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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.

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