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Earth Island Reports

CoalSwarm

A Clearinghouse for Shared Information on King Coal

NASA climatologist James Hansen is sometimes called “the godfather of climate science” for his pioneering efforts to warn the world about the threat of global warming. Hansen could also be called the godfather of Earth Island Institute-sponsored project CoalSwarm. It was Hansen who, in 2007, called for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants after US power companies revealed plans to build more than 150 such plants in the country. His proposal became a rallying cry for hundreds of grassroots citizens’ groups across the country. CoalSwarm was created to help that effort, giving environmental activists, local residents, and policymakers the information they need to challenge the muscle of the coal industry and advocate for a renewable energy economy.

photo of a landscape scraped clear of all lifephoto Jennifer Woodard MaderazoCoalSwarm links up opponents of mountaintop removal coal mining with opponents
of this mine in Spain.

In the waning years of the Bush administration, the scattered activists committed to stopping “King Coal” faced long odds. The companies proposing coal plants generally enjoyed the support of local and state officials. Federal officials were greasing the way for more coal mining. Despite the difficult political terrain, environmental and public health advocates went to work, deploying tactics ranging from regulatory interventions to direct-action protests. Power plant opponents joined forces with anti-mining groups in Appalachia, the Southwest, and the Northern Plains, which had already spent decades fighting destructive mining practices such as mountaintop removal.

For this geographically dispersed movement, social media such as listserves, blogs, online publications, and other communication tools proved invaluable in bringing activists together and allowing a diverse array of groups to coordinate their efforts.

CoalSwarm added another tool to the mix – an informational website known as a wiki. CoalSwarm’s initial goal was to empower activists with up-to-date information on the status of each known coal plant proposal. CoalSwarm developed its information on SourceWatch, a collaborative online reference that provides portals on topics ranging from the tobacco industry to the financial crisis to the PR industry and corporate front groups.

The anti-coal movement decided to focus on stopping individual coal projects. This proved to be a winning strategy: By October 2012, more than 170 proposed coal plants had been cancelled. For the climate movement, these successes provide a measure of hope at a time when efforts to pass a comprehensive climate change policy at the national level or an overarching climate framework at the global level have failed.

Over time, the scope of the anti-coal movement steadily broadened beyond the issue of new coal plants. In Appalachia, activists struggled against mountaintop removal with marches, blockades, and tree-sits at mine sites; nationwide, banks financing mining operations faced public pressure to give up their stake in dirty coal. CoalSwarm likewise broadened its contents with hundreds of new wiki pages on mines, mining companies, protests, and on the political underpinnings of Big Coal. A major coal-waste spill in Tennessee added the issue of coal waste to the activist agenda, and again CoalSwarm expanded its coverage.

By 2011, having succeeded in stopping most new coal plants, activists launched a nationwide campaign to retire the existing fleet of 500 aging coal plants that then provided the US with about half of its power. The effort was boosted by a $50 million grant from the Bloomberg Foundation to the Sierra Club in July 2011. The initial results were encouraging. In Chicago, for instance, local citizens teamed up with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization, and, with assistance from the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, finally won a long struggle to shut down a pair of aging power plants.

Students at universities and colleges across the country, too, organized campaigns to shut down coal-fired plants. Once many of those campaigns succeeded, campus environmentalists upped their demands with campaigns aimed at convincing college endowment funds to divest from coal-related stocks. CoalSwarm assisted this effort with profiles of campus coal plants and fact sheets on the “Filthy Fifteen” power and mining companies that students selected as divestment targets.

With the struggle shifting from proposed coal plants to existing coal plants, CoalSwarm’s data on existing coal plants became its most frequently accessed pages. The wiki page “Existing US Coal Plants” had been viewed more than 373,000 times as of October 2012. A rapidly growing table on CoalSwarm’s page “Coal Plant Retirements” showed the success of the plant-retirement campaign: By late 2012, 124 plants were scheduled for retirement. Meanwhile, coal’s share of US power generation was falling rapidly: from 50 percent in 2005 to 38 percent in the 12 months ending in July 2012.

Overseas, however, the picture is not as pretty. Worldwide coal use grew by 61 percent from 2001 to 2011, with nearly all of the increase happening in Asia, especially China.

In 2011 and 2012, CoalSwarm began a concerted effort to broaden the scope of the wiki internationally, beginning with Australia, the world’s leading coal exporter. In a joint effort with the Australian group, Environment Victoria, CoalSwarm created the “Coal Watch” project. In 2011, CoalSwarm worked closely with Greenpeace Australia-Pacific to organize the first convergence of anti-coal activists from across Australia. In 2012, CoalSwarm worked with New Zealand’s Coal Action Network, Aotearoa, to create a comprehensive reference on that country’s existing and proposed coal projects.

CoalSwarm turned its attention to India after a 2011 study by Prayas Energy Group reported that hundreds of new coal plants were set to receive environmental permits. In the spring of 2012, CoalSwarm posted an India coal-plant tracker that showed, for the first time, the location and status of 549 proposed coal plants. CoalSwarm also completed the first countrywide survey of grassroots organizing against coal projects in India, describing 32 locations of community opposition, many involving large demonstrations and numerous incidents of anti-coal protesters being killed by police.

For Southeast Asia, another hot spot for coal mining, CoalSwarm teamed up with the Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People’s Assembly to create a map-based tracker linked to wiki pages on coal plants, mines, and terminals in the region, as well as on proposed clean energy projects.

Meanwhile, back in the US, coal exports have become another troubling issue. Declining domestic need for coal-fired power (in large part due to rock-bottom natural gas prices) has led to a new push by coal mining companies to build export facilities, especially in the Pacific Northwest. In 2012, CoalSwarm developed wiki pages on existing and proposed coal terminals, knitting the information together with the first global coal-terminal tracking map.

The project also began developing information on an issue closely related to coal: fracking for natural gas. While environmentalists debate whether the switch to natural gas is beneficial from a climate perspective, there is no denying that at the local level fracking operations have huge environmental and public health impacts. In addition to providing state-by-state overviews on fracking operations and protests, CoalSwarm provides lists of coal plants being converted to natural gas, information on fracking’s impacts on water and air, and natural-gas-transmission leakage rates.

By the fall of 2012, the CoalSwarm wiki had attracted more than 19 million page views and had grown to some 6,000 pages of information, including profiles of thousands of plants, mines, terminals, and companies; energy overviews of more than 50 countries, as well as of every US, Australian, and Indian state; and numerous articles on the impacts of coal and cleaner energy alternatives.

To make all this information more easily accessible, CoalSwarm revamped its website, which now has a clickable globe and topical directory. The aim is to improve accessibility and live up to the description of the project by environmental pioneer Lester Brown, who wrote: “CoalSwarm is the central nervous system that this movement needed. It is invaluable.”

   

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