Amid the dismaying news of Van Jones' resignation and the delays in Congress on climate legislation, it is too easy to overlook the actual progress on the ground. In the past two weeks alone, we've taken several really major steps forward to a clean-energy future. One, driven by the Sierra Club, was the decision by the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corporation to abandon its condemnation proceedings for a new rail line in Wyoming, which puts its massive new proposed coal line on hold.
For at least seven long years, the Sierra Club fought plans to build this $6 billion railroad from the Wyoming coal fields to the Mississippi River, which would have opened up markets for another 100 million tons of coal annually. That would be enough coal to power 50 medium-sized coal plants, which when burned would emit 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (think 40 million cars). Along the way, we won some legal decisions and lost some others but our lawyer, former Sierra Club director Jim Dougherty, and our coal campaign kept on plugging.
To put this victory in context, in order to meet our domestic clean-energy goals and reduce our greenhouse pollution by 80 percent by 2050, the U.S. must cut its greenhouse pollution running rate -- the amount of CO2 we put out each year -- by 200 million tons a year. So we need a victory of this magnitude every year from now until 2050 -- or, more plausibly, two victories of this size for the next twenty years (or a series of smaller ones) to ensure a carbon-free future. So this is huge.
Of course, it only counts if the coal industry doesn't find some other way to ship that 100 million tons a year. But there's important news on that front as well. Wyoming, America's biggest coal-producing state, may have reached peak coal. A few days after the D M &E cancellation of the new coal line, the Casper Star-Tribune reported that coal production in 2009 had dropped by 20 million tons, and was likely to drop again in 2010. Why? In large part because in addition to importing coal from Wyoming, other states have been importing coal-generated electricity instead of coal itself -- and they no longer want it. The opening line in a recent report from the Clean Coal Task Force created in 2007 by the Wyoming legislature put the story starkly:
As the top coal-producing state in a nation motivated to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Wyoming faces an ultimatum of sorts: Clean your coal -- or else.
In the West, which is where Wyoming mainly ships its electricity, consumers and states are demanding clean energy. Pacific Power, based in Portland, Oregon, recently announced that even if Congress does not pass climate legislation, it won't proceed with plans to build a fifth and sixth coal-fired unit at the Jim Bridger Power Plant in Wyoming, because of possible tougher future standards for carbon dioxide pollution.
"We'd love to build Jim Bridger five and six," said a Pacific Power spokesperson in Casper two weeks ago. "But we can't face those uncertainties as an electric utility. That's why we're left with wind and natural gas."
Actually, it turns out that the Pacific Northwest doesn't need Bridger 5 and 6 -- or any other new fossil electrical-generating capacity. A recent report from the 6th Northwest Power and Conservation Plan showed that the region can meet all of its new energy needs with increased energy productivity (5,800 negawatts) and renewables (1,800 negawatts.) But the formal report ignored its own staff analysis, which showed that the region could do far more, and actually reduce its carbon pollution by at least 15 percent by 2020, even though the region already has one of the cheapest and least carbon-intensive electrical supplies in the nation. And since most of both the new resources and the power to replace coal will come in the form of cheap negawatts -- higher energy productivity and efficiency -- the cost of electricity won't go up and might actually go down.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, the state's Public Service Commission dealt a death blow to two controversial dirty coal-plant projects -- rejecting the construction of one in Rogers City and delaying a decision on a second one in Bay City until 2022. For those keeping track at home, this means that this year alone, one coal project in Michigan fell apart due to a lack of funding, another (sent back to the state to re-address) fell apart when one of its universities opted instead for biomass energy, and now two plants have been delayed or rejected by the state's environmental agency.
Put all these events together and it's clear that we not only can but should cut our carbon emissions much faster than anyone in Congress is talking about. One has to wonder if perhaps some of them are being paid to keep singing from the "just no way" hymnal.
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