Coal's Next Stand

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Back in 2007, the coal industry chose Nevada for its "last stand" west of the Rockies. It desperately tried to keep plans alive for three new coal-fired power plants, pouring resources into the state and going after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his strong anti-coal statements. Earlier this month the last new coal project proposed in Nevada switched its fuel source to natural gas -- and coal, west of the Rockies, was in massive retreat.

Then Colorado, where new coal plants had been abandoned a while ago, made its bold move. The state adopted a 30 percent renewable-energy standard, agreed to make it easier for homeowners and businesses to finance efficiency and rooftop solar, and its biggest public utility, Xcel, agreed to shut down the bulk of the state's remaining old coal plants.

Unlike Nevada, Colorado does mine coal. So the coal industry decided that it could not let America's emerging "coal-free zone" get a foothold east of the Rockies. On Thursday the industry filed two ballot initiatives designed to gut the state's renewable-energy standard and undo the Xcel agreement. The initiatives were filed only twenty-four hours before the deadline for the November ballot -- but environmentalists had seen how King Coal fights dirty, and they filed four initiatives of their own on Friday -- initiatives that would take the Colorado Clean Energy Revolution even further.

Meanwhile, business leaders in Aspen -- a town utterly dependent on a stable climate for its main economic base, skiing -- prepared to take on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a threat to business. 

It's possible that the coal industry, looking at the recent record of bipartisan support for clean energy in Colorado, will back down, and that the proposed initiative battle will fizzle out. But if King Coal wants to draw a line in the sand, Colorado environmentalists are ready.