The Sierra Club is getting a boost in its effort to shut down coal-fired power plants. Those plants produce almost half the nation's electricity. They also pump out lots of pollution, make people sick, and cause premature deaths. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is giving the Sierra Club $50 million to fight them. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: When Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club last year, he started looking for big donors to help super-size the group's battle against coal. Michael Bloomberg caught his attention, both because he's one of America's biggest donors and he's been working on climate change as mayor of New York City. So Brune made an audacious request for $50 million.

Mr. MICHAEL BRUNE (Executive Director, Sierra Club): We told the mayor about the work that had been done by the Sierra Club and lots of groups across the country to stop the construction of new coal fired power plants. A hundred fifty-three new coal plants have been opposed and defeated.

SHOGREN: Brune made the pitch that the Sierra Club needed a major investment to launch the next phase of its strategy - to replace existing coal plants with clean energy. Rohit Aggarwala heads up environmental donations at Bloomberg Philanthropies. He says it appealed to his boss's desire to leave a legacy of improving public health and the environment.

Mr. ROHIT AGGARWALA (Environmental Donations Director, Bloomberg Philanthropies): Nothing could combine these two efforts more than attacking the largest source of mercury pollution, the largest source of sulfur dioxide pollution, the largest source of particulate matter and the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States.

SHOGREN: Aggarwala says Bloomberg also is impatient with Congress for failing to address climate change.

Mr. AGGARWALA: He's frustrated with the fact that Washington has not acted in any comprehensive or responsible way, and he's seen here in New York how local targeted action can actually make improvements.

SHOGREN: The idea is to use Bloomberg's money to double Sierra Club's staff working on the campaign, and better organize its network of grass-roots activists in 45 states. Some industry representatives are skeptical that a big donation will enable the Sierra Club to do more than it's already doing.

Mr. JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD (Lawyer) Boy, I can't think of any kind of tactic that's available to them that they're not already using.

SHOGREN: Industry lawyer Jeffrey Holmstead headed the Environmental Protection Agency's pollution programs under President Bush. He says he's seen the list of more than 150 power plants that the Sierra Club claims environmental activists have defeated, and he thinks the group is exaggerating. Holmstead argues these plants were slain by more potent foes: the recession, which cut demand for electricity and lower natural gas prices which make it more attractive to invest in plants that run on natural gas instead of coal.

Tom Williams represents Duke Energy. It's building two big new coal-fired power plants, despite efforts by the Sierra Club and others to defeat them. Williams says many old coal plants days are numbered because of aggressive regulations coming from the EPA.

Mr. TOM WILLIAMS (Duke Energy): Every utility is looking very hard, already, at shutting down many, many coal plants in order to meet these increasingly strict regulations.

SHOGREN: So coal faces big challenges in the coming years, whether or not Bloomberg's donation makes the Sierra Club a formidable opponent.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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