Protesters trying to stop coal train are on the wrong track

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Activist is pictured removing coal from the Merrimack Generating Station in Bow last August. (Courtesy/

Recently a group of religious congregations from New Hampshire and Vermont gathered in the Upper Valley for an event they billed as "Responding to the Climate Crisis with 2020 Vision." Their keynote speaker was Rev. Jim Antal of the United Church of Christ, an author and prominent climate activist who relocated to the Upper Valley last year.

"Courage," Antal said, "is no longer optional. It is required."

What sort of courage did he have in mind? "Make civil disobedience a normative spiritual practice of people of faith, every bit as much as prayer," Antal urged the roughly 150 people in attendance.

Antal made clear that by civil disobedience he was referring to incidents such as the recent efforts to blockade the shipment of coal by rail to Merrimack Station in Bow. Dozens of people have been arrested as the result of such activities since last summer.

Regular readers of this column will recall that I am no fan of Merrimack Station, particularly because Eversource customers are paying off $400 million in costs resulting from the 2008 decision to build a mercury scrubber there instead of shutting the plant down.

Burning coal to produce electricity is dying in New England. And well it should, given the climate crisis and the obscene amounts of carbon that coal generation belches into the atmosphere. Thankfully, Merrimack Station hardly ever runs.

Turning it off forever is a worthy goal. So is transforming the energy economy from one based on fossil fuels to one based on alternatives, particularly energy efficiency and renewables.

But Antal's call for widespread acts of disruptive and illegal activity as a "normative spiritual practice" for congregations across the region is misguided. I hope the religious communities of New Hampshire and Vermont do not do as Antal recommends.

This is not a matter of spiritual insight. Questions of religion are beyond the scope of this column. Rather, the call for massive civil disobedience is wrong for two very secular reasons.

First, actions like temporarily impeding the delivery of coal to Merrimack Station do nothing to achieve their desired outcome. The connection between the disobedient act and the alleged moral wrong is too attenuated.

It is one thing to defy Jim Crow laws by refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina 60 years ago. It is quite another to defy laws against trespassing - limitations the protesters would surely defend as applied to their own homes - to express disagreement with other aspects of public policy (such as the state and federal law that allows and in some respects even promotes the use of fossil fuel to produce electricity).

Assuming that the legal protections afforded coal power are the moral equivalent of the legal protections previously afforded segregation, the analogous dateline is not some forlorn railroad track in the middle of the night but rather the antiseptic hotel ballrooms where meetings of NEPOOL take place. NEPOOL is the forum where regional electric market rules, including those that protect legacy generators like Merrimack Station, are hashed out behind closed doors.

Of course enduring the rigamarole of becoming a NEPOOL member, though possible, isn't very compelling as theater. Often the perpetrators of such climate protests defend their actions by claiming they are drawing needed attention to their cause. And they are - but they are also engendering backlash.

New Hampshire has its share of climate deniers, who will never be convinced no matter how much evidence mounts that climate disruption is a clear and present cataclysmic danger. But this is a minority. Most Granite Staters of goodwill now acknowledge the need to confront the climate crisis, the open question being how urgently and drastically to act.

My job requires me to remain on good terms with people across the political and ideological spectrum who care about energy. This experience leaves me worrying that illegal efforts to disrupt operations at Merrimack Station, or other lawfully operating energy facilities, only serve to alienate people who are not already on board with the cause. And in a politically diverse state like New Hampshire, climate activists cannot afford to do that.

Second, and more importantly, institutionally sanctioned civil disobedience is corrosive of the general social order. In this regard it is useful to distinguish between individual acts of conscience and those that enjoy the imprimatur of prominent organizations, especially religious institutions.

To make this point another way: If the United Church of Christ is now asserting the right to ignore those laws with which it disagrees, what is to stop political parties or even investor-owned corporations from doing exactly the same thing, based on their earnestly held convictions about freedom and free markets?

And if all institutions are now free to follow their consciences, do the ones representing climate activists seriously believe their views will prevail, and the planet will be protected, as we descend into chaos? Or will the resulting social upheaval obliterate any chance of meaningful collective action to defend the earth's ecosystems?

Those questions aside, Antal's call for civil disobedience would be more credible if it were not accompanied by a misleading call to "resist all new fossil fuel infrastructure."

This conflates two things: expanding reliance on fossil fuels (which is self-evidently bad) and allowing public utilities to build facilities that are needed to meet their current service obligations. If we deny natural gas utilities permission to build any new infrastructure, their customer base will indeed shrink but this will create upheaval and force natural gas users to switch fuels at great expense. They will not necessarily switch to non-fossil alternatives.

Antal claimed that both governors Scott and Sununu could impose such a ban "by executive order." He is incorrect, as a matter of law in both states, and it is not helpful for public figures to spread misinformation about how utility regulation works.

Listening to Antal speak with such certainty about how people of faith should act brought to mind what the great jurist Learned Hand said to 500,000 people gathered in New York's Central Park on "I am an American" Day in May 1944. "The spirit of liberty," said Hand -- by which I think he meant the spirit that ought to guide public conversations in a democracy -- is "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."

Applying that spirit of liberty to the climate crisis and the existential threat it poses to civilization? There's the kind of courage we need.

Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire's Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere. It is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and and distributed as a public service to news outlets across the state.

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