The biggest climate victory you never heard of

The fight against coal in the US has achieved great success due to activists’ passion and commitment.

Wind farm
As long as coal plants are still being built, it doesn't matter how many wind farms there are, argues author [EPA]

San Francisco, CA – Coal is going down in the United States, and that’s good news for the Earth’s climate. The US Energy Information Administration has announced that coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive conventional fossil fuel, generated only 36 per cent of US electricity in the first quarter of 2012. That amounts to a staggering 20 per cent decline from one year earlier. And the EIA anticipates additional decline by year’s end, suggesting a historic setback for coal, which has provided the majority of the US’ electricity for many decades.

Even more encouraging, however, is the largely unknown story behind coal’s retreat. Mainstream media coverage has credited low prices for natural gas – coal’s chief competitor – and the Obama administration’s March 27 announcement of stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from US power plants. And certainly both of those developments played a role.

But a third factor – a persistent grassroots citizens’ rebellion that has blocked the construction of 166 (and counting) proposed coal-fired power plants – has been at least as important. At the very time when President Obama’s “cap-and-trade” climate legislation was going down in flames in Washington, local activists across the United States were helping to impose “a de facto moratorium on new coal”, in the words of Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, one of the first analysts to note the trend.

If the activists hadn’t been there talking to the government regulators and newspaper editorial boards and making the case that coal was a bad bet, the plants would have gone forward.

– Thomas Sanzillo, former deputy comptroller for the New York state government

Another surprise: most of these coal plants were defeated in the politically red states of the South and Midwest. Victories were coming “in places like Oklahoma and South Dakota, not the usual liberal bastions where you’d expect environmental victories”, recalls Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Beyond Coal campaign, which provided national coordination for the local efforts. The victories in Oklahoma were particularly sweet, coming in the home state of Capitol Hill’s leading climate denier, Senator James Inhofe.

Of course the activists had help: the falling cost of natural gas and a decline in electricity demand following the 2008 financial collapse made coal vulnerable. But it was grassroots activism that turned this vulnerability into outright defeat, argues Thomas Sanzillo, a former deputy comptroller for the New York state government who has collaborated with Beyond Coal. “If the activists hadn’t been there talking to government regulators and newspaper editorial boards and making the case that coal was a bad bet,” Sanzillo explains, “the plants would have gone forward, because the utility companies would say, ‘We can handle the costs,’ and those [government] boards are often good ol’ boy boards.”

Stopping new coal

In contrast to mainstream environmental groups’ lobbying on Capitol Hill for cap-and-trade, the Beyond Coal movement’s strength was grounded in the unsung work of retail politics: activists talking with friends and neighbours, pestering local media, packing regulatory hearings, protesting before state legislatures, filing legal challenges and more. Nor was the anti-coal movement comprised solely of the usual suspects. In addition to environmentalists, it included clean energy advocates, public health professionals, community organisers, faith leaders, farmers, attorneys, students and volunteers like Verena Owen, a self-described “permit nerd” from Illinois, who proved herself so capable that she was recruited to serve as Hitt’s co-director for the Beyond Coal campaign.

Stopping new coal may be “the most significant achievement of American environmentalists since the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act” in 1970, says Michael Noble of the Minnesota environmental group Fresh Energy, one of Beyond Coal’s key activists.

The health benefits alone are enormous. “Every year, coal-burning power plants… cause more than 200,000 asthma attacks nationwide, many of them affecting children,” New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said in July 2011, citing data from the US Environmental Protection Agency. “Coal pollution also kills 13,000 people every year and costs us US $100bn in medical expenses,” Bloomberg added.

Which helps explain why the billionaire mayor has pledged $50 million of his own money to support the next phase of Beyond Coal’s work: shifting from blocking proposed coal plants to shutting down existing plants and replacing them with clean energy. “Our goal is to shut down one third of America’s [roughly 500 existing] coal plants by 2015 and to stop coal worldwide by 2030,” says Bruce Nilles, the senior director of the Beyond Coal campaign at the Sierra Club, which houses the campaign.

This landmark achievement in the climate fight remains unknown… because the US media and political class view public issues through the lens of official Washington.”

Meanwhile, the moratorium on new coal amounts to the biggest victory against climate change yet won in the United States. Measured by the volume of greenhouse emissions averted, the moratorium will likely have a greater impact than the cap-and-trade bill congressional Republicans rejected in 2010. Assuming, generously, that the cap-and-trade system would have worked as well as claimed, that bill would have cut US emissions by a scientifically meager 4 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Scientists have said that reductions of 25 to 40 per cent are required to provide a reasonable chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. By contrast, blocking 166 coal-fired power plants will, without question, keep an estimated 32.25 billion tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere (assuming a typical 50 year lifespan for the blocked plants) – an amount greater than the entire world’s emissions in 2010.

Nevertheless, this landmark achievement in the climate fight remains unknown, not only outside of the United States but to most Americans as well. Why? Mainly because the US media and political class view public issues through the lens of official Washington. There, conventional wisdom held that the cap-and-trade bill was the absolute limit that the US political system could tolerate. When even that supposedly realistic option was rejected in 2010, many observers – including some inside-the-Beltway environmentalists – concluded that the US was simply incapable of taking meaningful action against climate change. Corporate polluters were too strong, went this argument, the political system was too dominated by money, the public was too confused and apathetic.

Not so, insist Beyond Coal’s activists. The moratorium on new coal shows that Americans don’t “have to wait for Washington to get the country on the right climate track,” Hitt argues. “This campaign has demonstrated we can do this state by state, plant by plant, town by town. Not just that we can do it, but we are doing it.”

The big picture

The genesis of Beyond Coal was a confidential meeting of clean energy activists and philanthropic donors held in Wisconsin in 2003. The advocates confronted a harsh truth, recalls Noble: They had been working the wrong problem, focusing on renewable energy while all but ignoring the climate crisis. “What does it mean that we celebrate the construction of a $100 million wind farm in Minnesota when at same time a 900 megawatt coal plant was being built in [Iowa]?” asks Noble. “That’s called losing. If you looked at the problem through the lens of carbon, all the work we had done was undone by a single [coal] plant, a plant that wasn’t challenged by a single environmentalist.”

What does it mean that we celebrate the construction of a $100 million wind farm… when at the same time a 900 megawatt coal plant was being built… ? That’s called losing.

– Michael Noble, Minnesota environmental group Fresh Energy

The Midwest was the most coal-dependent region in the US; it got 60 to 90 per cent of its electricity from coal. At subsequent strategy sessions, Nobel joined Nilles – at the time, a Sierra Club activist in Wisconsin – in arguing that henceforth every proposed coal plant in the Midwest should be challenged. “We didn’t know how we’d oppose [them all], we just knew we had to,” says Nilles.

But there was disagreement within the ranks. A program officer at one of the Midwest’s largest philanthropies, the Joyce Foundation, disputed Nobel and Nilles’ idea of opposing every coal plant. It made more sense, the philanthropist argued, to mount tightly focused, legally based challenges to a few marquee coal plants and then leverage those victories into a broader offensive.
The test of the dueling approaches came in 2005. In opposing a proposed plant in Wisconsin, the Joyce Foundation “put all their chips on a big bucks legal strategy, with no politics, and [they] lost at the state Supreme Court by one vote,” recalls Rick Reed, a program officer at the Garfield Foundation who helped launch the anti-coal campaign. “That taught us a lesson: you’ll never be able to beat these things without an integrated strategy that includes real people who are affected by these plants, who’ll reject the economic argument publicly.”  Tom Sanzillo, the former New York state deputy comptroller, saw the value of such an integrated strategy in one of the first fights he handled for Beyond Coal.

US phasing out coal power plants

Two large coal plants were scheduled to be built in eastern Iowa. Carrie Le Seur, an attorney with the non-profit group Plains Justice, recalls getting phone calls from local people who “didn’t like the idea that there would be these big belching coal plants in the midst of prime farmland, and big transmission lines as well.” Le Seur began submitting legal challenges to the plants. Meanwhile, Sanzillo appeared before the Iowa Public Services Commission to warn the regulators, “You can’t build [these plants] for the costs the companies say… and the costs will keep going up.”

Reinforcing that message, activists met with legislators, Governor John Culver and the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, which ended up editorialising in favor of investing in wind power rather than coal. The activist pressure was critical, Sanzillo argues, for it convinced the state regulatory board to limit the total amount of money the proposed coal plant could cost consumers. Forced to risk their own money, rather than ratepayers’, the company cancelled the project.

This approach – hard numbers plus grassroots pressure – became the model Beyond Coal followed in state after state: Ohio, Florida, even Kentucky, the heart of coal country. In South Carolina, another Deep South state, says Sanzillo, activists “put me in touch with small business associations and I was able to explain how big industrial interests historically got treated better on these things than small businesses. That was smart, because it got the small businesses fighting with the big industrials, which was just the fight we wanted: a business fight rather than an environmental fight.”

A bigger battle

The new phase of the Beyond Coal campaign will be more challenging: There is a big difference between fighting a proposed plant and seeking to close one that is already providing electricity, jobs and tax revenues. But Beyond Coal has already helped broker a deal in Washington state that could become a model for other plant closures.

When environmentalists first targeted the state’s only coal plant, they ran into opposition not just from its owner, the Trans-Alta company, but also from the union that represented the plant’s workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. As a matter of long-term strategy, Beyond Coal was committed to working through any disagreements with labour, so compromises were made. “We wanted a five year timeline for closing [the Trans-Alta plant] and we settled for 10,” Nilles recalls. “Not because of the company but because of IBEW.”

The agreement was hammered out behind closed doors in a Seattle hotel during negotiations requested by Washington governor Christine Gregoire. Keith Phillips, a senior aide to the governor, spent two days shuttling between rooms containing representatives from the Trans-Alta company and Beyond Coal, but not the IBEW. That left the environmentalists to argue labour’s case – which they did. They insisted that the plant’s workforce be retained throughout its closure and transition to a greener facility; that workers be trained in the technologies that would replace coal, especially energy efficiency; and that the company, not the taxpayers, subsidise the transition. Trans-Alta agreed, pledging $55 million that will be controlled by the affected communities to fund economic development and clean tech. “A lot of the money will pay for insulating schools and other public buildings,” says Bob Guenther of the IBEW, who signed off on the deal in a subsequent meeting.

Fundamental change

Beyond Coal’s successes offer “a fundamental message about how to make change in this country,” says Mary Anne Hitt. What happens in Washington, DC, is important, Hitt acknowledges, but it is not necessarily the best arena to target. The effort to pass climate legislation focused on Capitol Hill, a battlefield where the power of money rigs the system.

Then, to satisfy inside-the-Beltway definitions of what was politically realistic, mainstream environmental organisations embraced a policy – cap-and-trade – that was incremental in its remedy (a 4 per cent emissions cut by 2020) and incomprehensible in its mechanism. “We can’t go out in the streets about that,” one grassroots activist complained. “Most people can’t even understand it.” These strategic choices made it impossible to build the kind of public pressure that could overcome the deep pockets and political muscle of the fossil fuel industry.

The Beyond Coal campaign, by contrast, organised people locally around tangible targets: their air, their water, the climate their children would inherit. It eschewed middle-of-the-road messaging in favour of a simple, clear demand – No New Coal – that ordinary people could rally around. This approach enabled it to appeal to a broad coalition of supporters (public-health advocates, even unions), beyond the usual environmental allies. Finally, Beyond Coal targeted not the federal government but rather local and state governments, where elected officials can be personally lobbied – and more easily voted out of office – by ordinary citizens, thus counteracting the power Big Money enjoys in Washington.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Beyond Coal campaign has shown that the status quo is not all-powerful. When large numbers of people unite around a compelling critique of the existing order and build political power at the local level, they can change the world. And perhaps even the planet.

Mark Hertsgaard is a Fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the environment correspondent for The Nation. He is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including, most recently, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.