Sun, Mar 01, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Anti-coal activists turn to Washington for mass protest

THE OBSERVER , WASHINGTON

Thousands of activists were converging on Washington this weekend in the biggest-ever protest against the use of coal, which they argue is the dirtiest fossil fuel and yet provides half of the US’ electricity.

The focus of the demonstration is what might, in other circumstances, seem a quaint relic from another era: a coal plant built 99 years ago to assure Congress an independent source of power.

But the Capitol Hill Power Plant, which environmentalists say should have been retired years ago, is seen by many as a potent symbol of how powerful the coal lobby is.

“In terms of carbon emissions, this plant is small potatoes, but it really is a very iconic symbol,” said Matt Leonard of Greenpeace. “It can burn gas or oil or coal and people have fought very hard over the years to make sure it burns coal.”

That may be about to change. On Thursday, Democratic leaders in Congress called for an overhaul of the plant so it could run entirely on natural gas by the end of this year.

The order came down as more than 10,000 young people began arriving in Washington to lobby members of Congress to reduce the US’ reliance on coal.

Organizers say this could be the tipping point in the fight against coal, after years of steady activism.

Since the middle of 2006, plans for more than 83 coal plants have been halted. This week, Michigan’s governor announced a moratorium on all new coal plants and a Georgia court put a stop on a coal plan because of pollution concerns.

The campaign got an extra push late last year when Al Gore championed a drive to make Americans aware of the connection between coal burning and electricity. The latest TV ad, produced by the Oscar-winning Coen brothers, shows a salesman spraying black smog from an aerosol can to debunk the notion of clean coal.

Organizers of the Power Shift lobbying effort aim to give the campaign the final push. They say they have set up meetings with 80 Senators and 287 members of the house of representatives, Republican and Democrat, to convince them to vote for action on climate change.

Demonstrators led by NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen and actor Darryl Hannah, will gather for a protest at the plant.

The survival of the plant mainly comes down to cash and influence: the coal industry has waged a ferocious struggle for survival.

At the front of the pack is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCE), which spent nearly US$40 million last year on TV ads and a lobbying effort for coal.

Joe Lucas, vice-president of the ACCE, said: “America not using coal would be like Saudi Arabia not using oil.”

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