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The Audacity of Action

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The U.S. passed the half-way mark in its pathway Beyond Coal Friday, when the Obama Administration announced proposed rules requiring new coal-fired power plants to meet pollution standards requiring that their pollutants -0 including for the first time carbon dioxide -- be kept out of the air. This formalizes the reality that coal is no longer an economically or environmentally competitive source of electrons, and that no new coal plants are likely ever to be built here.

Seven years ago, at a planning retreat in Tucson, Bruce Nilles, then leading the Club's efforts in Illinois to stop new coal construction, stood and challenged the Sierra Club's leadership. The previous summer the Club's grassroots activists had embraced as the Club's response to George Bush's reelection a new mission -- spend a decade curbing climate pollution. The Tucson retreat was to figure out how.

Now Nilles argued, the Club faced an existential moment; stop hundreds of planned new coal power plants, the environmental legacy of the first Bush Administration, or concede that climate change could not be controlled. If these plants are built, Nilles pointed out, the arithmetic was clear; during their 40-year useful lives the U.S. would put out so much additional CO2 that the world could not make climate progress.

He offered no game plan for doing the job; he simply said it had to be done. He carried the day.

Now, seven years later, only three new coal projects are under consideration; 90 percent of the proposed 200+ fleet were stopped. The few that were completed have proven to be economic debacles, some like Prairie State driving utility rates through the roof, others like Longview bankrupting the companies that built then, and one, Great Plains Energy's Spiritwood Station, simply being shuttered without ever delivering a single electron, a $437 million waste of ratepayer money.

The Beyond Coal focus has moved from stopping new plants to retiring the existing, outmoded, polluting fleet -- already 149 of 522 coal burners have announced retirement dates in the next few years, and the Pacific Coast will soon be a coal-free region.

So Obama's announcement was more a ratification than a change in the status quo -- which didn't stop coal's handmaidens from decrying it. The Competitive Enterprise Institute lamented that the "new EPA rule could mean end of coal-fired plants in U.S." CEI is looking ahead. Obama has promised to issue a subsequent rule to limit carbon emission from existing coal burners, which will accelerate their retirement. Hopes to sustain U.S. coal companies with exports are running into enormous citizen resistance in proposed export locations on the Pacific Coast. Export markets are shrinking as China, putting more and more of its electricity load centers off limits to coal's pollution. Civil society protests in India against both coal plants and coal mines continue to gather momentum. And the reality that long distance coal prices are driven more by the cost of diesel to transport and mine them than the coal itself means that $110 oil is bad, not good news, for coal.

There is a long way to go -- and for the most modern and efficient third of the U.S. coal fleet, as well as newly constructed coal plants in China and India, the pathway to speedy retirement is still not clear. But neither was the road to blocking new coal projects clear in Tucson seven years ago. The saga of those seven years suggests that the key decision was the first one -- to fight new coal plants, and to fight them all.

Action can sometimes create its own road to victory.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book".

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