Stopping the coal rush

Mountain top removed

Courtesy Mark Schmerling


By Virginia Cramer

In early 2007, the Club’s campaign to stop the coal rush got a boost when the Supreme Court concluded that global warming pollution is the same as any other pollution under the Federal Clean Air Act. This ruling enabled environmentalists—with Sierra Club taking a leadership role—to stop the construction of 31 proposed coal-fired power plants. In total, the cancellation of those coal plants added up to a $45.3 billion defeat for the coal industry.

Fast-forward a year and even those in the financial sector are now taking notice. This February, three of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks announced that they are imposing new environmental standards that will make it harder for companies to get financing to build new coal-fired power plants in the U.S.  Because they expect that government will soon impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and Morgan Stanley will now make those seeking funds for power plants show that they could continue to make a profit after emissions caps are put it place. The result is that even though emission caps laws aren’t yet on the books, the banks themselves are essentially imposing them.

One short week after the Wall Street announcement, a federal appeals court ruled that the Bush Administration can no longer evade its legal mandate to cut toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. That decision will not only force the coal industry to install pollution controls, but it invalidates the EPA’s so-called “Clean Air Mercury Rule,” which would have allowed dangerously high levels of mercury pollution to persist under a weak cap-and-trade program not slated to take full effect until well beyond 2020.

Despite its recent string of defeats, the coal industry continues its rush to obtain permits for new power plants before the government enacts national global warming regulations. The worst offender is Dynegy the largest developer of coal plants in the U.S., which is pushing to build six massive coal-fired power plants in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and Texas. In response, the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign has launched a corporate accountability campaign calling on Dynegy (also known as LS Power), to be part of the solution, by investing in clean energy rather than in more dirty coal-fired power.

In Pennsylvania, which has been targeted by the industry as a “preferred location” for new coal-burning facilities, at least four new generating plants—Wellington, Shade, River Hill, Beech Hollow—are in the permitting pipeline. In addition, the state has been selected by Waste Management, Inc. as the site of a new liquid coal plant. In response to the resurgence of coal in the state, the Sierra Club is working on several fronts and is currently part of a coalition fighting to halt the construction of a proposed 525-megawatt, waste coal plant in Nemacolin.

Although his administration has been pushing for alternative energy development, Governor Rendell is not shying away from coal, which many still believe to be an economic lifeline for the state. At the National Governors Association's meeting in February, Rendell declared that with clean-coal technology "Coal states would be back in business big time, and the economies would flourish." Given that the coal industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their outdated and dirty power source, it’s not surprising that the Governor would be misled with false promises of "clean coal." But unless he and his legislature turn away from new coal-fired development, the state will be locked into a dirty energy future.

The good news is that on the whole, U.S. renewable energy resources are on the increase, making big coal look a whole lot smaller these days. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “Concerns about global warming and rising building costs are blocking construction of new coal-fired power plants in the United States and pushing utilities to turn to natural gas and renewable power instead.” The boom in renewables is corroborated by the American Wind Energy Association, which recently announced that wind capacity grew 44% last year. In 2007 alone, wind-power developers built enough new turbines to supply electricity to 1.5 million homes and pump $9 billion into the U.S. economy. At the same time, new solar plants have been announced in California, Colorado and Florida, and multiple states have proposed additional natural gas plants to back up their renewable energy sources.

Although the coal industry insists that an increasing demand for energy will require additional coal-fired energy, it appears that a cultural climate change may be warming up to the power of renewables.

Virginia Cramer is the media liaison to the National Coal Campaign.


Published April 2008