'Coal Kills Every Day': Michael Bloomberg Pledges $50 Million to Fight the Coal Industry

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Phelan M. Ebenhack / Corbis

Emissions rise from the stacks of the coal-fired power-generating units of the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, Florida, on March 7, 2011.

When he's not running the capital of the world or flirting with presidential politics, Michael Bloomberg likes to keep himself busy with the occasional public health crusade. In his early years as mayor of New York, Bloomberg removed tobacco from the public sphere, providing momentum for what has become a global campaign against smoking. He's declared war on trans-fats, helping to ban the unhealthy fatty acids from New York's restaurants and vendors. He's made gun violence — which results in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year, many in cities — into an urban public health issue. His style has earned him a reputation as a bit of an autocrat — but it's also saved lives.

But now Bloomberg is taking on an even bigger and more pervasive American industry: coal. On July 21, the New York mayor announced that his charitable foundation would be donating $50 million over four years to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. The purpose of the gift is simple: to help the nation's largest environmental group push back against one of the world's biggest sources of air pollution, plant by plant. "Coal kills every day," Bloomberg told TIME. "It's a dirty fuel."

Coal has long been the archenemy of environmentalists, largely because of its role in adding to climate change; the carbon-heavy fuel is responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But as climate politics become increasingly polarized and the chance of any national action on greenhouse gases evaporates, environmentalists are going back to their old playbook, focusing on health issues instead — a case that's far easier to make and far harder for non-greens to dismiss. Think soot and asthma, instead of carbon dioxide and warming. "This is a public health issue, just like our efforts to stop smoking or help with malaria," says Bloomberg. "The pollutants and the toxins are a big problem."

For the Sierra Club — which launched its Beyond Coal campaign in 2001 on a shoestring budget — the focus on coal's toll on health has already paid off. The club says the campaign has helped block more than 150 proposed coal plants around the country over the past decade, using both legal action and local opinion to turn back projects community by community. With Bloomberg's money, the Sierra Club is set to step up that campaign, taking the fight to existing coal plants — especially the oldest and most polluting operations — and working actively to shut them down. "This gift is a game changer for us," says Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director. "We will devote more resources to moving America beyond coal than anything else the club has done in its 125-year history."

The Sierra Club's campaign is coming at the same time that the power industry is also being squeezed from above by Washington, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to roll out a series of long-delayed air pollution regulations that could hit coal particularly hard. Earlier this month the EPA issued final rules on air pollution that crosses state borders, forcing power plants to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide — two pollutants linked to smog and respiratory problems — over the next few years. In the coming months the EPA will likely finalize regulations on ground-level ozone, on mercury emissions, on coal ash and other toxins. The regulations will have a major payoff: the new cross-state border rule alone will prevent an estimated 34,000 premature deaths a year according to the EPA. "No community should bear the burden of another community's polluters or be powerless to act against the air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told TIME.

Unsurprisingly, though, EPA regulations and the Sierra Club campaign have triggered a reaction from opponents in the power industry and Congress, who argue that going beyond coal will be far more difficult — and costly — than environmentalists suggest. Coal does provide close to half the electricity used by Americans today, and some parts of the country — like the Midwest and much of the South — are almost wholly dependent it for power. Tighter regulations and grassroots opposition to coal burning will likely force some of the oldest coal plants to close. "Is there a war on coal?" asks Michael Morris, the CEO of American Electric Power, which has said it will need to close coal plants in the wake of EPA regulations. "I think that's fair to say."

According to a study released last month by the National Economic Research Associates (NERA) — an economics consulting firm — the EPA's cross-border pollution role and its proposed regulations on mercury and other toxins do stand to cost industry $18 billion a year, result in overall job losses and increase the average American electricity bill 11.5% by 2020. Those numbers are much higher than the EPA's own estimates, which may not be surprising given that the NERA study was commissioned by a coal industry group. Still, there's no denying that any effort to take on coal is going to have at least a short-term cost. "These new regulations will be like a ball and chain wrapped around American families and businesses as they try to crawl out of the great recession," says Steve Miller, head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group. "There will be a major impact on electricity rates and jobless rates."

That's difficult to predict, but it would be a mistake to view air pollution regulations only through an economic lens. The EPA says that the new cross-state border rule will provide $280 billion in public health savings at the cost of roughly $2.5 billion a year in plant upgrades — and many of those upgrades are already underway. Crunch the numbers that way and it seems like economic folly not to take action. Industry also has a habit of overestimating just how expensive clean air will really be. In Congressional hearings before the landmark 1990 Clean Air Act was passed — by a huge bipartisan majority — utility executives predicted huge costs if tighter regulations on acid rain-causing pollutants were put into place, affecting coal plants. They were wrong: national electricity rates actually fell in the years following the law's passage, along with emissions. Inexpensive natural gas — thanks to the growing role played by shale — should cushion the cost of moving away from coal. "Smart companies have already been thinking about this shift from coal," says Michael Bradley, the executive director of the Clean Energy Group, a coalition of electric utilities. "Companies that remain really dependent on coal will have a harder time."

Coal industry executives argue that they've been successful in reducing air pollutants over the years, and they have — smoggy skylines aren't as common as they were in the 1970s. But the smoke is still coming, and as scientists look closer at air pollution, they're finding dangerous effects even at low levels. Fine particles — bits of soot less than 9 ten-thousandths of an inch across — can penetrate the lungs and trigger inflammation, which can contribute to heart attacks. The neurotoxin mercury — which can cause neurological damage in children — is present in trace amounts in some kinds of coal, and can be released into the air when burned. (Mercury emissions increased more than 8% from 1999 to 2005.) Though it's not clear what role air pollution might play in causing asthma, the condition has been on the rise nationally, especially in minority communities in cities like New York — and there's no doubt that bad air makes asthma worse. "For someone who is predisposed to breathing problems, air pollution is likely to tip them over and make them wheeze," says Dr. Jerome Paulsen, chair of the council of environmental health for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "That's worrying."

According to the Clean Air Task Force — an NGO focused on air pollution — fine particulates from coal pollution helped cause over 13,000 deaths last year. That's a big number, but it's a tough one to wrap our minds around, because the threat from air pollution is so diffuse. Bloomberg compares it to gun violence: just about everyone knows of the 32 people killed in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, yet few of us know the anonymous 34 Americans who are on average killed by guns each day. "We don't know the names of the kids who are killed by coal, but it happens," says Bloomberg. "This industry shouldn't have carte blanche to pollute the air that we breathe." If Bloomberg and his green allies have their way, coal will go the way of cigarettes in a New York City bar.