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Michael Brune: The TT Interview

The executive director of the Sierra Club on the perils of coal ash, why wind is a good thing, the priorities of state environmental-quality officials and how Texas oil companies are working to roll back California's global warming regulation.

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Michael Brune, a 39-year-old former Greenpeace campaigner, became executive director of the Sierra Club earlier this year — a platform he intends to use to promote clean energy, bash coal and push the government to act on climate change. Brune got drawn to environmental work after growing up in New Jersey, where he got rashes from swimming in chemical-tainted waters but saw local groups rally to fight the pollution. Before joining the Sierra Club, he served as executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, where one of his campaigns involved infiltrating Home Depot's intercom system to warn shoppers not to buy old-growth timber products; Home Depot was ultimately persuaded not to stock those products.

Brune spoke with the Tribune by telephone last week, when he was in Fort Worth for the Environmental Protection Agency's hearings on coal-ash waste from coal-fired power plants. An edited transcript and audio clip of that conversation follow.

TT: Have you been to Texas before?

Brune: I have, as executive director of Rainforest Action Network. I was here for a number of different things — working to stop what was then TXU's proposal to build a slew of coal plants [and] also working on a couple of other unrelated issues.

TT: How has the coal-ash meeting gone?

Brune: It's great. This is the third of seven hearings that are being held around the country. Sierra Club volunteers were in Arlington, Va., last Monday; Denver late last week; and then, of course, Dallas this week. And at each hearing there have been several hundred people — a couple of hundred people, at least — who have turned up to express their concerns about the threats that coal ash poses to local air and water supplies.

TT: Has there been anything surprising to you at the meeting in Dallas?

Brune: I was surprised, actually, that a couple of hundred people were able to turn up during a torrential downpour, when flooding was occurring throughout the region — it was gratifying to see people who wanted to put so much energy into making sure coal ash is regulated properly. Of course, every time you go to hearing like this, some of the arguments from our adversaries are always a little bit surprising.

TT: Like what?

Brune: Well, you know, the primary argument is that coal ash is safe, that it doesn't cause a significant impact on human health and the environment. Just generally speaking, we heard from tobacco executives that cigarettes don't cause cancer. We heard from auto executives that installing catalytic converters would wreck the auto industry. There's always a certain amount of hand-wringing that we see from the other side.

TT: What's your take on the battle that's going on here in Texas ... between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency over [air-pollution] permitting issues?

Brune: It seems to be a sad reflection where you have the environmental quality officials who are making a show of their defiance of EPA's authority and interest in regulating polluters. There seems to be almost a certain glee that we're seeing from some officials in Texas who picking a political fight, in this case with the Obama administration, as an opportunity to score some political points. It's been disappointing. Certainly we should be able to count on environmental-quality officials in any state to put public health at the top of their agenda.

TT: Do you have a sense of how much power Texas companies are having out in California in the fight over Proposition 23, which, as I understand it, would essentially suspend global-warming regulation in the state unless the unemployment rate drops to an extremely low number?

Brune: We'll see how much power they actually have in November. It's an outrageous proposition. AB 32 is arguably the most important piece of climate legislation that's been passed in this country. It was bipartisan legislation, supported by a large section of the business community in the state and a large majority of the public. And now what we're seeing is a misinformation campaign that is 97 percent funded by the oil industry, which is looking to undermine the law. It's a travesty. We're making it a top priority to make sure that the proposition is defeated.

TT: As I'm sure you know, Texas is the leading wind power state. Is this a good thing, and are other states learning anything from the process of building wind here in Texas?

MB: Yeah, I think it is by and large a very good thing. Texas is also No. 2 in the creation of clean energy jobs in the country. So a couple of things are happening. As installation of wind turbines grows, we're learning a lot about where these wind farms should be sited and how they should be designed to make sure there is a minimal impact on birds and other animals. And we're developing knowledge both about the placement of those facilities and also about how clean energy can be integrated into the grid. As more and more wind farms are being built and as the percentage of clean energy increases, we're finding out how we can make sure that that clean energy is displacing coal. Texas still has a long way to go to meet its future energy demand with an increased amount of clean energy, but there's a lot of success to build on.

TT: Are there any other issues in Texas that you're watching closely?

MB: There's a longstanding issue about environmental justice, particularly in the southern part of the state, regarding all the refineries down there that we're very interested in. And, of course, offshore oil drilling is a concern of ours. We're hopeful that Texas can actually lead the way towards a clean energy transformation so that a lot of the jobs that are currently held in dirty industries, such as coal and oil, can quickly transition into clean energy jobs that don't sacrifice public health and contribute to the fight against climate change rather than making the problem worse.

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