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How a Grassroots Rebellion Won the Nation's Biggest Climate Victory

Activists have imposed a de facto moratorium on new coal—and beat the Obama EPA to the punch.

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Beyond Coal has helped broker a similar transition in Washington state. When environmentalists first targeted the Centralia coal plant for closure, they ran into opposition not just from its owner, the TransAlta company, but also from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 150 employees at the plant. "There is no way I or the IBEW would have agreed to shut down that plant," says Bob Guenther, who worked as a mechanic at Centralia for 34 years before becoming the union's chief lobbyist, "if we didn't have an agreement to keep this community whole."

As a cofounder of the national BlueGreen Alliance of workers and environmentalists, the Sierra Club had experience working through disagreements with labor, so Beyond Coal made some compromises. "We wanted a 5-year timeline for closing [the TransAlta plant], and we settled for 10," Nilles says. "Not because of the company but because of IBEW."

The agreement was hammered out behind closed doors during negotiations requested by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire. "The governor wanted a deal that would satisfy all sides and avoid litigation," says Keith Phillips, a senior aide. Phillips spent two days shuttling between rooms containing representatives from TransAlta and environmental groups, but not the IBEW. That left the environmentalists to argue labor's case—which they did. They insisted that the plant's workforce be retained throughout its closure and cleanup; that workers be trained in the technologies that would replace coal, especially energy efficiency; and that the company, not the taxpayers, subsidize the transition. TransAlta agreed, pledging $55 million that will be controlled by the affected communities, to fund economic development and clean tech. "A lot of it will pay for insulating schools and other public buildings," says Guenther. In return, environmentalists accepted a later closure date for the plant: One of its two boilers will shut down in 2020; the other, in 2025.

One big question facing Beyond Coal is what happens if electricity demand begins increasing again. With coal plants so difficult to get approved, utilities might look to natural gas instead, accelerating the environmental devastation caused by gas drilling and fracking. (TransAlta, for one, has announced plans to build a gas plant as it prepares to shut down the Centralia facility.) That dynamic was surely on the mind of Chesapeake Energy, one of America's largest natural gas companies, when it helped pay for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Between 2007 and 2010, under executive director Carl Pope, the club secretly accepted $26.1 million from the company; Brune, the current executive director, discovered and halted the practice shortly after replacing Pope in 2010. "We can't take cash from companies or industries that…we want to change," Brune told me. Nilles says he knew about the Chesapeake money "from the beginning," noting that the environmental downsides of fracking were not as evident in 2007: "My views on gas have evolved significantly in the intervening years."

Between 2007 and 2010, the Sierra Club accepted more than $26 million from Chesapeake Energy, a major natural gas company that stood to benefit if coal lost momentum.

But gas is not the only option for replacing coal. Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago says technological gains in energy efficiency and renewables are accelerating so rapidly, they may well outpace increase in demand. "Just as it's hard to imagine a world in which we're going back to landlines, we're not going to turn back the clock on energy efficiency," says Learner. "It's the best, fastest, cheapest, and most environmentally sound way of meeting our energy needs." The global consulting firm McKinsey has estimated that efficiency can reduce nontransportation energy use in the United States a full 23 percent by 2020, and that such investments would cost $520 billion while creating $1.2 trillion in savings.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability expert who consults with corporations and government agencies around the world, goes even further. In his book Reinventing Fire, he lays out a blueprint for how the United States could stop burning coal for electricity by 2050 while also phasing out oil and nuclear power and still growing the economy by 158 percent. Already, Lovins points out, costs for renewables are falling to the point where wind, especially, is competitive with coal (PDF) for many purposes.

Not everyone projects quite so rosy a scenario. The US Department of Energy estimates that coal's share of the country's energy mix will remain relatively steady for decades. And it's easy to see why: Energy markets (and energy policy) are dominated by corporations that have sunk a lot of investment into fossil fuels.

But the energy sector is also heavily regulated—which means that political shifts can have a fairly immediate effect. And on the political front, Mary Anne Hitt believes the Beyond Coal campaign offers "a fundamental message about how to make change in this country."

The effort to pass climate legislation, for example, was centered on Capitol Hill, a battlefield where the power of money rigs the system. Then, to satisfy inside-the-Beltway definitions of what was politically realistic, mainstream environmental organizations embraced a policy—cap and trade—that was incremental in its remedy and incomprehensible in its mechanism. "We can't go out in the streets about that," one grassroots activist complained at the time. "Most people can't even understand it." These strategic choices made it impossible to build the kind of public pressure that could overcome the industry's political power and deep pockets.

The Beyond Coal campaign, by contrast, organized people around tangible targets: their air, their water, the climate their children would live with. This enabled it to appeal to a constellation of allies (public health advocates, unions) beyond the usual environmental suspects. Finally, Beyond Coal focused on local and state governments, where popular sentiment can have a more immediate effect.

With baby Hazel celebrating her second birthday, Hitt finds comfort in these results. "When you see a coal plant being stopped, that means a mountaintop removal will not go forward and a large amount of carbon will not be released into the atmosphere—you can see you're making a difference," she explains. "As a parent, that makes it easier for me to sleep at night."

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