Environment

Why the End May Be Coming for Coal

Momentum is building to block new coal-fired power plants and end mountaintop removal mining. Is there enough political will to make the break?

Patrick O'Hara, who works next door to a coal-burning power plant in Chicago, was recently diagnosed with asthmatic bronchitis brought on, he believes, by breathing in pollution from the plant. So, when he heard about a mass protest to demand action on global warming, O'Hara boarded a train for Washington, D.C., and joined thousands of people who marched around the coal-burning power plant that supplies energy to the U.S. Capitol.

The March 2 protest rally marked a high point in the battle to end the country's dependence on coal, which supplies half of U.S. electricity and produces a third of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Activists around the country had already won dozens of local fights to block construction of new power plants. In Appalachia, meanwhile, protests against a strip-mining technique that flattens entire mountaintops had coal companies on the defensive. The industry was starting to look decidedly out of step with the challenges of climate change.

But the Capitol protest has also served to illustrate how far the country remains from a real shift to renewable energy. Organizers of what was known as Capitol Climate Action (CCA) promised the largest-ever mass mobilization on global warming, saying more then 1,000 people had RSVPd online, and many thousands of college students were expected to spill over from the annual PowerShift lobbying week. But when the unseasonably cold day arrived in the city blanketed with snow, only about 2,500 people showed up.

What's more, the Obama administration has taken an ambiguous stance on mountaintop mining, blocking fast-track permits, but allowing the practice after case-by-case reviews. The coal industry, in other words, has been slow to release its formidable hold on Washington.

This sluggish progress has disappointed O'Hara, a newcomer to anti-coal activism. He joined his local chapter of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) when he returned home from D.C. and has stayed active, but says he expected more movement from the White House and Congress.

"We are not any closer than we were in March. We're still stuck in the same place," O'Hara said in a phone interview three months after the march.

Taking a Long View

Others, who have spent years fighting the coal industry, downplayed the setbacks. "Look, coal is an incredibly powerful industry," says environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, who helped organize CCA. "There are whole congressional delegations that are, in effect, subsidiaries of the coal industry. It's not going to be won in a day, but the movement is building."

Since 2000, coal-mining companies have given $16.2 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress, according to Opensecrets.org, the online database of political contributions run by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The electric generation industry ranked tenth in the center's list of top industry contributors to Congress in the 2010 election cycle and has given a total of $95.3 million since 2000.

As coal companies were filling politicians' coffers, the industry was busy planning its expansion. By 2007, companies were drawing up the blueprints for 150 new plants around the country. Activists succeeded in derailing many of those proposed plants. (As of mid-June, nearly 100 projects had been nixed, according to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, though new projects have emerged, leaving more than that number still underway around the country.) The industry has responded by launching American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, pouring millions of dollars into a public relations campaign aimed at greening its image while reminding the country how important coal power is to the economy.

The tug of war over public views is reflected in opinion polls. Shortly before President Obama took office, 84% of those asked said they wanted the new administration to make electricity companies increase their use of renewable sources of energy, according to a December 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll. But the following month, Rasmussen Reports published the results of another survey that showed environmentalists were losing ground on the larger question of global warming. The number of people who believed global warming is a manmade problem slipped from 46% in July 2006 to 41%, while those who believed it could be attributed to long-term planetary trends increased from 35% to 44%. Even more—46%—said they believed environmental protection comes at a cost to the economy.

Despite such mixed signals, anti-coal activists say there is no denying that a sea change has taken place in the last few years, as the media has focused more attention on the debate and the public has become better acquainted with coal's dark side.

"Three years ago, you rarely heard anything about coal on the news," says Elouise Brown, a Navajo activist in New Mexico fighting plans to build a third coal-burning power plant in her region of the state. Brown has camped out at the proposed site of the Desert Rock power plant since December 2006. "More people are aware now," she says.

Michael Brune, executive director of RAN, agrees. He says one of the most important factors has been activists' success in "helping to identify coal as a key climate change villain."

The Coal Truth

Coal, historians say, has been around since the days of the caveman. The U.S. has more of it than any other country on Earth, but government figures suggesting that the country is the "Saudi Arabia of coal" with enough stores to last 240 years were debunked last June in a Wall Street Journal story. The U.S. Geological Survey analyzed Wyoming's Gilette coal field—"the nation's largest and most productive"—and found that "less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today's," according to the article. One researcher from the California Institute of Technology, David Rutledge, determined that the country would reach its peak coal in 120 years. And according to scientists, if we continue burning these coal stores, we are dooming the planet to a climate change that could lead to the extinction of countless plant and animal species, including our own.

To keep temperatures from increasing beyond 2.4 degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say global emissions must start declining by 2015 and drop to 50%-85% of 2000 levels by 2050. Other climate scientists say the panel's predictions are too optimistic and urge even deeper cuts.

But we are headed in the other direction. Today, coal contributes about a third of U.S. greenhouse gases and a quarter of the planet's total global warming emissions. The world is on course to double its coal emissions by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that provides analysis and expert advice on energy issues.

And global warming is only one problem associated with coal. Mining coal creates water pollution, and, while burning, it spews more than a dozen pollutants into the air, such as arsenic, sulfur dioxide, lead and other heavy metals. It is the largest source of acid rain-inducing sulfur dioxide emissions and the second-largest source of nitrogen oxides connected to smog and respiratory ailments including record levels of asthma among U.S. schoolchildren. It releases soot particles linked to heart and lung diseases that lead to thousands of premature deaths each year, according to public health experts. And scientists have detected dangerously high levels of the neurotoxin mercury in rivers and snowpack near power plants.

Uniting Opposition to "The Dig and the Burn”

As these environmental and health concerns have gained mainstream recognition, with national groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace stepping up campaigns in recent years, a broader movement against coal is beginning to coalesce.

"The dig and the burn," says Mike Roselle, referring to the mining and power plant sides of the coal business. "We are building allies through the whole chain of custody."

The veteran activist, who is legendary for his "monkey wrenching" civil disobedience strategies, helped establish Earth First!, the Ruckus Society and RAN, among other groups. He's one of the original "tree spikers," who pioneered the tactic to thwart logging. Roselle is leading a small but committed group in a showdown over the future of Appalachia's coal-rich mountains. He credits Hurricane Katrina with injecting new verve in the environmental movement. But it's coal, he says, that could be "the big wedge." In the pie chart of greenhouse gas emissions, "if you take that one piece out of the pie, everything becomes possible."

His group has taken the fight to Coal River Mountain, West Virginia, the site of a mountaintop removal operation by Massey Energy Company, the nation's fourth-largest coal mining firm. They have staged sit-ins, raised banners and been arrested and slapped with increasingly restrictive temporary restraining orders. One e-mail missive sent by Roselle in April described how a Raleigh County, West Virginia, Circuit Court judge issued a ruling that barred not only members of his group from returning to the mine but also anyone that might consider helping them.

"This means you, too, are re-strained! You are now enjoined from interfering with Massey Energy anywhere in the United States," Roselle e-mailed his growing number of supporters, an online network of people that numbers into the thousands.

Rather than choke off support, the judge's ruling apparently has helped recruitment efforts. Word of the ragtag band has spread across the blogosphere and attracted celebrity supporters such as Daryl Hannah and Ashley Judd along with eco-celebrities like NASA climate scientist James Hansen and RAN's Brune. Hannah, Hansen and Brune were among 32 people arrested June 23 during a day of protest that turned into a tense faceoff between hundreds of environmentalists and miners and their families. The miners lifted their own protest signs against the "treehuggers," blew air horns, revved motorcycle engines and at one point cranked up the 1984 song, "We're Not Gonna Take It," by Twisted Sister, according to the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette. One local woman was arrested and charged with battery for allegedly slapping Judy Bonds, codirector for Coal River Mountain Watch and a 2003 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Two days later, the Senate Environment and Public Works' Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife held "the first bipartisan hearing in a generation to address the impact of mountaintop removal mining operations," according to Huffington Post contributor Jeff Biggers, who called the week's combined events "a historic reckoning."

Roselle and others are facing jail time for violating the judge's orders. Talking by phone in June, Roselle said they were also bracing for a lawsuit from Massey charging them with disrupting its business and costing the corporation money. Massey officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.

If the case comes before a jury, they may use the same legal arguments that cleared six Greenpeace protestors of criminal charges stemming from an attempt to shut down a British coal plant two years ago. Those protestors beat property damage charges, arguing that their actions were lawful because they aimed to stop the climate change responsible for even greater damages to property worldwide. Roselle says Hansen, whose testimony on the effects of global warming helped the British activists win the precedent-setting case, has already agreed to testify for his group, if the judge will allow it.

In any event, they aren't considering a retreat.

"We know that the Obama administration knows about this campaign," Roselle says. "We know we have their ear and we're not about to give up now."

An End to Mountaintop Removal?

The Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, Mary Anne Hitt, shares his optimism. "I think mountaintop removal is on the ropes. We will see an end to it in the next couple of years," says Hitt, the former executive director of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit group that helped put the issue on the national stage.

By framing the debate around "mountaintop removal"—the industry prefers the more value-neutral "mountaintop mining"—activists have hit on a phrase that carries emotional weight. Since mountaintop removal began in the 1990s, it has brought passionate, vocal resistance from Appalachia residents like Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Her fight against the mining companies started in the 1990s after the ridge above her family farm in Bob White, West Virginia, was blown off, followed by landslides and floods she believes are related to the mining operation there. She has faced death threats from miners and their family members for her work.

Nearly 500 mountains in the U.S. have been leveled in the last few decades, according to activists. Besides mining impacts, the mountaintop removal is wiping out some of the most biodiverse forests in the country. Millions of tons of rubble are left behind after the coal is extracted. This mine waste is routinely dumped into valleys, a practice that has buried more than 700 streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While the EPA has tallied up the number of buried streams and valleys, the agency did not stand in the way of mountaintop mine operators during the Bush administration. In fact, it fast-tracked the permits. And, it remains to be seen if Obama will crack down on the practice known as "valley fill," dumping tons of mine rubble into nearby valleys and streams.

Up to 1,000 feet wide and a mile long, valley fills can lead to irreversible changes in watersheds—streams with dramatically higher concentrations of sulfate and magnesium, as well as elevated trace elements of iron, aluminum, zinc and selenium, scientists say. The cumulative effects of these changes have been linked to biological damage to streams. Burying headwaters is particularly troubling since they represent the spots "where rivers are born" and feed waters and aquatic life downstream. Mine rubble can have long-lasting effects on hydrologic processes and stream ecology, Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland ecologist, told senators at the June hearing.

"There is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are buried," says Palmer, whose work has been commissioned by environmental groups.

The Future of Energy

In June, the Obama administration announced new rules aimed at reducing environmental fallout from mountaintop mining. They ended the fast-track policy but stopped short of restoring the pre-Bush classification of mine waste as an illegal pollutant. Instead, the Interior Department, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have been charged with conducting what the administration portrayed as more rigorous case-by-case reviews.

The announcement disappointed environmentalists, who had hoped the new president would put an end to mountaintop removal altogether. Gunnoe, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for 2009, says time is being lost.

"It's all on paper. It's not changing anything on the ground yet, and actually speeding things up," says Gunnoe, who says the uncertainty surrounding the administration's position has prompted mining companies to rush to obtain valley fill permits, in case the EPA hardens its stance. Meanwhile, she says, "We're watching mountains disappear."

The new EPA mandate might have been better received if not for a decision the previous month: In May, EPA officials greenlighted 42 of 48 valley fill permits after putting them through individual reviews.

"Until the White House announces that it will stop the blowing up of mountains and burying of streams, we cannot support their policies, regardless of what process is used to review the mines on a case-by-case basis," Joan Mulhern, senior legislative attorney for Earthjustice, told Mineweb, an industry news site, June 12.

Other reverberations followed. In a June 19 editorial, The New York Times called on Obama to restore clean water protections removed by his predecessor. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, asked: "Is Obama Caving in to Coal?" in a June 15 article accusing the president of being cowed by the coal lobby.

"It's almost comical the way the administration is going back and forth over mountaintop removal," says Brune.

But Brune and other environmentalists say they still hold out hope that Obama will take on the coal industry as part of his efforts to tackle global warming. They will be watching closely to see how the EPA handles the case-by-case valley fill permitting and will keep pressing the administration and Congress to end the practice outright and enact tough climate legislation that will make renewable power sources such as wind and solar more competitive against coal and other fossil fuels.

Hitt takes heart in the fact that wind power now employs more people than the country's coal mines. The American Wind Energy Association says the industry employed 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year. In contrast, coal mining jobs, which have been declining for decades, numbered just 81,000 in 2007, according to the Department of Energy. But without strong support in Washington for renewable energy, she says clean power companies will have a hard time gaining a foothold in the marketplace.

"The real battle is over the future of our energy market," Hitt says. "If we keep these old coal plants chugging along, we don't open up any new markets for renewables."

 

Christine MacDonald is an environmental journalist and the author of "Green Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad" (The Lyons Press).