When the Otter Tail Corporation of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, proposed to expand its Big Stone II coal-fired power plant, just over the border in South Dakota, Cesia Kearns of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign organized a press conference at the hotel hosting Otter Tail's annual shareholder meeting on April 14.
Joining Kearns were Native American author and activist Winona LaDuke, now executive director of Honor the Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, and Peggy Peters, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe who sits on its Environmental Advisory Board. Capping off the event—and a total surprise to Kearns—a man identifying himself as "Mr. Otter" showed up outside the shareholder meeting and attended the press conference. The costumed crusader is pictured above with (left to right) Kearns, Peters, LaDuke's son Gwae, and LaDuke.
"Pre-event media coverage billed the press conference as a rally and a protest," says Kearns, "a description I had expressly avoided since I was not organizing a protest." But the misunderstanding prompted Otter Tail to hire security and drew more media attention to the press event, which was covered by local television, radio, and print media, including the Associated Press.
Coal, Kearns told reporters, is not only increasingly expensive, but a major obstacle to Minnesota's clean air standards. "The state is already dependent on coal, and as with any business venture, Otter Tail Corp. should diversify its energy systems, meaning greater use of wind and solar resources."
LaDuke said there is no such thing as clean coal, "no matter how much they say there is." She recommended that instead of a coal plant, the Big Stone partners build a 1,000-megawatt wind farm. "We're already a planet seriously jeopardized by our past energy choices. [Now] we have the chance to do the right thing."
Peters said that as a sovereign nation, the Sisseton Wahpeton had expected to be consulted, but were never approached, leading to some "misspeaking" suggesting that the tribe was not opposed to the project. Tribal leaders are now drafting an official opposition letter. "We're not coming here to point fingers," Peters added. "We want to say in a peaceful manner that we want to work together to provide renewable energy."
LaDuke presented the project manager of Big Stone II with a gift basket of wild rice, maple syrup, and hominy, while expressing her concern about the impact global warming would have on the ability to grow these foods. Kearns then gave him a series of financial reports about the risks of building coal-fired power plants, a green jobs report, and Sierra Club wind power stickers.
A dozen or so members of the public joined Kearns, LaDuke, and Peters in talking with the project manager for the better part of an hour, asking him why, with all the social, environmental, and financial costs, Otter Tail would choose to build a new plant. A company spokesperson said the plant remains the cheapest alternative for meeting future energy needs, and is "the right thing for our customers [and] our shareholders."
Kearns later spoke to two classes at Fergus Falls Community College, where she presented a Sierra Club PowerPoint on "The Dirty Truth About Coal," which was videotaped so it could be shown to other students.
Read more about clean energy, the Sierra Club's efforts to stop the coal rush, and the Club's work with tribal partners.
Photos used with permission.