The Campaign to Shut Down New England’s Last Coal Plant
by Arnie Alpert, Waging Nonviolence
There’s one form of power that’s generated when hot water turns turbines to create electricity.
There are other forms of power held by investors, property owners and regulatory agencies.
And then there’s people power, which can be harnessed to affect decisions of investors, property owners and regulatory agencies—such that fossil fuel-burning operations cease running. That’s what the No Coal No Gas campaign seeks to do with its focus on shutting down New England’s last coal-burning power plant, Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire.
No Coal No Gas, which launched its first protest against the power plant in 2019, returned to Bow on Oct. 3 for a day of mass action. In addition to a rally on an adjacent ballfield and a flotilla of “kayaktivists” on the Merrimack River, campaign members planted gardens on company property, including a bed hacked out with pickaxes in the middle of an access road. After several state police cruisers arrived and dozens of officers in full riot gear marched in from behind the gardeners, 18 people were arrested.
Speaking at the rally, attended by about 200 people, Mary Fite, a Bow resident, focused her comments on the plant’s Connecticut-based owner, Granite Shore Power—a joint venture of Atlas Holdings and Castleton Commodities. With her three children and partner at her side, she charged, “They don’t care about your health, and they don’t care about your children. They don’t care about future generations. Granite Shore Power does not care about climate change or the future of planet Earth.”
As the crowd cheered, Fite added a rallying cry, “Granite Shore Power wants to intimidate residents and invalidate our concerns, but here we are!”
Katie Lessard, a Bow High School student, also spoke, telling the rallygoers, “As a young person, it’s really important for us to take action in shutting down the climate crisis before it’s too late, because if left unchecked it will have worse and worse effects for my generation.” She noted that most of her peers agreed as well.
The demonstration was the latest in the No Coal No Gas campaign, which is backed by 350NH and the Climate Disobedience Center. “Arrest is not the goal,” commented organizer Isaac Petersen after the arrestees had been taken away. Civil resistance is just one of the nonviolent tools the campaign employs, he said.
The Oct. 3 action followed months of planning, weeks of training, and a weekend action camp held at Pitch Perfect—a woodsy campground in Canterbury, New Hampshire, about 15 miles north of the power plant. “I support what they’re doing wholeheartedly,” said LeeAnn Mackey, owner of the rustic campground where activists pitched tents, shared meals, held workshops, made banners and organized plans.
They also learned and sang songs, including one with gardening-themed lyrics: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Another, Greg Greenway‘s “Do What Must Be Done,” lent itself to a slogan printed on the backs of “No Coal No Gas” T-shirts.
The camp was a “huge part” of the action, explained Emma Shapiro-Weiss, co-director of 350NH. It established an opportunity for “a lot of new people having conversations with each other about what nonviolence looks like, why we are here, why we are doing this work, why we are spending a whole weekend with each other in the middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire, and challenging this coal plant.”
Importantly, the camp also helped build trust among participants, as it was a prerequisite for anyone considering civil disobedience. As Shapiro-Weiss explained, recalling the group’s imperative, “If you’re going to be with us taking action on Sunday, you’ve got to be in camp on Saturday.” Participants attended workshops on the campaign’s history and strategy, discussed nonviolence and how the movement addresses generational and racial diversity. There was plenty of time for large group circles, small group discussions, banner painting and preparation for the Sunday action.
Showing what is possible
No Coal No Gas launched in 2019 when a few climate activists removed coal from the piles outside the Bow power plant, later dumping it on the State House lawn in Concord to demand that the state act to end the use of fossil fuels. Later that year, a larger group returned to Bow, this time dressed in Tyvek suits and carrying empty buckets, as if to say, “We’ll stop the use of coal if we have to remove it bucket by bucket.” Sixty-seven people were arrested for criminal trespass.
While many of them accepted plea bargained sentences, 19 have appealed to the Superior Court for a new trial, which has not yet been scheduled. One of them, the Rev. Kendra Ford of Portsmouth, was back on Oct. 3. “The plant is still burning coal, and we want it to stop burning coal, so I have to come back,” she said.
During the winter of 2019-2020, No Coal No Gas staged nonviolent blockades of trains carrying coal to Bow. Police arrested coal-train protesters in several Massachusetts towns, as well as at a railroad bridge in Hooksett, New Hampshire. Five cases from the train blockades are still pending in court, according to the Climate Disobedience Center’s Marla Marcum, who’s keeping track of all the legal entanglements.
The point, they say, is to “show what is possible,” beyond the specifics of any one action.
“All too often, conversations around climate action are constrained by the concept of ‘political feasibility,’ instead of being guided by moral necessity. We commit to taking moral action to do what must be done and hope to show that collective resistance and a Just Transition are both necessary and possible,” says a statement on the campaign’s website.
No Coal No Gas lists “building unity and community” as its top goal, above even stopping the burning of coal. That goal was served by the action camp, which for 350NH’s Emma Shapiro-Weiss meant “being in community with some people that I’ve been in community with for years, and lots of new people that we’re bringing in, new perspectives and new ideas.”
Finally, the No Coal No Gas website states, “We aim to shut down the last coal-fired power plant in New England not already slated for closure. By using creative, nonviolent confrontation, we will unmask the violence happening in Bow and around the world.”
It’s always been a nonviolent, direct-action campaign, Shapiro-Weiss said. “[Nonviolence] has enabled us to reach a huge audience to create relationships that I really don’t see in other campaigns.”
Skill-building and relationships have also enabled No Coal No Gas campaigners to resist other environmental threats, for example by joining the movement against the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.
From the time she joined the 350NH staff in 2019, involvement in No Coal No Gas campaign introduced Shapiro-Weiss to a “wonderful regional group of organizers and people that were really saying ‘no’ to the fossil fuel industry, to the destruction of our world, and figuring out how we were going to build the world we want to see.”
Targeting the corporate owners
In addition to the demonstrations on train tracks and at the power plant, No Coal No Gas has also organized a utility bill payment strike and tried to influence decisions of ISO New England—a relatively obscure agency that oversees the regional power grid, under the oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. It is only through ISO’s subsidies that Granite Shore Power is able to keep the fires burning at Bow. That means, as Isaac Petersen explained during one of the action camp workshops, the ISO is “one of the organizations that has the power to shut down the Bow coal plant.”
According to ISO’s data, coal provides only 0.15 percent of the region’s electricity, compared to more than 3 percent for wind and more than 2 percent for solar. Rather than providing baseload capacity, the Bow plant fires up only on the hottest and coldest days. Since it’s otherwise uneconomical to keep a power plant operating for only a few days a year, Granite Shore depends on subsidies, or “forward capacity payments,” built into the rate structure to remain profitable.
As Bow resident Mary Fite put it during the rally, “They will try and keep this plant going as long as profits are there, as long as it’s being funded by us. They will keep on taking handouts to stay online.”
Untangling the technical details has required the campaign to develop what one activist called “a high level of nerd-dom.” At the time of the last subsidy auction, No Coal No Gas generated about 100 comments submitted to ISO and FERC to deny ongoing subsidies to Granite Shore. They have also held demonstrations outside the ISO’s Holyoke, Massachusetts offices.
The campaign is now organizing another round of comments to the FERC. As an Oct. 20 alert put it, “We are sending public comments to FERC’s new Office of Public Participation demanding that they require ISO-NE to prioritize renewable energy and climate justice. ISO New England seemed quite alarmed by the 100 comments we submitted to FERC last March—let’s see how they react to even more comments!”
Planning for a week of demonstrations focused on Granite Shore Power’s corporate owners, both of which are headquartered in southwestern Connecticut, is also underway.
No Coal No Gas operates with “mass calls,” affinity groups, working groups—such as one focused on the ISO—and a coordinating committee that meets regularly and is open to all campaigners. Support from 350NH and Climate Disobedience Center staff provides continuity in what’s mostly a volunteer-driven project. Regular “onboarding” sessions, often coupled with one-on-one meetings, are held to invite and orient newcomers to the campaign’s goals and plans.
They know their openness makes it possible for the power company and police to keep an eye on them. But through their community-building activity, they believe they can protect themselves from infiltration. “On the whole, we want to be as open as possible,” Shapiro-Weiss said. “We’re not hiding who we are. This is what we’re doing. Come and join us.”
When the campaign succeeds in stopping the burning of coal in Bow, organizers say the “No Gas” part of the equation will be brought forward.
Atlas Holdings has already converted one coal plant in upstate New York to gas. The company is using the power to “mine” Bitcoins, a process which uses massive amounts of electricity to run huge banks of computers. According to a recent New York Times article, the process of creating Bitcoins consumes more energy than is used annually by Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million. But Atlas says Bitcoin mining at its Dresden, New York power plant complements the “power plant’s unique commitment to environmental stewardship.”
“It’s wild, it sounds like a conspiracy theory,” Shapiro-Weiss commented.
After months of planning, the Oct. 3 demonstration required some last-minute adjustments by organizers. Unlike the 2019 demonstration, when the Bow Police posted “No Parking” signs along one side of the road to Merrimack Station, both sides of the road were posted on Oct. 3. Campaigners adapted by parking miles away and carpooling to the site.
No Coal No Gas activists ran into similar trouble when the boat ramp—which they thought they had permission to launch their kayaks from—was blocked off with chains. “Restricted Access: Law Enforcement, Fire, Police or Rescue Only,” read the bold-face signs by what is normally Bow’s only access to the river. Kayaktivists adapted by launching their boats across the river in Allenstown instead.
Shapiro-Weiss, who was one of the activists planting a garden in the middle of Merrimack Station’s access road, said she was stunned by the overwhelming police presence. “I had this weird moment when I was being arrested,” she said. “I was the final person taken, and found just myself surrounded by riot cops, and just took a moment to take it in.” She said to herself, “This is what the state, this is what the fossil fuel industry will do to protect this big, outdated, ancient asset—instead of protecting us, the people, and taking action against the climate crisis.”
Without missing a beat, Shapiro-Weiss boldly stated, “This is why we’re doing this.”
Arnie Alpert is a longtime nonviolent action trainer in New Hampshire.
This story first appeared Oct. 26 in Waging Nonviolence
Photo: InZane Times
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