Introducing the coalSwarm

In the spring of 2007, when author Ted Nace set out to profile the emerging No New Coal Plants movement for Orion magazine, he had no idea that the assignment would turn into more than just a single article.

Nace had become interested in the anti-coal movement after reading an article in The Nation magazine, in which NASA's chief climate scientist James E. Hansen warned that another decade of continued growth in greenhouse gases would "guarantee" enough dramatic climate change to produce what Hansen called "a different planet." Hansen made it clear that the most important step that needed to be taken to avoid such a consequence was an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.

The Power of the Swarm

As Nace explored the anti-coal movement, he found that some of the most effective work was being done by small, rurally-based, grassroots groups linked together informally through computer networks. His Orion article, "Stopping Coal in Its Tracks," noted that in many cases this decentralized "swarm" had been more militant and more effective than the large groups known as Big Green.

Nace set up the website Coal Moratorium Now! to organize the information he was gathering on coal, then recruited two researchers, Meilin Chin and Michelle Chandra, to help him track down the status of every proposed coal plant they could locate. As word of the coal plants database spread, several people proposed moving it onto a wiki so that it could be more easily accessed and edited by multiple researchers.

Finding a Home for the coalSwarm on SourceWatch

In December 2007, Nace researched both the option of building a new wiki and of joining an existing one. CMD's SourceWatch quickly emerged as the best option for several reasons:

  • The opportunity to create a unique badge and portal within SourceWatch, allowing a strong community identity to be created;
  • The fact that search engines like Google tended to give high rankings to SourceWatch articles;
  • The expertise of SourceWatch's staff of editors and technicians.

coalSwarm logo

Nace, now joined on the project by former Yahoo project manager Kaethin Prizer and Rainforest Action Network intern Adrian Wilson, settled on the name coalSwarm to reflect the grassroots character of the anti-coal movement, and cartoonist John Grimes designed a matching logo. The coalSwarm crew designed a portal page, then set to work transferring over 200 coal project descriptions from the Coal Moratorium Now database into SourceWatch articles. Next, they began writing articles on a variety of coal-related topics, such as Nonviolent Direct Actions Against Coal, U.S. Coal Politics, and 2008 US Presidential Candidate Positions on Coal.

Breaking Through the Silence

In January, coalSwarm, in conjunction with Rainforest Action Network, released its first report to the media, Progress Towards a Coal Moratorium (PDF). The report, which revealed that 59 proposed coal plants had been canceled or placed on hold during 2007, had an immediate impact on the debate over U.S. coal and environmental policy. Citing the coalSwarm report, WorldWatch's Lester Brown told a conference call of journalist: "We may be on the verge of a monumental victory in the worldwide effort to stabilize climate." David Roberts, the widely read columnist at online environmental journal Grist, commented that "coal is on the ropes" and referred readers to coalSwarm's cancellation report. Within little over than a month after being posted, the article had received over 3,300 visits.

To Nace, the coal plant cancellation study is just one example of how the coalSwarm community, working within the framework of SourceWatch, can play an essential role in the national debate over coal policy. Planned future activities include books, articles, and online media, all based on the research gathered through the coalSwarm wiki.

Exposing the Fronts, and the Myths of "Clean Coal"

"In the past several months," said Nace, "the national media has reported that the coal industry plans to spend $35 million on its 'clean coal' campaign aimed at convincing the American public to support continued expansion of coal. With such a huge megaphone in the hands of industry front groups like Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), it is essential for the emergence of a democratic energy policy that there be solid research tools like coalSwarm available to activists, journalists, students, policy makers, and others."

For more information, visit the coalSwarm portal page on SourceWatch.