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The thin green line: fighting fossil fuel exports in the Pacific Northwest

You know what would look great here? A big ol' coal train.
You know what would look great here? A big ol' coal train.
(Shutterstock)

By now, most people are familiar with the story of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which, in addition to blocking dozens of proposed coal plants, has secured the retirement of some 200 existing plants, an extraordinary victory for public health and an important driver behind America's progress on carbon emissions. It is one of the most sprawling, diverse, effective, and consequential citizen movements in postwar American history.

One important chapter of that story took place in 2011, when a scrappy, underresourced 15-state campaign turned its attention to scaling up nationwide. To do so, it faced the dreary prospect of spending years and untold resources raising the necessary $50 million. Instead, billionaire Michael Bloomberg swooped in and gave it to them. And they were immediately off and running.

Not only did Bloomberg give the campaign money, he gave it focus, an obsession with data, and what is too rare in the nonprofit world: strict accountability. Grassroots energy was honed and focused by business discipline, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As it happens, there's another anti-fossil fuel activist movement beginning to coalesce, one that might also benefit from an infusion of billionaire money.

The next Beyond Coal, maybe

Beyond Coal started in the midst of a coal rush. Today, there's a similar rush on: an effort to use the US Pacific Northwest as conveyor belt for fossil fuels, carrying them from mines and wells in the interior to the coast, to be shipped overseas.

Atop a region known for natural beauty, sustainability, quality of life, tourism, and advanced-technology jobs, fossil fuel industries propose to lay a skein of heavy new rail lines, pipelines, and export terminals. Millions of tons of coal and millions of gallons of tar sands oil would flow through one of America's most beautiful places, amidst one of its most environmentally concerned populations, destined to become millions of tons of new carbon emissions, putting climate safety further out of reach.

But just as the coal rush sparked resistance, so has the rush to make the PNW a major hub for carbon energy export. Environmentalists have made common cause with local community and tribal groups to fight the proposals on all fronts: in city council meetings, in courts, in legislatures, and in the media.

Eric de Place of the indispensable Sightline Institute has published a list of 18 fossil fuel export projects proposed for the PNW that have been delayed or canceled. They have run into trouble for a variety of reasons, but in every case organized citizen action has helped, sometimes decisively.

Sightline calls this new movement "the thin green line," and given how fast it's had to scramble, the power and number of its enemies, and its chronic lack of resources, it has been remarkably successful so far.

But as de Place says, the next few years are crucial, as "it is likely that in 2015 and 2016, the Northwest will face yet another tsunami of export schemes as new developments in the energy industry make available light hydrocarbon fuels and petrochemicals in unprecedented volumes."

The stakes could not be higher:

Sitting squarely astride the most economical and, in some cases, the only possible path from the vast energy reserves in the interior of North America to the world’s fastest growing energy markets in Asia, decisionmakers in the Northwest are in an unprecedented position. To a large extent, Cascadia now will call the shots for the western coal industry, huge swaths of fracked oil and gas development, and Canadian tar sands extraction—to say nothing of the global climate implications of unleashing five Keystone XLs’ worth of carbon fuels into foreign markets.

To hold firm against the oncoming tsunami, the thin green line will need resources. It will need focus, an obsession with data, and strict accountability. Gosh, where could it get those?

A chance to out-Bloomberg Bloomberg

Of course, if a public-minded billionaire did want to swoop in and help, it wouldn't be nearly as straightforward as Bloomberg's gift to Beyond Coal. There's not a single organization running things in the PNW, fully staffed and ready to go, like there was in the anti-coal movement. It might mean creating a new organization; it might mean creating some kind of formal coalition; it might mean picking a group to expand. A gift would require careful thought, good advisers, and plenty of discipline and persistence.

But the opportunity is there. This is the next big carbon fight on the ground, the last chance US coal companies have to survive and the key to making North American oil sands and fracking profitable in the long term. Winning this fight, in the wake of Beyond Coal's success, would send an unmistakable signal: Fossil fuels are no longer safe in the US. Invest elsewhere.

So if there are any do-gooder billionaires out there feeling competitive toward Bloomberg, well, here's your chance to do him one better.