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Don't Give Up: Sierra Club Leader on How We Can Win the Fight for Clean Energy

The Sierra Club's Michael Brune talks about how we can transition to clean energy, and how his million-member organization plans to flex its muscle.

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So the Sierra Club, which has been focusing on stopping new plants from being built, will now shift resources to these old plants and our goal is to retire half of the existing coal plants in the country and replace them with clean energy over the next decade. If you think about the impacts of that, politically we'll have a coal industry that is half the size and we'll have solar and wind and efficiency companies that are growing larger and have more power and are more profitable.

DH: There is a scenario, which is not a crazy scenario given that there are 21 Democratic Senate seats open in 2012, that we will have a conservative president and significant control of both Houses. Are your plans still feasible with that kind of opposition?

MB: Even right now we are starting to see big threats coming from folks in Congress in both Houses challenging the EPA's authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. Over the next few weeks to months to years, we will see a variety of attacks on the EPA -- we'll see lawsuits filed to slow down the EPA and affect the implementation of different rules; we'll see legislative efforts to try to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases; we've already seen bills that will delay the EPA's authority to regulate parts of the Clean Air Act; we'll probably see a national version of Prop 23; we'll see efforts to restrict the funding of the EPA probably; and we'll see personal attacks on Lisa Jackson and deputy administrators. There's going to be a whole lot of heat coming toward the EPA -- we've already seen it and it's only going to intensify.

That's with the current Congress -- so of course if there's a conservative president in a few years one can envision the scenario will intensify and if we had a new EPA head we wouldn't see that much progress. Elections are important, they do matter.

But there is still a lot we can accomplish between now and then. The rule on mercury is going to be finalized and the rule on coal ash is going to be finalized, as important examples. You have coal plants that are already not economical, that are already operating at the margins, whereas wind is getting cheaper, more efficient, more technologically advanced. There is no doubt that we will make continued progress to reduce our dependence on coal, where there is doubt is how far we'll go and how quickly that will happen.

First we have to stop the problem from getting worse -- we can't continue to build new coal plants, then we have to shut the existing ones down, replace them with clean energy and take care of the workers.

Tara Lohan: Given the subsidies for coal and oil right now, how can we get renewables to be competitive?

MB: The subsidies are a foot on the neck for solar and wind companies. Attacking subsidies is one area where we have a sliver of hope that we can work with some conservative members of Congress and address the deficit and level the playing field for a wide variety of energy solutions. We don't know what the posture of the new Congress is going to be but that clearly will be one area where there is bipartisan support for cutting subsidies that really don't contribute to the public good.

TL: Your Beyond Coal Campaignhas been really successful. How do we replicate that for other initiatives?

MB: It's bottoms up and a little bit top down, so one of the things that's unique about the Sierra Club is that we have a chapter in every state and a local volunteer group in just about every major city in the country. And the coal fight is very local -- there are plants in communities that are poisoning the people that live around them. A lot of our strategies come from the grassroots and then it is also supported by the national office in terms of our legal team, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits against new and old coal plants.