2010: A Precedent-Setting Year In the Fight Against Coal

It was another tough year for the coal industry. In the last 25 months not one coal-fired power plant broke ground for construction in the United States. In 2010 alone a total of 38 proposed plants were erased from the drawing board, the most ever recorded in a single year. Utilities also announced 12,000 MW in coal plant retirements — or enough power to bring electricity to a whopping 12 million American households. And even Massey Energy’s infamous henchman Don Blankenship is set to retire, effective next month.

Indeed coal executives got what they deserved in their stockings this holiday season — big lumps of black coal. “I predict historians will point at 2010 as the year that coal’s influence peaked and began declining,” says Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director of the Sierra Club, whose organization released a year-end report on coal in the U.S.

Nilles is correct; the coal boom out west looks to be over, as companies like Arch and Peabody scramble to figure out what to do with their vast reserves while U.S. markets begin to dwindle. The EPA has also not been as friendly to this portion of the energy sector as in years past, placing most coal permits for mountaintop removal on hold and even recommending a veto of the proposed Spruce Mine in West Virginia, which would be the largest of its kind in the country.

With the help of Rainforest Action Network and other grassroots activists, financing for new mining projects from the likes of PNC and UBS will prove difficult from now on. In 2010 both banks joined the growing number of lending institutions that are turning their backs on mountaintop removal ventures. During the first half of this year renewable energy projects also accounted for 93 percent of all proposed projects.

Back in 2001 the outlook for the coal trade looked much different. At the time, a total of 150 plants were proposed in the U.S. It was to kick off the coal rush of the millennium. But citizen opposition mounted in the form of legal battles, public education efforts, demonstrations and well-executed divestment campaigns all over country. From the streets of Washington to the rural outback of South Dakota people became outraged. Concern for public health and the awareness of coal’s contribution to climate change increased dramatically. The result has been exceptional: a total of 149 of those 150 plant proposals have been halted outright.

Who said environmentalism is dead? When it comes to coal anyway, the movement is alive and well with dozens of victories under its belt in the last two years alone.

Nonetheless, it’s just the beginning. According to Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, ending emissions from coal is “is 80 percent of the solution to the global warming crisis.” Hansen says this is because of three straightforward reasons: 1) according to most estimates coal is much more plentiful than oil and gas; 2) coal is far more carbon intensive than any other fossil fuel; and 3) coal use is concentrated in the United States in around 600 power plants (dozens of which are already slated for closure), whereas other fuels are spread among an array of sources.

Climate scientists estimate that greenhouse gas levels have already passed the dangerous benchmark of 350 parts per million. However, in order to curb this dire trend, and bring down this number dramatically, Hansen and others say we must eliminate coal use in the United States by 2030.

Is it doable? It certainly looks to be.

To put the numbers in perspective, in order to bring all U.S. coal offline over the course of the next 20 years, this means we must retire an average of 15,000 MW of coal power annually. So despite 2010’s huge success with 12,000 MW chalked up for closure, the pace must be increased.

No question the anti-coal movement has its work cut out for it. One huge problem is that coal plants in China are being built at a rapid pace — almost two mid-sized plants every week. But perhaps fortunately, the country cannot continue to exponentially burn coal without running out of its national supply, at which point it will have to import all the coal they consume to keep their industry running. No doubt this means burning coal mined in the U.S., which along with Canada holds the world’s largest percentage of coal reserves.

That’s exactly why companies operating in the coal-rich Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, like Peabody and Arch Coal, have been fixated on the booming Asian markets, promising their shareholders that future profits are sure to rain down, compliments of the Chinese.

First, of course, these coal companies will have to ship their products across the Pacific Ocean, which will require coal-capable ports to be operable up and down the West Coast. Currently only one port in Vancouver, BC is set up to export coal. In order to meet the growing demand in China and elsewhere, ports from Long Beach, California all the way up to Canada will have to able to load ships with coal in the future.

As such, the new frontier for anti-coal campaigners may well shift to Western coastal states, which have already begun to turn away from the polluting fossil fuel.

First, Oregon is looking to nix coal burning by shutting down the state’s sole Boardman plant by 2020, if not sooner. California already burns very little coal while the state’s largest consumer of power, the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, is set to end its purchasing of coal power generated by Arizona’s Navajo Station within the next 10 years. And activists in Washington are working hard to shut down the state’s sole coal facility in Centralia. Simply put, coal isn’t popular on the Left Coast.

While these states have almost unanimously recognized the need to ditch coal, they are nonetheless being eyed for port redevelopments by the coal executives, the first of which is already underway just north of Portland, Oregon in the town of Longview, Washington.

Coal opponents are already gearing up for battle. Earthjustice and others seeking to challenge the Longview port permit on the grounds the facility would exacerbate climate change and threaten human health, filed a lawsuit in early December. The suit was the first of its kind in the United States, no question a sign of what’s to come in the years ahead.

“Coal companies are targeting Washington as a gateway for coal export to China,” said K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, which joined Earthjustice in the Longview lawsuit. “This one facility would export about as much coal as the whole state of Washington now uses, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It flies in the face of the state’s commitment to climate solutions and leadership in the clean energy economy. The most jobs, the best jobs, are in building our clean energy economy, not in serving as a resource colony for Asian economies.”

The victories of the past two years in the fight against coal have set a strong precedent and the coal industry has been put on alert: the jig is up boys. No longer will coal companies be able to operate with impunity.

“None of this would have been possible without [all of those] who have engaged to stop new coal plants and new coal mines, and push for retirement of the existing coal fleet,” says Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club. “This grassroots campaign is growing in leaps and bounds on college campuses, in urban and rural areas, and from coast to coast.”

So here’s to a prosperous 2011. For the days of coal profiteering are numbered.

This article was first published at Alternet.org.


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