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
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION AND STEWARDSHIP (CES) COMMUNICATIONS DESIGNER
    Seeking an individual to design and develop marketing and support materials for a 1-year, 30-hour per week, grant-funded climate education program. Based in Durango, CO....
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com