Coal Industry's Future Looking Murky

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Morgan Goodwin Digital oganizer and co-managing editor of

Coal industry executives aren't sleeping that well these days. As climate activists and environmentalists reassess their strategy after a year of slow Senate progress and an underwhelming Copenhagen accord, more and more resources and attention are directed at stopping coal.

The extra focus on coal is a strategic move for the movement. Climate change starts with extraction and coal is still the elephant in the room when talking about major CO2 reduction policies. Local social justice, and global climate concerns are almost perfectly aligned in the fight to stop destructive mining practices and coal plants that poison neighbors. Groups fighting coal in the big picture are having great success, such as the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and the amazing team at App Voices. Here's my round-up for the week of the growing momentum to stop coal.

Massey Coal's Don Blankenship Under Pressure

Don Blankenship of Massey Coal was overwhelmed by the mountain of facts, anecdotes and moral arguments against mountaintop removal mining of coal by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He generally responded with 'I don't know', 'that's a lot of rhetoric' and 'you can find anything on the internet' instead of actually refuting Kennedy's arguments.

The national audience got a full broadside of reasons to end mountaintop removal. David Roberts at Grist wonders why Blankenship even agreed to do the debate. "What possible incentive is there for a corporate CEO to put himself in a risky situation, publicly defending a widely reviled product? What's the upside? Why not just buy some ads or hire more lobbyists?"

Tree Sit Halting Coal River Mountain Watch Blasting
In addition to the debate, Massey Coal is also trying to remove the thorn in its side. Three activists with Climate Ground Zero are sitting in trees right now, blocking the expansion of a mine site on Coal River Mountain. Massey Coal routinely states in lawsuits that these actions cause the company irreparable damage. They might be overstating their injury a bit, but a sustained action campaign will wear down even the most entrenched industry.

The tree sitters are halting construction of a road to the new permit site on Coal River Mountain. Every day the construction is delayed is money lost for Massey and pristine acres of Coal River Mountain saved.

The Climate Ground Zero campaign is supported entirely by small donations, since the big green groups tend to be wary of supporting this kind of action. That hasn't stopped the army of local residents and national activists building this impressive campaign.

One of the ground support crew was released from jail Friday night after donations came in for the $2,000 bail needed. Another ground support member is still in jail, playing Sudoku with her cell mates and awaiting help from around the country. Judy Bonds, a local spokesperson for the effected communities, donated her personal money along with hundreds of others. To make a donation, go to the Climate Ground Zero site.

Listen to this clip of the sound machines Massey has been using to drive the tree-sitters out. The sitters report the duration and volume of the sound-blasting is enough to cause irreparable hearing damage.

Oregon Utility to close Coal Plant 20 Years Early

Jesse Jenkins writes about the early closing of the PGE plant. "The company is choosing to close this plant because it doesn't make economic sense." The economic argument, driven home by the efforts of grassroots groups and high-level advocacy work, is something growing painfully evident to coal burners all over the country.

Grass roots pressure by the Sierra Student Coalition's Beyond Coal campaign and other groups helped raise the issue to the public. An previously established Oregon state goal of reducing emissions 10% below 1990 by 2020 means that the plant cannot assume a business as usual operation, but must incorporate much higher standards. Those realities were brought home to the Public Utility Commission and PGE's board, resulting in this decision.

Major Indian City to Close all Five Coal Plants in Four Years

Delhi, India, with a population of over 12 million residents, announced that it will shut down all five of its coal-fired power plants over the next four years. From the Hindustan Times: "Switching over the Badarpur coal fired power station to a gas-based plant is very critical to address the air pollution issue," [Delhi's chief secretary Rakesh] Mehta said.

Iowa's Environmental Protection Committee Sends Letter to EPA asking for Updates on Coal Ash Rules

Lance Brisbois and Holly Jones write about the success of activists in Iowa:

Iowa currently has four unlined landfills where coal ash is being disposed, one of which is the dumping site for Iowa's three public universities which are among the largest ash producers in Iowa. After the July 2009 announcement that the three state universities would look into their ash dumping procedures it was decided, through a closed investigation, that the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa would continue their questionable coal ash disposal practices. Following the discovery of these practices, students in Iowa have been pressuring their schools to change their irresponsible methods with positive results! After feeling pressure from the students and the public, Iowa state universities announced that they will now begin to monitor groundwater at their coal ash disposal site. While this is a step forward in regulating coal ash dumping in the state, students in Iowa have just begun their fight against coal. A joint effort between campus organizations, environmental nonprofits across the state, and the Sierra Student Coalition's Campuses Beyond Coal will launch this spring to ensure that coal-fired power plants are eliminated from campuses and communities in Iowa for good!

As a result, the state agency has contacted the federal EPA:

This week the Iowa EPC decided that it did not want to wait any longer on updating it's rules. They sent a unanimous letter to the EPA demanding an update to the rules. Stringent federal legislation would, of course, cover all the states, improving public health and environmental quality nationwide.

CSX Says Coal Demand Weak Despite Forecasted Economic Growth
"CSX Corp. CEO Michael Ward said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that the railroad, through its "very muddy crystal ball," predicts better results in all of its segments for 2010, except coal." CSX is the third largest railroad in the country

Even though coal is the least profitable by ton for railroads, its sheer volume is an important factor for the industry. "Before the recession, coal -- used to produce steel as well as electricity -- was one of the railroad industry's most lucrative segments." If coal demand continues to fall, rail companies like CSX will need to move away from the dirty commodity.

We're in the twilight of the coal age. Global climate groups, local social justice activists, and concerned citizens everywhere can agree that stopping violent, dirty coal use is an important and very immediate part of the larger fight for a just, prosperous and sustainable future.