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Bruce Nilles

Bruce Nilles

Posted: January 7, 2010 01:40 PM

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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2009 was one hell of a year! For the first time in more than six years, no new coal-fired power plants broke ground. It is hard to believe, but we are close to closing the book on one of the most dangerous chapters of the Bush-Cheney era - the ill-conceived 2001 Bush-Cheney Energy Plan that sought to accelerate global warming and the destruction of Appalachia and coal mining regions nationwide by building and fueling 150 new coal-fired power plants.

In 2009, twenty-six proposed coal-fired power plants - which would have emitted 146 million tons of carbon dioxide annually - were defeated or abandoned, bringing the six-year total of dead coal plant plans to 110. The year's successes were the culmination of a growing movement of people and organizations from across the country concerned about the dangers of coal mining, coal burning, and coal ash disposal.

Six years ago Sierra Club made a deliberate decision to "leave no new coal plant unopposed" and has since worked with dozens of allied organizations to build a nationwide movement that is systematically working to loosen the coal industry's lock on our future and our politics.

Here are my highlights from 2009:

  • Total coal use is down ten percent in 2009, according to the Energy Information Agency.
  • The massive Santee Cooper plant proposed for South Carolina, which would have been the largest new consumer of mountaintop removal coal, was abandoned after years of opposition.
  • After a decade-long fight, the Dakota Minnesota & Eastern Railroad proposal to build a massive new rail line from Wyoming to Wisconsin was finally defeated in August. This rail project would have carried enough coal to power about 50 medium size coal plants.
  • We saw some massive coal-fired power plants defeated in 2009 - including the American Municipal Power coal plant proposed in Ohio, the Big Stone II plant in South Dakota, and Florida's last proposed coal plant - the Seminole Unit-3 facility.
  • Several companies announced plans to start or consider transitioning away from existing coal plants, including Progress Energy in North Carolina and Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee and Alabama.
  • Students on campuses across America turned their concern about their future to the biggest polluters on campus - coal-fired power plants that still operate on more than 60 campuses. To end coal's foothold on campuses, Sierra Club and its Sierra Student Coalition in September launched a campaign to educate and enlist hundreds of thousands of students to move beyond coal and fight for clean energy. This campaign has taken off like a prairie fire on a warm, dry spring day.
  • Los Angeles took major action on clean energy last summer when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that the city would eliminate the use of coal by 2020 - replacing the 40% of its power currently generated by coal with renewable energy.
All of this progress opens the way for a transition to a clean energy economy, including a 22.5% increase in electricity generated from wind between 2008 and 2009.

We indeed have a lot to celebrate in 2009, but we are far from done. There are approximately 90 remaining coal-fired power plants and liquid coal proposals; mining companies are still getting new permits to destroy Appalachian mountains; Alaska's wilderness is under siege from Texas billionaires seeking to strip mine coal for Asian markets; and millions of Americans live in communities where the air is unsafe to breathe and fish are unsafe to eat all because 500 existing coal plants are still polluting at record levels.

On top of this, the coal industry's obscene influence on the U.S. Senate is the major stumbling block to enacting President Obama's clean energy agenda, and why the U.S. was unable to provide critical leadership in Copenhagen.

But there is great reason for hope, as record numbers of concerned citizens across the country have learned about the dangers of coal to their families and their future, have become outraged, and have joined the beyond coal movement. There is a major shift going on across America as companies realign away from old dirty practices involving coal and toward cleaner energy options, including wind, solar and ending wasteful use of energy.

And we recognize the 40th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires all government actions to consider environmental impacts - including all the project's effects on global warming. On the first day of 2010, President Obama proclaimed a renewed commitment to NEPA:
"...(M)y Administration will recognize NEPA's enactment by recommitting to environmental quality through open, accountable, and responsible decision making that involves the American public....I call upon all executive branch agencies to promote public involvement and transparency in their implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act."
This offers great hope for us in fighting coal projects requiring federal agency approval.

So, looking forward: In 2010, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign will be focused on ending mountaintop removal mining, keeping Alaska's wilderness off limits to coal barons, stopping the remaining new dirty coal plant proposals, and beginning a two-decade plan to replace the existing fleet of coal-fired power plants with clean energy alternatives. I hope you will join us.