt is Oregon's largest stationary source of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants.To be sure, Boardman is an environmental lightning rod indicative of disputes ever more frequent in the West.

Coal-fired power plant photo courtesy Flickr user Scott Butner

So why are environmentalists having such a hard time gaining traction against Boardman?

Manning's report depicts a recent DEQ hearing where environmentalists in favor of shuttering the plant debated advocates for keeping it open. Supporters of the plant argued that organizations such as the Sierra Club are insensitive to the potential economic damage that an immediate shutdown could wreak.

The OPB story features a college student as one example of an activist who favors the shutdown. The student provides an absolutist position on “protecting our planet and our people.” The piece also features an anti-coal activist who takes a more measured approach. It's unclear from the report if other positions were presented, and neither of these opponents address what impact their anti-power plant position will have on jobs.

 In August, one of those quoted – Nick Engelfried, a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign – penned a column for the political blog BlueOregon in which he argued that PGE was threatening the state with a mafia-like “offer you can't refuse.” Though Engelfried briefly suggests that keeping Boardman open could be a gamble economically, he doesn't address the very real concern that closing the plant will kill jobs in Umatilla and Morrow counties, where the plant is located.

 That's a problem. I find it difficult to believe that two-years into the Great Recession and decades into the environmental movement, activists still don't seem to understand – if even from a purely tactical standpoint – that they must take the considerations of low-income or job-insecure Americans into account.

 It's possible that Manning and other journalists aren't doing enough to cover activists drawing such connections. Nevertheless, the responsibility lies among environmental activists to develop cohesive and compelling messages that at least attempt to appeal to workers such as the electrical engineering union members frustrated with what they perceive as environmentalists' “elitist” positions.

If there really are job opportunities in a sustainable economy, if there really can be a Green New Deal – and, personally, I think there are and there can – then much, much more effort needs to be put into getting that message across.

I wonder how much attention Boardman opponents are paying to the communities most impacted – both economically and environmentally – by the plant. A Sept. 22 Oregon Politico story described another hearing at which leaders from the two counties nearest Boardman testified to the Oregon State House of Representatives about the potential economic impact of shutting the plant down. That hearing did not include testimony from advocates for Boardman's closure – and it's unclear if that's because none were invited to testify or none were willing, but the response from representatives at the hearing suggests that such advocates will need to include a very strong economic argument if they want to see Boardman closed.

As unpalatable as it may seem to those of us with the luxury of paying for energy efficient devices, weatherized homes in transit-accessible neighborhoods, electric cars, carbon offsets, organic foods, dual flush toilets and all the other impact-lessening objects and services available, it will be impossible to secure the cooperation of those who should be natural allies if we can't address their primary concern: a steady paycheck.

I'm not advocating for keeping Boardman open indefinitely, I'm suggesting that it's not particularly wise not to have a response prepared for claims that a particular position will hurt jobs.

 While I don't think anti-Boardman activists are anywhere close to the frightening ecofascism described by Sami Glover, the Treehugger contributor reminds us that “strategy has to offer a realistic, enticing vision for a majority of the world's population.” Likewise, strategies to shut down coal-fired power plants, dangerous gas pipelines or other threats require more than anger and platitudes. As Glover puts it, most “greens are pragmatic, democratically-minded souls with a firm belief in fairness, justice and the potential for humans to overcome some pretty astounding obstacles.”

Perhaps some just need to do a better job of communicating it.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

High Country News Classifieds