This weekend on the South Coast of Massachusetts we're going to get to witness the end of an era in the state, when a controlled demolition implodes the huge cooling towers on Saturday April 27th. Providence's Extraordinary Rendition Band will provide the soundtrack for a jubilant dance party in Fall River's Kennedy Park at 8AM that morning. (I hope you'll join us!) This moment is both an important moment for our movement to reflect, as well as a personal point for me.
I got into climate disobedience in earnest in 2013 when Ken Ward and I anchored our little white lobster boat, the "Henry David T" in the shipping channel in front of the coal plant, and demanded that the plant be shut down immediately. We remained there for a day, blocking the unloading of 40,000 tons of Appalachian coal from a hulking black ship which has traveled up from Norfolk, Virginia, to supply what was then the largest single source of CO2 emissions in New England.
That act of disobedience lit a fire in the climate movement to focus on direct action and hone in on that massive coal plant. That summer, there were hundreds of people at the gates of the plant demanding it's immediate closure, dozens were arrested at the gates, and a long march kicked off later that summer from Fall River to the proposed site of Cape Wind.
And it's precisely here that we see the catalytic work of climate disobedience: to set a narrative, grounded in the moral imagination of what is necessary, rather than what is thought to be politically possible. Prior to the lobster boat action, advocates were proposing that the plant be shut down by 2020. But on Saturday the plant will have been shut down for nearly two years and the huge monuments that tower above the skyline of Fall River (let alone Somerset) will come down forever.
IT WAS NOT CHEAP GAS
But why, you might ask, have a dance party celebration for the climate justice movement when it was cheap fracked gas that really shut down the plant? It's conventional wisdom to say that this plant was shut down because the cost of coal couldn't compete against cheap fracked gas flowing into New England. And we're going to dance because we believe that premise is utterly false - or at least incomplete.
When the plant's owners announced in October 2013 that it would close in 2017, they cited the economics of continuing to operate the plant: they could no longer make a competitive bid to sell power into the New England power grid. Much of the media followed suit. But there are more layers to coal plant economics than meet the eye, even if coal was struggling to compete in the power market.
Then lobster boats and masses of protesters started showing up. Power plant owners aren't going to publicly refer to activists as part of their public rationale in shutting a plant down, but when a mass movement starts it would be impossible for a plant owner not to start taking the potential effects of that movement into account. Especially at Brayton Point, where just a few years before, environmental lawsuits and advocates had forced the plant to make $1 Billion dollars of investments in scrubber technology and the iconic cooling towers. They knew that public pressure comes with a price tag.
Success and Failure
What's happening at Brayton Point now? This is exactly the green energy transition that we had hoped for: the empty buildings will be used for assembling and storing offshore wind turbines that will be loaded on ships and brought to offshore sites in Rhode Island and Massachusetts for installation. And there's also the possibility that offshore wind power will plug into the grid at the Brayton Point site.
But while Brayton Point was being shut down, the movement failed to intervene early enough in the Salem Harbor power station. While the original coal burner was torn down, a massive brand new fracked gas power plant was built in its place, and came online in 2018. Little opposition was aroused to stop the gas conversion.
After we're done dancing on Saturday, there is work to do. There are still two power plants in New Hampshire burning coal. And the largest of them, the Merrimack generating station in the town of Bow, is positioned coincidentally not-too-far from a proposed new fracked gas pipeline called Granite Bridge. There are all sorts of reasons why it's time to shut this dinosaur down. To keep up to date with action at Bow, make sure you're on the CDC email list.
And we'll see you dancing in the park on Saturday!