The Year the Tide Turned Against Coal

Future historians may well remember 2010 as the year the tide turned in the most important climate change fight in the US: the growing movement to eliminate existing coal plants and prevent new ones being built. Though Congress failed to pass a comprehensive climate change law, a less glamorous but possibly more important battle unfolded largely in courtrooms, Environmental Protection Agency offices, and public hearings convened by regional regulatory bodies few Americans have even heard of. 2010 was the year when those who care about doing business better wielded every weapon at their disposal to move the US toward a future without coal.

According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, 2010 was the second year running when not a single new coal plant began construction in the United States. Better than that, plans were scrapped for thirty-eight new coal plants utilities and energy companies planned to build. Perhaps more important still are the forty-eight existing coal plants which utilities announced will be taken off-grid, in most cases sometime between 2011 and the early years of next decade. Summed together, the forty-eight coal plants that last year were scheduled for retirement amount to 12,000 megawatts of energy which will be replaced by cleaner sources.

Because burning coal is the single biggest source of carbon emissions and contributor to climate change, the ongoing coal shutdown in the US could be a true sea change for the fight for a clean energy future. Yet the work is far from over, as around 550 coal plants still remain to be shut down. Fortunately there are signs that 2010 was simply the beginning of the end for coal in the US; even further-reaching coal shutdowns may be on the horizon. If they do occur, the winners will be public health, the climate, and the cleanliness of our air and waterways.

The US coal industry has been losing due to a combination of strategic lawsuits filed by environmental groups, public pressure to replace coal with clean energy, and the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of making major upgrades to Clean Air Act pollution standards for the first time almost a decade. Stricter EPA regulation of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and could force dozens or possibly hundreds of coal plants to close; the mere threat of pending regulations has already been enough to make some utilities decide to shut down their dirtiest plants. The fact that the EPA is set to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in 2011 will put even more pressure on new and existing coal plants.

Lest this seem like unwarranted government intervention in the affairs of industry, it’s worth noting the public seems strongly supportive of regulating coal to protect public health and stop climate change. In fact ordinary citizens have been leading the charge against the coal industry for years now, and continued to do so in 2010. From Kentucky to Oregon citizens have been fighting to get dirty coal out of their communities, and grassroots organizing was essential to most of the victories against coal experienced in 2010. In this context the EPA’s move to clamp down on coal pollution seems like a long-overdue acknowledgement that people in the US clearly support clean air, health communities, and a transition to low-carbon fuels.

So as you welcome the new year, remember not all in the fight against climate change is bleak. In 2010 climate activists won many hard-earned victories against coal plants, and began putting the United States on the road to a clean energy future. May the struggle against coal in 2011 prove to be just as successful.

Photo credit: Michael Hicks