Sticking With the Dirty Status Quo in Oklahoma?

© Sierra Club
The Oklahoma Beyond Coal float from the Oklahoma City Halloween Parade.

I had the chance to visit Oklahoma City last month when the Sierra Club chapter was celebrating its 40th anniversary. While I was there I had a chance to sit down with Whitney Pearson to talk about her work to move Oklahoma beyond coal. She grew up in Oklahoma, just 10 miles from a coal plant that recently announced its retirement. She told me that she's stayed in Oklahoma because there’s so much work to do to transition the state from an over-reliance on coal to more reliance on available clean energy.

She said that she couldn't see herself leaving because she really wants to make a difference where all of her family lives. It's personal for her because it's her home state.

While at the 40th Anniversary Gala, I met many of the chapters who are leading this fight. These committed activists are trying to convince Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) to clean up its two coal plants and stop fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s haze pollution standards.

As Whitney explained to me, OG&E has to either retire its two coal plants or add emissions controls to them. She and the chapter leaders want them to invest in clean energy.

Currently, Oklahoma has six coal-fired power plants that collectively emit significant amounts of soot, smog, and mercury pollution. Coal-fired power plants are a major contributor of ozone-forming pollution, and 2011 air quality data has shown that Tulsa and Oklahoma City exceeded federal limits on ozone pollution, threatening Oklahoma’s most vulnerable citizens, such as children, the elderly, and people who work or exercise outdoors. Ozone pollution is worsened during periods of high temperatures, and the summer of 2012 was one of the worst ozone seasons in Oklahoma history.

Whitney says Oklahoma has so many homegrown clean energy resources that there's no need to be relying on coal power that harms public health and the environment. Most people are shocked to find out how how much we rely on coal and how much cheaper clean energy could be.

I was surprised to learn how much they rely on coal from out of state. Oklahoma sends $494 million out of state every year for coal, yet has some of the best wind energy potential in the country.

And so Whitney and her awesome gang of activists are educating the public about clean energy and the need for OG&E to clean up its act. This week they even marched in the Oklahoma Gazette's Sixth Annual Halloween Parade with a float and 17 people dressed up in costumes based on the horrors of dirty coal power and the healthy future clean energy can provide (that's their float in the photo at the top of this column).

Oklahoma has made progress moving from coal to clean energy in the past few years. There are more than 2,000 megawatts of wind power in the state, and much more is in progress. The state’s wind resource ranks ninth in the U.S., with more than 500,000 megawatts of wind power potential. Wind power in Oklahoma supports thousands of jobs, and according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind can provide more than 31 times as much electricity as Oklahoma currently uses.

I wasn't sure what to expect from my visit to Oklahoma. But I came away incredibly motivated because they are winning. Whitney wants to make sure everyone knows because if it can be done in Oklahoma, it can be done anywhere.

Whitney says OG&E could be taking the lead on clean energy and creating more jobs, but they'd rather "stick with the status quo than clean up the air in Oklahoma."

Another clean energy option for the state and OG&E is investing in energy efficiency, something Whitney says Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has been promoting heavily in the past year.

"She just worked with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy on the state energy efficiency report. We moved from 47th to 39th on the list of most energy efficient states and were highlighted as one of the three most improved states."

Oklahoma can do better than coal power for its citizens. The state and OG&E should be investing in clean energy and retiring coal plants -- and ensuring workers get jobs in new, clean energy projects around the state. Thank you to Whitney and the Oklahoma Sierra Club chapter for making sure it happens!

If you're in Oklahoma and want to join the movement for clean energy, check out the Oklahoma Sierra Club page.

Tags: Clean Energy | Coal | Wind Power

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