How Mayor Bloomberg Will Help Close One-Third of U.S. Coal Plants

Last Updated Jul 21, 2011 2:43 PM EDT

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, through his philanthropic fund, is shelling out $50 million to the Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign -- a donation that will allow the environmental group to double its full-time staff and triple the number of states where it's campaigning against the fossil fuel. Sierra Club Director Michael Brune has quite accurately called this a game-changer. Here's why.

The money
Fifty million dollars is an incredible amount of money for any non-profit, even one as large as the Sierra Club, let alone a single cause within that organization.

The Sierra Club has budgeted $150 million over the next four years for its Beyond Coal campaign. Bloomberg's donation, which will be paid out over four years, will fund one-third of its budget. With that extra money, the Sierra Club will boost its full-time staff to 200 people, increase the number of campaign states from 15 to 45 and push its active member base to 2.4 million people.

Keep in mind, that the Sierra Club managed to stop 153 new coal plants from being built over the past nine years without Bloomberg's money. This time around, the goal is to shutter existing coal plants.

The man
Bloomberg's power extends beyond his personal wealth. Although as the 10th richest person in America , it certainly helps. His circle of influence is wide and his reputation as a pragmatic, hard boiled businessman and politician has gained him a following.

More importantly, Bloomberg has a well documented history of being a tenacious fighter once he chomps down on an issue. And he's far more keen on a grassroots activist battle than one fought inside the Beltway. He's battled the gun lobby and opponents of gay marriage. He not only took on the tobacco industry as a politician by banning smoking in all NYC bars and restaurants, but as a philanthropist as well. In 2006, his fund donated money to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and made a hefty donation with Bill Gates to help developing countries with tobacco control.

It appears he plans to take the same hardheaded approach with Big Coal.

His approach -- more confrontational than shrinking violet -- already has the industry and the coal workers union on the defensive. It's not surprising Bloomberg was drawn to the Beyond Coal campaign. He's particularly keen on grassroots-style battles, not inside the beltway tussles.

And he wasted little time delivering the message to big coal. His choice of venue -- on a boat near the Alexandria coal plant in Virginia, not in a hotel conference room -- is indicative of his typical approach.

The effect
Right now the attention is on Bloomberg and all the zeros on that donation check. But it's worth noting what this country would look like if the Sierra Club manages to shut down one-third of coal plants in less than a decade.

Demand for electricity isn't going away, which means the energy void will have to be filled somehow. The most logical and likely step will be for utilities to open natural gas-fired power plants. It's what happened in Colorado, and it will likely be repeated across the country.

Solar and wind power (including offshore wind) also are possible alternatives, but on a much smaller scale. It's not yet clear which coal plants the campaign will target first. The alternative energy source will be largely determined by where these coal plants are located.

Photo from Flickr user Rubenstein, CC 2.0