Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


A look at the spectacular success of the Beyond Coal campaign

Recent news coverage indicates that giants in the fossil-fuel sectors are being defeated. The Beyond Coal campaign is a big reason why.

While coal is still the source for 40 percent of U.S. electric power, notes writer Michael Grunwald, a decade ago it provided more than 50 percent.

The first two paragraphs of a recent piece, “Inside the war on coal: How Mike Bloomberg, red-state businesses, and a lot of Midwestern lawyers are changing American energy faster than you think,” jumped off the screen: 

The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.

The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. . . . If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.

The article is just one example, but easily the best, in a spate of strong coal-focused journalism to come out in the past week or so. It permits the encouraging conclusions that giants in the fossil-fuel sectors can be beaten, and that sweeping change in defense of climate is still possible. 

Article continues after advertisement

While coal is still the source for 40 percent of U.S. electric power, notes writer Michael Grunwald, a decade ago it provided more than 50 percent. This decline is the principal driver of a 10 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions over the same period.

We’ve all read about financial difficulties throughout the coal industry, where stocks are losing value and bankruptcy risks are rising. But did you know that “the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010”?

If journalism is a first draft of history, readers familiar with Grunwald’s work at the Washington Post, Time magazine and other outlets know his pieces for an attention to craft that lift them to at least third-draft status.

This piece includes a brief, rich telling of the Beyond Coal campaign’s creation story, beginning with the Sierra Club’s 2001 challenge to a Chicago-area coal plant that promised to worsen air-quality problems that were already awful. The Club lost that fight, but Bruce Nilles, a lawyer with the organization, learned in the process to propose what has become the campaign’s wildly unrealistic, spectacularly successful, Churchill-sounding strategy: to fight every new coal plant, everywhere, from every angle of attack.

It was a Midwestern campaign at first, with an eminently responsible-sounding mission statement about reducing coal’s negative impacts from mine to ash heap; it took a while to get to the bumper-sticker punch of Beyond Coal. And it was born at a time when the U.S. fleet of coal plants stood at 523, with a White House committed by Vice President Dick Cheney to building 200 more.

Yet the campaign managed to block all but 30 of those 200, primarily by challenging permit applications, and soon the Sierra Club’s national board – responding to a member survey – voted to make it a national effort in 2006.

And then a really amazing thing happened.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was looking for a place to direct his personal philanthropy, and one of his advisers had met with Sierra Club chief Carl Pope, discussing “Beyond Coal” and an upcoming drive to raise $50 million for it.

According to Grunwald, Bloomberg told his aide, “That’s a good idea. We’ll just give Carl a check for the $50 million. Tell him to stop fundraising and get to work.”

Article continues after advertisement

Bad fuel, bad investment

Nowadays, Grunwald writes, Beyond Coal’s strategy and successes lie less in the leverage of pollution-control regulations, more in exploiting the economic case against coal investment as a risk to shareholders and, ultimately, to a reliable power supply.

Here’s a sample, featuring Beyond Coal attorney Kristin Henry in a challenge to Oklahoma Gas & Electric, in the one state out of 50, it was noted yesterday, that has decreed it will not comply with the new carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan. The issue was how the utility was going to correct its violation of air pollution standards, but the argument was about investors’ risk of stranded assets:

In the 90 minutes Henry spent cross-examining OG&E’s Joseph Rowlett in early March, she didn’t ask a single question about climate or public health. She focused exclusively on OG&E’s request for the largest rate increase in state history, a 15 percent hike to finance the utility’s $700 million compliance plan. Through her deadpan, leading questions, she portrayed OG&E as a company desperate to get its customers to foot the bill to prop up an inefficient plant, pursuing retrofits it would never consider if its own shareholders had to swallow the costs, operating in a dream world where regional haze was coal’s only challenge.

 At one point, she got Rowlett to admit his calculations assumed there would be no additional coal regulations for the next 30 years, even though the EPA intends to finalize at least four new coal regulations this year alone. “Isn’t it true you’re assuming zero over the next 30 years?” Henry asked.

Rowlett paused a few seconds. “That’s right,” he replied.

(Disclosure: I worked for a couple of years as a media relations trainer and adviser for progressive energy clients in the Upper Midwest, including Nilles and Beyond Coal – who, I freely acknowledge, didn’t actually need my help all that much.)

‘Coal’s Long Goodbye’

In the newest installment, published Monday, of its series “Coal’s Long Goodbye: Dispatches from the War on Carbon,” Inside Climate News points out that coal has been fighting for survival for decades on multiple regulatory fronts. And it offers a useful primer on the seven most important now:

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS); the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS); the Cross-State Rule on long-distance emissions, reinstated by the Supreme Court last year; EPA regulations on cooling water withdrawals; rules on coal-ash disposal adopted in December after 30 years of work; the Clean Power Plan discussed above, and new-plant emissions standards that basically ban new coal facilities unless they can capture and store carbon emissions – basically impossible, according to the utilities.

Writer John H. Cushman Jr. shows how some of them came into play in Duke Power Co.’s  shocker announcement in mid-May that it would spend $1 billion to replace a big coal plant near Asheville, North Carolina, with natural gas and solar generation:

Article continues after advertisement

At the Asheville plant, Duke said, the links between various pollution targets were plain. As gas and solar replace coal there, sulfur dioxide emissions, which environmentalists had complained were hitting unhealthy levels, would go down 90 to 95 percent; nitrogen oxides down 35 percent. Mercury pollution, being regulated for the first time this year, would drop to zero. Water withdrawn from nearby Lake Julian, for cooling, would go down 97 percent, and water discharges would drop 50 percent.

Coal ash, an especially sore point for Duke after a spill last year into the Dan River led to criminal prosecution of the company and a recent $102 million fine, would be brought under control in Asheville, where containment ponds were targeted for closure.

And the carbon dioxide emission rate per megawatt of electricity would be 60 percent lower at the new, efficient plant Duke plans to build. That would be a significant step toward meeting the state’s tough new targets under the Obama administration’s proposed crackdown on the greenhouse gas, a regulation that calls for CO2 emissions to be cut 40 percent across the state.

Also noteworthy:

  • From Climate Central’s Bobby Magill, a post on a Carnegie Institution for Science study that calculates a ratio between the atmospheric heating effect of fossil fuel emissions compared to the heat given off directly when the fuel is burned. The answer: about 100,000 to 1. Another finding: the atmospheric effect may show up in as little as three months’ time.
  •  From the UK Guardian’s Jeffery Barbee, a long feature from South Africa on how renewables are replacing coal at a rapid clip, though on a somewhat localized basis, in a country that ranks high on both coal consumption and production. The reason, of course, is the cost advantages to be realized with solar, biomass and wind.
  • From Motherboard’s Brian Merchant, a short but provocative post noting that lands newly opened for coal production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin hold some 10.2 billion tons of coal, with an emissions potential greater than the reductions projected for the Clean Power Plan through 2030. (Credit for the underlying analysis to Greenpeace.)