2010: A Precedent-Setting Year In the Fight Against Coal
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It was another tough year for the coal industry. In the last 25 months not one coal-fired power plant broke ground for construction in the United States. In 2010 alone a total of 38 proposed plants were erased from the drawing board, the most ever recorded in a single year. Utilities also announced 12,000 MW in coal plant retirements -- or enough power to bring electricity to a whopping 12 million American households. And even Massey Energy's infamous henchman Don Blankenship is set to retire, effective next month.
Indeed coal executives got what they deserved in their stockings this holiday season -- big lumps of black coal. "I predict historians will point at 2010 as the year that coal's influence peaked and began declining," says Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director of the Sierra Club, whose organization released a year-end report on coal in the U.S.
Nilles is correct; the coal boom out west looks to be over, as companies like Arch and Peabody scramble to figure out what to do with their vast reserves while U.S. markets begin to dwindle. The EPA has also not been as friendly to this portion of the energy sector as in years past, placing most coal permits for mountaintop removal on hold and even recommending a veto of the proposed Spruce Mine in West Virginia, which would be the largest of its kind in the country.
With the help of Rainforest Action Network and other grassroots activists, financing for new mining projects from the likes of PNC and UBS will prove difficult from now on. In 2010 both banks joined the growing number of lending institutions that are turning their backs on mountaintop removal ventures. During the first half of this year renewable energy projects also accounted for 93 percent of all proposed projects.
Back in 2001 the outlook for the coal trade looked much different. At the time, a total of 150 plants were proposed in the U.S. It was to kick off the coal rush of the millennium. But citizen opposition mounted in the form of legal battles, public education efforts, demonstrations and well-executed divestment campaigns all over country. From the streets of Washington to the rural outback of South Dakota people became outraged. Concern for public health and the awareness of coal's contribution to climate change increased dramatically. The result has been exceptional: a total of 149 of those 150 plant proposals have been halted outright.
Who said environmentalism is dead? When it comes to coal anyway, the movement is alive and well with dozens of victories under its belt in the last two years alone.
Nonetheless, it's just the beginning. According to Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Space Institute, ending emissions from coal is "is 80 percent of the solution to the global warming crisis." Hansen says this is because of three straightforward reasons: 1) according to most estimates coal is much more plentiful than oil and gas; 2) coal is far more carbon intensive than any other fossil fuel; and 3) coal use is concentrated in the United States in around 600 power plants (dozens of which are already slated for closure), whereas other fuels are spread among an array of sources.
Climate scientists estimate that greenhouse gas levels have already passed the dangerous benchmark of 350 parts per million. However, in order to curb this dire trend, and bring down this number dramatically, Hansen and others say we must eliminate coal use in the United States by 2030.
Is it doable? It certainly looks to be.
To put the numbers in perspective, in order to bring all U.S. coal offline over the course of the next 20 years, this means we must retire an average of 15,000 MW of coal power annually. So despite 2010's huge success with 12,000 MW chalked up for closure, the pace must be increased.