Hope for a cleaner energy future


In my work with the tough coal and environmental justice issues in the Southwest and the tougher, diverse communities I am honored to work with here, I see at key moments a hope for the future that can’t be snuffed out. In the past few months, there have been historical and landmark events that continue to shed light on how quickly we will transition to a clean energy future.

I have been inspired by the multi-decadal struggles to shift from the status quo that remain under way. Yet we still enable and empower the coal industry just by turning on our light switches. Forty percent of that electricity that creates that light comes from coal. One day, when we flip the light switch, will we be supporting something clean and just?

It seems to me that most people realize coal is dirty and "old school" and that we need to transition to a cleaner energy economy where power comes from the wind and sun. When you dig into coal issues in the Southwest, you see how the coal industry has blocked this transition with raw political power and divide and conquer tactics on tribal lands. Despite that, hope still burns.

A key moment that brought hope for me came on a trip out to Zuni in November, where I was invited to witness New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson sign an executive order [PDF] securing further protections for Zuni Salt Lake, an important sacred place to Zuni and surrounding tribes that has been historically threatened by proposed coal mines and development. In the central Zuni plaza, I was greeted with warm hugs and an acknowledgment of the Sierra Club’s work as part of the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition.

Zuni leaders witness the signing of Governor Richardson's executive order. Photo courtesy Andy Bessler.

Around 2001 to 2003, the Coalition worked hard and won a campaign to stop Phoenix-based utility SRP from digging out a 18,000 acre coal mine and rail spur near the Salt Lake that would have damaged the delicate hydrology of the sacred lake and its surrounding "Sanctuary Zone," where all tribal members who entered dropped their weapons and maintained peace while collecting salt.

This November, Governor Richardson’s executive order shone down like a ray of hope. At the signing ceremony, I relived great memories of taking on SRP and getting the public to understand some of the impacts to the Zuni and other tribes from mining coal. On the long drive back to Flagstaff, I remembered the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition members that included Pueblo of Zuni, the Center for Biological Diversity, Water Information Network, Tonatierra, Citizens’ Coal Council and the Sierra Club. Most of all, I remembered Cal Seciwa. Last year we lost Cal, a Zuni sheepherder and ASU scholar who led the Coalition and was instrumental in the struggle for Zuni Salt Lake. Despite Cal’s death due to illness, his memory lives on in the tranquility now secured at Zuni Salt Lake.

My memories of Zuni soon gave way to preparing for public hearings to talk about regional haze caused by dirty coal plants in the Four Corners region. The Environmental Protection Agency had announced public hearings for early December to review their proposed actions to force clean up of the Four Corners coal-fired power plant near Shiprock, NM.  I was happy that Navajo and surrounding communities could start talking about how to clean Four Corners. In response to EPA’s action, the plant’s majority owner, Arizona Public Service, announced a new plan: to shut down 3 of its oldest units while buying the shares of Southern California Edison’s other two units. SCE and other California-based utilities are shedding coal off their resource plans quickly in response to strong state laws that are meant to reduce their contributions to global warming from coal plants.

While APS framed this as a plan that keeps jobs while reducing pollution from coal, they are actually increasing their use of coal. The APS plan proposes to close 560 megawatts of its own coal generation (units 1-3) but they will increase the coal the company burns at Four Corners by acquiring 740 megawatts of coal-fired power from Southern California Edison.What was lacking from the APS plan was a firm transition off coal towards renewables in the near future. We can’t keep burning coal till 2041 (as APS’s plan calls for) at Four Corners if we are serious about leaving clean air for our kids and stopping global warming for future generations.

In transition terms, APS is proposing to stay addicted to coal rather than move toward a healthier tomorrow. We continue to advocate to APS that a real transition at Four Corners is possible, but instead of investing further in coal, they need to invest in wind and solar. This will not only build green jobs but also demonstrate further that utilities can still produce reliable power, create jobs, and get their green stamp of approval by transitioning off coal as quickly as possible. Public hearings by EPA after reviewing the APS plan will most likely come in early March of 2011.

Every time I think that the coal industry is too powerful and the challenges are too fierce, I think about the power and strength of my old friends at Zuni, and all the other strong souls in the Southwest working to restore environmental justice. As the year ends and the future of coal remains in a real struggle of power at places like Four Corners, I find hope – for 2011, for the Southwest, and for a healthier clean energy future.

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.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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