Inside the war on coal

coalThe war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.

The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.

Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal.

“They’re sophisticated, they’re very active, and they’re better funded than we are,” says Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.”

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease—not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters. The shift toward cleaner-burning gas and zero-emissions renewables is the most important change in our electricity mix in decades, and while Obama has been an ally in the war on coal—not always as aggressive an ally as the industry claims—the Sierra Club is in the trenches. The U.S. had 523 coal-fired power plants when Beyond Coal began targeting them; just last week, it celebrated the 190th retirement of its campaign in Asheville, N.C., culminating a three-year fight that had been featured in the climate documentary “Years of Living Dangerously.” 

Beyond Coal isn’t the stereotypical Sierra Club campaign, tree-huggers shouting save-the-Earth slogans. Yes, it sometimes deploys its 2.4 million-member, grass-roots army to shutter plants with traditional not-in-my-back-yard organizing and right-to-breathe agitating. But it usually wins by arguing that ditching coal will save ratepayers money.

Behind that argument lies a revolution in the economics of power, changes few Americans think about when they flick their switches. Coal used to be the cheapest form of electricity by far, but it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess, while the costs of gas, wind and solar have plunged in recent years. Now retrofitting old coal plants with the pollution controls needed to comply with Obama’s limits on soot, sulfur and mercury is becoming cost-prohibitive—and the EPA is finalizing its new carbon rules as well as tougher ozone restrictions that should add to the burden. That’s why the Sierra Club finds itself in foxholes with big-box stores, manufacturers and other business interests, fighting coal upgrades that would jack up electricity bills, pushing for cheaper renewables and energy efficiency instead. In a case I watched in Oklahoma City, every stakeholder supported Beyond Coal’s push for a utility to buy more low-cost wind power—including a coalition of industrial customers that reportedly included a Koch Industries-owned paper mill.

“They’re not burning bras. They’re fighting dollar to dollar,” says attorney Jim Roth, who represented a group of hospitals on Beyond Coal’s side in the Oklahoma case. “They’ve become masters at bringing financial arguments to environmental questions.”

As the affordability case for coal has lost traction, the industry’s defenders have portrayed the war on coal as a war on reliability, an assault on 24-hour “baseload” plants that provide juice when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. They ask how the Sierra Club expects America to run its refrigerators around the clock—since it also opposes nuclear power and has a separate Beyond Gas campaign. Duncan’s group started a Twitter meme warning that Americans could end up #ColdInTheDark, and even Bloomberg suggested to me in a recent interview that the Club’s leaders seem to want Americans to wear loincloths and live in caves.

In fact, neither the decline of coal, nor the boom in renewables has blacked out the grid, and Beyond Coal’s leaders are confident electricity markets can handle much more intermittent power. In any case, they see coal as the lowest-hanging fruit in the struggle to stabilize the climate, not only our dirtiest fossil fuel but the one with the cheapest alternatives. In the long run, combating global warming will depend a multitude of factors, from electric vehicles to carbon releases from deforestation to methane releases from belching cows, but for the next decade, our climate progress depends mostly on reducing our reliance on the black stuff. Coal retirements have enabled Obama to pledge U.S. emissions cuts of up to 28 percent by 2025, which has, in turn, enabled him to strike a climate deal with China and pursue a global deal later this year in Paris.

“We’ve found the secret sauce to making progress in unlikely places,” says Bruce Nilles, who leads Beyond Coal from the Club’s San Francisco headquarters. “And every time we beat the coal boys, people say: ‘Whoa. It can be done.'”

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