A View From the Cheap Seats

August 13, 2008

Bruce Nilles, The Coal Killer


By Rich Trzupek

Your name is Bruce Nilles and this is your job: you kill coal boilers.

That’s all.

You work for the Sierra Club. You are Director of their National Coal Campaign, which is dedicated to stopping people from burning another pound of coal. Ever. Starting….. NOW.

You don’t distinguish between coal projects. There is no need. There is no such thing as a “good coal project”. Who cares about the details? If fossilized carbon is being converted into carbon dioxide, you are against it.

You’re happy to talk to any developer about their coal project. You’ll listen patiently to the so-called benefits of the project. But, at the end of the day, you’re going to oppose it. That’s just the way it is.

Your name is Bruce Nilles. This is your job.

You may worry about the coal miners and boiler workers and railroad employees and all of the other people employed in the energy business, but you try not to worry about them for very long. They can do other things. They should be doing other things, instead of helping to poison America.

It’s a beautiful thing being Bruce Nilles and having this job. It doesn’t require a lot of thought, for one thing. Not that you’re an idiot. No. They don’t hand out law degrees to just anybody. Or, perhaps they do, but that’s immaterial. You are a pretty sharp fellow. Everyone agrees on that point.

But really, anybody could do this job. You have to learn to ask one question – “is this project a coal plant?” – and, if you get an affirmative reply, you have to learn only one response: “I hate it”.

Because your name is Bruce Nilles. This is your job.

Gone are the days when you might have to carefully evaluate emission rates and control technologies. You aren’t required to think about new rules that will force emissions lower, or consider the pros and cons of replacing an old, badly performing plant with a new, cleaner version. When it comes to coal plants, you simply don’t care.

And God knows that you never, ever have to worry yourself about evaluating global warming. That train left the station years ago. The planet is getting warmer and we are causing it. End of story. And if some right-wing apostate wants to talk about the composition and agenda of the International Panel on Climate Change, or points out all of the errors in “An Inconvenient Truth” for the umpteenth time, or asks you why the temperature on Mars has gone up over the last couple of decades too, well he can just save his heretical breath. Global warming is here and we are causing it. Most of all, it’s coal that’s causing it.

Which is why you’re Bruce Nilles and you have this job.

“Hard day at work today honey?”

Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

“Uh-oh, somebody stopped another project today!”

You got it babe. 700 megawatts in Kentucky – right down the toilet.

“I’m so proud of you snook ’ems!”

Well – time to start dinner. I picked up a new bag of Kingsford on my way home. I’ll fire up the grill. Sure works up a fella’s appetite, shuttin’ down coal plants.

It’s great to be Bruce Nilles. It’s great to have this job.

You can take a moment and proudly browse your organization’s website, where all of your victories are listed. Sixty seven proposed plants stopped. Dead. Over 35,000 megawatts of cheap new power – gone. Plants that would have made natural gas and petroleum from coal – poof! Not on your watch baby. Not here. Not now. Not ever.

God but it’s a great time to be alive, you might say to yourself. It’s a great time to be alive and to be part of the Sierra Club in 2008, because you can package any initiative – any at all – and so long as you wrap it up with a ribbon that says “Fight Global Warming” – people will buy it.

You’ve got a crisis and there’s nothing like a crisis to keep the donations rolling in. It’s just freakin’ beautiful.

You have a crisis because you’ve told people there is a crisis. Who are they going to believe? Your organization exists to save the planet, for crying out loud. Those other guys? If they question global warming, they’re “deniers”, funded by Exxon-Mobil. If they point out that air quality has continued to improve over the last 40 years, and yes – even in the last eight – well then they are nothing but apologists for an evil administration that is trying to destroy the planet. It’s a simple strategy. And, it’s so very effective.

Perhaps, once in a while, you might think it would nice to take some credit for all of those emissions reductions and air quality improvements, to tell people: “good job, we’ve made wonderful progress thanks to you,” but you can’t do that. If you didn’t have a crisis, people wouldn’t be so quick to write those checks, and you need those checks. A fella has to make a living, after all.

Some people might look at over 300 years of coal reserves and see the potential for an energy future free of foreign influences. Some people might think that coal to liquids technology is the best, and ultimately cheapest, way to make oil and gasoline in the modern world.

Not you. You look at all that coal and you see black death. You see pure evil, in the most abhorrent element God ever dared to create: carbon. You see a battle to be fought, and to be won. You see another power plant to stop dead, in its dirty tracks.

You are Bruce Nilles. This is your job.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx



  1. You’re Bruce Nilles. Your job is to kill coal-fired power plants.

    But China is building coal-fired power plants at the rate of more than one a week. And you’re Bruce Nilles and you can’t do a damn thing about it. Every week – another new coal plant – more and more CO2, spreading all over the earth, permeating the entire atmosphere. And you’re Bruce Nilles, and those Chinese – they don’t give a sh*t who you are. Nor do the bureaucrats in India, who are cranking out coal-fired power plants as well, no matter what you, Bruce Nilles, thinks of ’em.

    But hey, you’re Bruce Nilles – who cares if what you do in the US doesn’t make a damned bit of difference at the global level – you know you’re Bruce Nilles, and if nothing else, you can at least make things more difficult for the poor sods in the good ole U S of A. They probably deserve it anyway.

    Comment by David Johansen — August 13, 2008 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

  2. What are you Bruce Nilles going to do about those hundreds and thousands of coal fired plants in the Developing world? And they are increasing as they are cheaper to run than nuclear power and oil (if they have it).
    Do you think you have won the battle? Yes you have in your own back yard, but that doesn’t make an iota of difference to the “Big Picture” Brucie Baby.
    Get with the program man.

    Comment by Karim Virani — August 13, 2008 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks for the comment Karim – spot on.

    In the air quality biz we frequently talk about cost effectiveness. That is, you try to spend your cash where you can do the most good. I have frequently wondered how much more good Bruce and the gang at SC could do if they devoted their efforts to helping China and India develop their industries cleanly, rather than spending millions to roadblock projects in a nation that is – in the scheme of things – pretty damn well controlled already.

    Comment by Trzupr — August 13, 2008 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  4. You must not be aware of the Springfield CWLP agreement, in which Nilles was involved, where the Sierra Club agreed to not challenge a new coal power plant in exchange for the utility shutting down an old plant, getting 20% of their energy from wind and massively expanding energy efficiency programs. That makes your simplistic portrayal of Nilles sound kind of like…what’s the term…BS.

    You are Rich Trzupek. You don’t have to care how many children get asthma from coal fired power plants. You’re Rich Trzupek so you don’t care about the impacts global warming will have on human life. You are Rich Trzupek and you believe a coal industry lobbyist who tells ridiculous tall tales about coal to liquids being cheap. You’re Rich Trzupek and you use developing nations as a lame cop-out for your own nation’s failure to act.

    You are Rich Trzupek. You don’t have a clue.

    Comment by Will — August 13, 2008 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  5. Will said: “You must not be aware of the Springfield CWLP agreement, in which Nilles was involved, where the Sierra Club agreed to not challenge a new coal power plant in exchange for the utility shutting down an old plant, getting 20% of their energy from wind and massively expanding energy efficiency programs.”

    Well that’s one interpretation of the the CWLP deal. On the other hand, for those of us involved in the power industry, it looked a lot more like blackmail. At the public hearing for CWLP, Becky Clayborn, the regional representative for the Sierra Club said: “we oppose this project as presently proposed and ask that the IEPA deny all such permits for new coal-fired power plants that are using old dirty technology.” (“Dirty” being a relative term of course and, in the case of CWLP, not the word I would have chosen – but I digress). This shot across the bow set the stage for what was to follow.

    You see, gentle readers the law as currently written allows Sierra Club to stop certain projects dead in their tracks in certain states, simply by challenging the permit with the USEPA Environmental Appeals Board. Illinois is one such state, and CWLP’s type of permit allowed Bruce’s boys to delay the permit issuance ad naseum. The Sierra Club knows this and CWLP (like every other developer in affected states) knows it as well. Soooo, CWLP had this choice: 1) figure out what would make Bruce happy (windmills and fluorescent light bulbs usually do the trick), or 2) twiddle their thumbs whilst Sierra Club attorneys cranked out mountains of paper for the EAB to pore over. They chose the former. Perhaps that’s being “co-operative” in the Sierra Club’s world. When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago (baddest part of town, by the by) we called it an extortion racket.



    Comment by trzupek — August 14, 2008 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  6. I’m Will the Shill for Bruce the Thrill. I can’t tell the difference between Sierra Club extortion and doing what is right in the area of energy. I badger everyone with my Daily Kos talking points. Sometimes, I may even bathe.

    I’m Will the Shill. I don’t have a clue.

    Comment by Wild Bill — August 18, 2008 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  7. I just want to say, this post was brilliantly written. You even attracted a Sierra Clubite to oppose you. That’s a good sign; it shows you’re hitting a soft spot. Bravo.

    And you’re right that if they really cared about the environment, they would be over in China fighting over every infinitely more dirty coal plant they’re building, on a weekly basis. It’s not about the environment. It’s about aggrandizing their own moral authority, justified by the facts or not.

    Comment by Manuel — August 22, 2008 @ 1:36 am | Reply

  8. And on Bruce Nilles’ tombstone, it shall read:


    Comment by Michael A. Petrie — November 16, 2008 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

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