Shutting down the last large coal plant in New England:

A discussion with Leif Taranta from No Coal No Gas.

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Rhianwen Watkins, Arts Editor

It was a freezing winter morning on the grounds of the large coal plant in Bow New Hampshire, where Leif Taranta found themself facing a daring task: climbing the several hundred-foot smokestack.

The day was frigid, but the heat emitting from the coal plant was hotter than the surrounding area, keeping the climbers at least a bit warm – although the rancid fumes made it difficult to breathe. Taranta and a fellow activist began climbing the tall structure, while two others locked themselves to the bottom of the smokestack to act as a communication link between any workers or cops down below and the climbers above.

As a rock-climbing instructor, Taranta was prepared for the excursion and in charge of making sure the climbers were safe.

“To be honest with you, I had a fun time. I love climbing,” Taranta said. “I was excited.”

Hours later, the two reached their destination, hundreds of feet above the ground, and dropped a massive sign that billowed down the smokestack, reading “Shut It Down”.

At first, nobody on the outside realized what had happened. They assumed the activists at the bottom were workers and thought nothing of the scene. But as the climbers continued to reach higher up the structure, people began to take notice.

Eventually, the CEO arrived, as well as a few police officers.

“I’ve had some really bad experiences with cops in other activist settings,” said Taranta. “This case, they were mostly kind of confused. And I honestly think a little impressed because they kept being like, ‘how did you get up there?’ So, the experience with the cops in this case was not as bad as I was prepared for it to be.”

The climbers were arrested and taken to jail, but released after a few hours with charges of disorderly conduct and trespass.

Activists such as Taranta are aware ahead of time that they face the possibility of being arrested when engaging in direct action. It’s a price they are willing to pay if it works towards making lasting change.

This is only one of many instances of direct action that Taranta has taken part in as a campaign coordinator for the NH climate activist campaign, No Coal No Gas. The organization’s main goal currently is to shut down the Merrimack Generating Station, the last large coal-fired plant in New England that sits next to the Merrimack River in Bow, NH.

According to the organization, the plant emits the same amount of carbon in one hour as an average individual will produce in 26 years of living.  

On average, the plant causes three deaths, six heart attacks, 47 asthma attacks and many hospitalizations every year, according to Global Energy Monitor.

“Because the Merrimack River flows south through a lot of different communities, there’s also a lot of downstream impacts of the toxins, like people swimming in it and getting cancer. It also heats up the river a ridiculous amount,” said Taranta. “I have been canoeing on the river in the winter as it’s freezing, and there is steam coming off the water south of the plant. So, that’s really bad for the fish and the local creatures and plants.”

The plant continues to stay open because it gets forward capacity payments from the regional grid operator, Taranta explained. These are basically subsidies that are taken out of electric bills and given to plants like Merrimack Station.

“They’re already getting paid for the electricity they provide. So, they’re getting these additional payments just to exist. That money could be going to such better things like renewables or giving relief to ratepayers who can’t pay their bills. So, the plant is also inhibiting a transition to better alternatives by taking so much money that could go to something else,” said Taranta.

The plant is now considered a peaker plant, meaning that it does not run all the time, but only during the most cold or hot days.

“A lot of times when people hear that they’re like, oh, this plant must be necessary,” Taranta said. “It’s not. There’s a lot of peaker plants. The reserve margin of how much extra electricity they need on the grid is ridiculously high. So, this whole idea that we need it when it’s cold or hot, it’s propaganda.”

No Coal No Gas has made tremendous progress throughout their activism journey towards removing the plant. The plant was already a peaker plant when they began. However, the plant ran 80%less the second year compared to the first year of the campaign.

Besides braving a climb of the smokestack, No Coal No Gas has put forth several other measures towards their mission.

In large groups, the organization has snuck into the coal plant and removed hundreds of pounds of coal over the course of multiple visits, to prevent it from being burned. They have also blocked many coal trains from resupplying the plant, which culminated in trials that allowed them the opportunity to call for action in the courts. The campaign has snuck onto the coal plant grounds on other occasions to plant little gardens to try and rematriate the soil. On one trip, they dug up the coal plant driveway to plant a garden in its place.

They have also created action away from the grounds of the plant itself. From delivering coal to the houses and offices of corporate owners to impersonating them online through a fake website that announced the plant was being shut down.

The organization also directs its action towards the Independent System Operators (ISO) in New England, which send money to the coal plant operators. These actions included a utility strike at the ISO headquarters where they refused to pay their utility bills to protest the payments towards the plant, as well as public comment periods to disrupt meetings with the ISO and the Federal Energy Regulation Commission. Other forms of action include taking their cases to trial and supporting lawsuits.

“It’s been really successful,” said Taranta. They explained that in addition to the plant running far less than it used to, ISO New England has also recently been more willing to allow people into their board meetings to discuss things, which previously were closed off to the public for decades.

“And last year, for the first time ever, they filed a partial D-list bid, which meant they were basically asking to not have the full capacity of the plant on call at any point. They just want part of it on call, which is a very important signal that they’re moving towards retiring it,” Taranta said. “I think that we’re getting pretty close to shutting this plant down in particular, which would be really exciting.”

No Coal No Gas’s next big endeavor is attempting to take over the consumer liaison group for ISO New England.

“Utility companies alike have a huge amount of say in the grid regulation and actual consumers and ratepayers have almost none,” Taranta explained. “Except, there’s this Consumer Liaison Group that’s supposed to be the bridge between the ratepayers and the ISO.”

The campaign planned to attend the elections for the committee on Nov. 30 with 90 members to flood the meeting and vote their own people into the Consumer Liaison Group.

“I think we’re going to be able to elect our folks which would be very exciting,” Taranta said.

For those who want to make an impact and help create change towards renewable energy, Taranta encourages individuals to engage in collective action.

“I used to be really into the personal carbon footprint stuff. I wouldn’t use plastic, I was vegan, I tried to never ride in a car and only take public transportation. And, none of those things are bad. But, the amount of time I was on that smokestack, my entire lifetime of doing that went up in smoke, and then more,” they said. “I think that collective action is really the only way that everyday people can actually leverage our power in this situation to make something change.”

“I’m not at all saying everyone needs to climb a smokestack,” Taranta joked. “But if someone’s saying, ‘how can I help with the climate crisis,’ there is a role for you.”

 Taranta said there is nothing wrong with being environmentally aware and responsible, but that relying solely on individual actions will not make the impact that is needed to create change.

 “Fossil fuel industries have spread this rhetoric of individual carbon footprint on purpose, so that we wouldn’t take collective action,” they explained. “I think the rest of us have a lot more power when we do things together. And, we have more power than the people at the top because we can shut things down. They can’t operate all of this without us helping.”