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By Mary Anne Hitt and Bruce Nilles
As leaders of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, we've experienced first-hand the power of grassroots movements and civil society to profoundly change the world for the better. We celebrate the news that allies from across Europe are joining together to launch Europe Beyond Coal, a coalition that will advance the work of NGOs across Europe to move beyond coal to clean energy. The U.S. Beyond Coal Campaign has been instrumental in retiring half the coal fired power plants in the U.S. and ushering in the clean energy revolution, and we welcome the progress that will undoubtedly be matched by our colleagues across the pond.
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Communities Demand Trump and Pruitt 'Stop Pandering to Billionaire Coal Executives' and Protect Their Families
Community leaders from across the U.S. traveled to Washington, DC, Monday to testify at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELG) hearing, demanding Donald Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, stop pandering to billionaire coal executives and protect every family and community from coal plants dumping toxic, industrial sludge into their drinking water supplies.
By Katie O'Reilly
Two years ago—long before coal became one of the most dominant and controversial symbols of the 2016 presidential election—Bloomberg Philanthropies approached production company RadicalMedia with the idea of creating a documentary exploring the U.S. coal mining industry. Last spring, they brought on Emmy-nominated director Michael Bonfiglio, tasked with forging a compelling story out of the multitudes of facts, statistics and narratives underlying the declining industry.
Sources close to the Trump transition team told Politico that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is the frontrunner for the Interior secretary position. Fallin, who is a climate change denier and was one of the first governors to oppose the Clean Power Plan, met with Trump last week in New York, where their conversation focused on the energy industry and Native tribes.
According to Politico, Fallin is an "advocate of oil and gas development, she signed a bill last year that would prevent Oklahoma cites from enacting bans on drilling."
Elaine Chao, former labor secretary under Bush II (left). Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is the frontrunner for the Interior secretary position (right).
Meanwhile, Trump announced Elaine Chao, former labor secretary under Bush II, as his pick for secretary of transportation; Chao, who is married to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, left the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies in early 2015 after the charity announced it would be increasing its donations to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
"As secretary of transportation Elaine Chao will spearhead a Trump plan to plunder the government for Trump's friends and family's financial gain," Friends of the Earth climate and energy program director Benjamin Schreiber said.
"A massive corporate welfare plan for contractors is not an infrastructure plan, it's a travesty and a threat to the planet. Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require a radical reshaping of our transportation system to move us away from fossil fuels. The U.S. urgently needs a secretary of transportation who will lead this transition. As secretary of labor, Chao dismantled critical mine safety regulations and showed that she values fossil fuel profits above all else. She is the wrong choice to lead the transition to a green energy economy that will provide lasting jobs and protect the planet."
For a deeper dive:
"We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets," Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, said.
The agency also raised its five-year forecast for renewable energy by 13 percent and now expects renewables to be 42 percent of global energy capacity by 2021.
For a deeper dive:
The Ohio Public Utilities Commission (PUCO) approved a scheme Wednesday that will force FirstEnergy's customers to hand over approximately $200 million annually to the company and its shareholders for the next 3-5 years. Customers will receive virtually nothing in return for this massive subsidy, which could ultimately reach $1 billion.
A coal-fired power plant on the Ohio River. Robert S. Donovan
Under Wednesday's order, FirstEnergy will begin to receive hundreds of millions of dollars, with effectively no strings attached. Although characterized as a "distribution modernization rider," nothing in the commission's order requires that these customer dollars be invested in modernizing Ohio's electrical grid or in any way be spent to benefit Ohio customers. Instead, the dollars can be siphoned off from FirstEnergy's Ohio utilities and used to bail FirstEnergy Corp. out of its poor coal investments while boosting the profits of corporate shareholders.
"Today's decision takes hundreds of millions of dollars out of customers' pockets in order to create a massive slush fund for FirstEnergy Corp. and its shareholders," said Shannon Fisk, attorney at the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice.
"And the fact that FirstEnergy asked for billions more does not make this decision any less unreasonable. Rather than forcing customers to prop up profits for a corporation that made a bad bet on aging coal plants, the commission should be looking after customers and ensuring investments in job-creating renewable energy, energy efficiency and smart grid initiatives."
Through Wednesday's decision, the commission has aided FirstEnergy's efforts to sidestep a recent order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that raised serious questions about FirstEnergy's previous bailout proposal. Under that proposal, customers would have directly assumed all of the financial risk of financially struggling coal and nuclear plants owned by FirstEnergy Corp.'s unrelated competition generation business.
In late April, FERC ruled that FirstEnergy's previous bailout proposal—which PUCO had approved a month earlier—may violate federal safeguards concerning transactions between public utilities and their unregulated affiliates. FERC blocked FirstEnergy's bailout scheme pending a federal review. Rather than submit its proposal for FERC review, FirstEnergy concocted a new scheme intended to bypass the FERC order. Although the bailout ultimately approved by PUCO is structured a bit differently and Wednesday's order mentions grid modernization in passing, the fact remains that this bailout poses the same risk to customers that the FERC order sought to prevent.
"In this long-awaited and complicated decision, PUCO missed a critical opportunity to seriously focus FirstEnergy on the more diversified, cleaner energy future that tens of thousands of customers wrote the commission asking for," said Dan Sawmiller, senior representative for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio.
"A few months ago, FirstEnergy took an important step in moving beyond coal when it announced closure of four units at its Sammis coal plant. With PUCO's decision now issued, we hope to be able to work with FirstEnergy to accelerate its path beyond coal and nuclear and toward new investments in clean energy, energy efficiency and other modern grid initiatives like infrastructure for electric vehicles."
Wednesday's order marks the latest development in a more than two-year effort by FirstEnergy to obtain a customer-funded bailout. Throughout that time consumer groups, industrial customers, independent power producers and environmental non-profits have united in challenging FirstEnergy's efforts as contrary to law and bad for customers. Challenges before the Ohio Supreme Court and FERC to the commission's approval of the bailout are expected.
El Paso Electric celebrated the milestone of becoming Texas and New Mexico's first coal-free utility at an event held in downtown El Paso Wednesday. The Sierra Club joined speakers from across the city to mark this achievement.
Over the last several years, El Paso Electric has been working on ways to provide power in its Texas and New Mexico territories without the coal-fired electricity it has obtained for decades from the Four Corners coal-fired power plant located within the Navajo Nation. The Four Corners coal plant has been one of the largest sources of carbon pollution in the country for many years, as well as a large source of nitrogen oxides and sulfur pollution that impact public health in indigenous communities. El Paso Electric owned a seven percent share of the plant until its coal-free announcement last week.
While other utilities in the region decide how much longer they intend to operate the 50-year-old Four Corners coal plant, El Paso Electric made the wise decision to get out of the coal business and instead focus its resources on cleaner energy like solar power.
"I congratulate El Paso Electric on ending its ownership and affiliation with the Four Corners coal power plant in New Mexico," Dr. Al Armendariz, deputy regional director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said.
"While there is still more work to be done to fully realize Texas and New Mexico's renewable energy potential, we know that shifting away from carbon-polluting coal plants is one of the most important things we can do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, which is already making droughts more serious and drying up the Rio Grande.
"As a native of El Paso, I am proud the local utility is providing my family with cleaner power including a growing amount of zero pollution solar energy. I am also pleased that El Paso Electric has embraced fair treatment of people who aim to produce power through rooftop solar," Armendariz added.
Statewide, Texas draws nearly 19 percent of its power from coal and New Mexico draws 37 percent of its power from coal. With some utilities like MidAmerican Energy in Iowa on the path to getting nearly 85 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2020, El Paso Electric is one of the first utilities in the south central U.S. to start catching up to its peers in the utility industry. Since 2010, 238 coal-fired power plants nationwide have been announced to retire, comprising a whopping 45 percent of all the coal plants operating just six years ago.
"We commend El Paso Electric on a decision that embodies a tectonic shift across the country away from carbon-polluting coal to clean energy," said Antha N. Williams, head of environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has provided $80 million to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
"Businesses recognize that renewable energy not only protects the health of American citizens and mitigates the impacts of climate change, but it also makes sense economically—saving consumers on their bills in the long run and creating jobs in emerging industries. This transition is happening as a result of smart advocacy and leaders who understand the future of our energy economy will be driven by clean power, not coal."
According to El Paso Electric, the utility will be eliminating one billion pounds of carbon dioxide from its annual emissions by no longer being dependent on the Four Corners plant, while also preventing another billion pounds of carbon dioxide via the operations of its large-scale solar facilities.
On Feb. 29 the Sierra Club marked a major milestone in the transition to clean energy as the Fisk and Crawford facilities in Chicago became the 99th and 100th coal-fired plants to announce retirement since January 2010. These iconic Midwest Generation owned plants are two of nine coal-fired plants from Chicago to Pennsylvania that announced plans to retire, including the Portland plant in Mt. Bethel, Pennsylvania.
The Sierra Club’s goal is to retire one third of America’s polluting coal plants by the year 2020 and replace that power with clean energy like wind and solar. Coal industry executives have called the Beyond Coal campaign “unrelenting and dramatic,” with “hard hitting messages that put local officials in uncomfortable positions.” A powerful grassroots movement has grown dramatically in recent years, made up of dozens of local and national groups and more than a million people taking action around the country.
“We are winning as city by city, communities are standing up and saying no to coal,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Beyond Coal campaign. “This latest milestone underscores the movement occurring across the country, and we will not power our future with the outdated energy sources of the 19th century. Now we must ensure that the transition from coal to clean energy happens in a way that protects workers and communities.”
Pollution from coal-burning power plants contributes to a host of health problems, including respiratory illnesses and asthma attacks, heart disease and cancer. Retirement of these 100 plants is estimated to prevent more than 2,042 premature deaths, 3,299 heart attacks and 33,053 asthma attacks, according to the Clean Air Task Force.
“The Beyond Coal campaign deserves a big congratulations and thank you from everyone who values clean air,” said Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist and mayor of New York City, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies recently donated $50 million to the Beyond Coal effort. “We are clearly witnessing the end of our dependency on coal and the move toward a cleaner energy future.”
In addition to securing retirement dates for more than 100 coal plants nationwide and continuing to keep a watch on their progress to ensure they phase out on schedule, the Beyond Coal campaign has prevented 166 new coal plant proposals from being built. Preventing new coal plants and retiring existing coal plants has opened the space for clean energy. The U.S. solar and wind capacity is now over 50,000 megawatts, enough to power 11 million homes, and nearly 180,000 people are now employed by the solar and wind industries.
Many energy companies have decided not to invest in new coal plants due to economic reasons. A recent report by the Energy Information Agency predicts that coal-fired electricity will continue to decline in coming years.
Since the Beyond Coal campaign began:
- Proposals for 166 new coal-fired power plants have been abandoned, opening market space for clean energy.
- The campaign has helped secure retirement dates for 106 existing plants, meaning nearly 13% of current coal generation is now slated for retirement.
- New mountaintop removal mining permits have slowed to a trickle.
- 19 colleges and universities have won fights to phase out coal plants on their campuses, thanks in large part to the hard hitting campaigns of Sierra Student Coalition.
- Hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized in support of strong clean air and water protections.
- Sierra Club and its allies signed an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority to phase out coal plants, representing the biggest clean air agreement in the history of the Southeast.
“As America transitions away from coal, we must ensure that the communities, workers and families who have lived with and worked with coal will have opportunities to help lead us into a clean energy future," said Beyond Coal campaign lead volunteer Verena Owen.
For more information, click here.
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign started as a three-person campaign in 2002 and has quickly grown into a powerhouse effort that is changing the way America produces energy. In 2001, the Bush administration met with coal industry representatives as part of a closed-door energy task force, to craft plans for a new "coal rush" -- the construction of 150 new coal-fired power plants. Had the industry prevailed in building these plants, the nation would have been locked into the use of 19th-century dirty fuels for the foreseeable future. The potential for entrepreneurs to develop wind, solar and other clean technologies would have been crippled. Working with local people in neighborhoods across the country, Sierra Club organizers began fighting Big Coal’s efforts to push through these plants. Together, they achieved one victory after another.
The Sierra Club is the largest grassroots environmental organization in the country, with over 1.4 million members and supporters.
On Feb. 29, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Midwest Generation announced the planned retirement of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants, two of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation located in the heart of Chicago’s Southwest side. According to an agreement signed by Midwest Generation, the Clean Power Coalition, and the City of Chicago, the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen will retire in 2012 and the Crawford coal plant in Little Village will retire by 2014. As part of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, Sierra Club has worked with an incredible group of local community organizations to retire these coal plants due to the dangerous health impacts on the families of Chicago.
"Today’s announcement of the retirement of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants is a triumph for Chicago families," said Sierra Club’s Executive Director Michael Brune. "These old and dirty plants have been polluting two thriving Chicago neighborhoods for over 100 years. The effort to end pollution from the plants has been an uphill battle for a very long time. This announcement is the culmination of many years of hard work by local families and concerned residents in Pilsen and Little Village, and this victory belongs to them. Pollution from these coal plants has been making local residents sick since 1903, contributing to asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses and other health problems. This is giant leap in our work to move America beyond coal."
Chicago is the only major metropolitan area with not only one, but two polluting coal plants within the city limits, and the Sierra Club, along with the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, has been working with Mayor Emanuel to retire these two Midwest Generation plants. The coal burned in these plants is brought in from Wyoming, the power is sold out of state, and the profits go to a California-based company, leaving Chicago to deal with the pollution. The announcement marks the end of a long and difficult battle led by the Chicago Clean Power Coalition to protect the health of the Pilsen and Little Village residents.
“This is a grassroots victory for environmental justice. Over the past year-and-a-half, hundreds of Chicagoans have logged calls to their Aldermen, to the Mayor, to Midwest Generation, delivered thousands of postcards and petitions, marched in the streets and demanded that every person, regardless of who they are where they live, has the right to breathe clean air,” said Tony Fuller, volunteer for the Sierra Club. “This victory proves that when communities and organizations work together, they can stop big polluters in their tracks.”
According to a 2011 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) report, Crawford and Fisk were ranked number one and number three respectively on a list of the top environmental justice offenders national wide.
"This is a tremendous victory for our frontline communities who are forced to breathe this air day in and day out," said Rosalie Mancera of Pilsen Alliance. “This is the first of many victories to come in Illinois, as people from all different backgrounds will come together to move coal out of their back yards and bring clean air and clean jobs to their neighborhoods.”
While this is a tremendous victory for the health of Chicagoans, Midwest Generation still has four other major coal plants throughout Illinois. Midwest Generation will be making critical decisions in the next several months with whether to make risky investments in retrofitting these old coal plants or choose to set retirement dates and invest in clean energy.
"Chicagoans can breathe easier thanks to Mayor Emanuel's leadership in closing these old, polluting coal plants," said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. "Mayor Emanuel knows that moving Chicago from coal to clean energy works for all of us, and we applaud him for his efforts to bring cleaner air to Pilsen, Little Village, and all of Chicago. Now, as America transitions away from coal, we call on Midwest Generation and other power companies to ensure that communities, workers and families will have a just and stable transition from working with coal to becoming leaders in a clean energy future."
Last Year the Sierra Club joined forces with Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, and his Bloomberg Philanthropies to combat the dangerous health effects coal pollution has on children and families across the nation.
“Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago have taken a big step forward in building a healthier and environmentally sustainable city. Mayor Emanuel is a leader who understands the need for immediate steps to improve public health and make long-term investments in our urban infrastructures,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and mayor of New York City. “Today is also a great step forward for the Beyond Coal Campaign that has been working with Mayor Emanuel, residents, and local organizations. With today’s development, Chicago joins the legion of cities across America who have committed to putting our country on a new energy path."
Chicago has been a key target for Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign, aimed at replacing dirty, polluting coal-fired power plants with clean energy like wind and solar power.
The Fisk and Crawford plants are the 98th and 99th plants to be retired since the Beyond Coal campaign began. They join the ranks of coal plants like Cane Run in Louisville, Kentucky and GenOn in Alexandria, Va. and a fleet of First Energy Plants in Ohio who announced their historic retirements in recent months. The Beyond Coal Campaign aims to replace dirty, polluting coal-fired power plants with clean energy like wind and solar power. The campaign, in conjunction with allies around the country, have stopped more than 150 coal plants from breaking ground, and the number of planned retirements continues to grow as the nation transitions to a clean energy future.
For more information, click here.
GenOn Energy Inc., a major nationwide energy generator, announced on Feb. 29 that the company will retire seven of its oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants. These plants are located in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states whose residents are most affected by pollution from coal-fired power plants.
GenOn announced the following retirements during a meeting with investors—Portland, Shawville, Titus, New Castle and Elrama in Pennsylvania and Niles and Avon Lake in Ohio. In total, these retirements will bring 2,980 megawatts of dirty and dangerous coal pollution to an end.
Pollution from coal-fired power plants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and mercury, contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S.—heart attacks, stroke, respiratory illnesses and cancer. Closure of the seven plants will prevent more than 179 premature deaths, 300 heart attacks and 2,800 asthma attacks, according to data from the Clean Air Task Force. That same report estimated the total economic impact of premature deaths and disease from these plants at more than $1.3 billion.
“Above all, this is a win for public health and for families who have been breathing polluted air from these outdated plants,” said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “GenOn has recognized that operating outdated, dirty coal plants just doesn’t make economic sense anymore, especially in a time when constructing a wind farm is now cheaper than building a new coal plant. What matters now is ensuring that GenOn does the right thing and transitions these workers into the growing clean energy sector.”
One of these coal-fired power plants, the Portland Generating Station, is the subject of a landmark ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring the plant to reduce the pollution it releases and stop it from carrying over from the plant's home state into New Jersey. The plant opposed that ruling, which was the first of its kind on a single-source emitter; the Sierra Club, in a coalition of environmental groups including Clean Air Council and Greenpeace, filed notice to join the lawsuit to defend EPA's ruling.
Activists in Ohio praised the planned plant retirements at Avon Lake and Niles. "For decades, these plants have been polluting our air and water," said Dave Simons, a Cleveland, Ohio resident and Energy Committee Chair for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. "Now we can look forward to a cleaner, brighter future when no one will get sick because of pollution from these plants."
But activists in both states also stressed the need for GenOn to ensure that its workforce will be transitioned into other employment when the plants are retired. “GenOn may have recognized that it just makes good economic sense for them to close these plants, but now they have the responsibility of making sure that their business decision doesn’t mean unemployment for their workers,” said Rashay Layman, organizing representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Ohio.
The retirements, the most recent in a wave of similar announcements from energy providers, come at a time when the nation’s share of clean energy is at a record high. “Today’s news is part of a national trend of clean energy replacing coal, with states like Iowa and South Dakota that generate 20 percent of their electricity from wind," said Randy Francisco, organizing representative with the Beyond Coal Campaign in Pennsylvania.
Coal plants are major sources of climate disruption and toxic air pollution like mercury, soot and carbon pollution. These seven plants bring the tally of coal plant retirements to 106 since the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign began work to responsibly retire coal-fired power plants and develop clean energy in 2010.
For more information, click here.