Judicial battlefront: Environmentalists look to the air to keep coal underground

Though the on-the-ground efforts of groups like the Sierra Club have played a major role in tripping up coal companies actively mining or seeking new areas to mine, environmentalists' air game has perhaps been most dramatic in pinching coal on the demand side.

The Obama administration often is credited with extensive work in advancing federal standards on carbon dioxide, ozone, mercury and other toxics, but often at the heart of much this has been the efforts of groups such as the Sierra Club. The organization ensnared the coal industry in a web largely funded by a massive war chest filled by those such as Michael Bloomberg who alone has donated millions of dollars to the effort.

Their relentless pressure, alongside cheap natural gas and other factors, has pushed coal burn at U.S. power plants back to 1980s levels. Electricity generation from coal fell by over 14% in the first half of 2015 compared to the same time in 2014.

By its own count, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has helped shutter more than 200 coal-fired power plants and has its eyes on the rest of the nation's fleet. Bruce Nilles, senior director of the campaign, looked back on the group's work during a recent interview with SNL Energy, noting that the group's success in the courtroom and at public hearings across the nation was critical to the group's mission.

"It was clear that we were up against a very powerful adversary and we needed a lot of reinforcements if we were going to possibly engage at the scale needed to stop the rush of new coal plants," Nilles said of the early days of the campaign. "We ultimately did that both by adding capacity here at the Sierra Club, but also, critically, really working with what is now over 100 groups, many who have extraordinary legal talent."

Funding in hand, the group has swelled its presence across the U.S., proving a formidable foe to coal-fired power plants across the nation. Thanks to "robust capacity in every state," Nilles said, the group can engage even in regions that are generally somewhat hostile to the group's mission.

In addition to fights at the plant level, the group also continues to back efforts to cap emissions nationwide, largely with coal square in its sights as a primary target. Due to the Sierra Club's efforts, the group says laws like the U.S. EPA Clean Power Plan could be met even earlier than the federally designated targets. Those targets alone have alarmed the industry.

Murray Energy Corp. founder and CEO Robert Murray noted his concerns in a recent release in which the company announced five new lawsuits on top of the company's numerous lawsuits already pending against the Obama administration.

"Our citizens on fixed incomes will not be able to pay their electric bills, and our manufacturers of products for the global marketplace will not be able to compete," Murray said in that announcement. He added that it had no choice but to challenge the actions, which are expected to put a significant crimp in future coal demand.

With mounting support and momentum, Nilles said the Sierra Club will continue to latch on to growing public support and the advantages of a market that seems to increasingly disfavor coal power.

"We are as serious and relentless as we have been since day one," Nilles said. "Our goal has been to hold them accountable in every step of their lifecycle."

Nilles said the group's work is largely the result of a relentless scan of public permits and monitoring of potential violations using the club's national and local resources alongside that of like-minded groups.

"It's now about the end game, right? The coal industry is going away, to anybody being honest about the situation," Nilles said. "The question is: Is it 2050 or 2030? Then, how do we unwind it in a way that is fair to all the people and communities who have given a lot throughout the decades and what kind of legacy are we leaving behind, from the cleanup to economic opportunity?"

 

Attacking the nation's coal plants

Many of environmentalists' early victories were dismissed. Critics suggested their victories were hollow in that they only sought to attack small, older coal plants.

"Yes, of course, we started with the smallest and the oldest," Nilles said. "But we're steadily working up the stack."

It is difficult to dismiss the cumulative efforts of the Sierra Club and like-minded groups' ability to strong-arm state and federal officials that otherwise may have allowed coal plants to survive or even thrive. When appeals to regulators do not seem to be the key, the group seeks relief from the courts.

As one example, Nilles looked to his home state of Wisconsin, where he said the number of cases referred to the Department of Justice had "plummeted."

"That's not because there's any empirical data that there's less violations," Nilles said. "That's just a political decision by the [Republican Gov. Scott] Walker administration to not prosecute companies that are violating the law."

In one case in Wisconsin, the Sierra Club reached an agreement that forced an Alliant Energy Corp. subsidiary to invest millions in environment-beneficial projects. The settlement stemmed from litigation over the plants' emissions. Nilles said regulators were not prepared to immediately take the issue on themselves.

The list of Sierra Club victories over power plants since late 2005 is extensive and ticks off millions of dollars in settlements and significant amounts of shuttered coal capacity. The club notes its large role behind the Clean Power Plan, largely enabled by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling after the organization used the court system to push the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide.

"In one of our biggest victories, the final rule adopted most of our legal team's recommendations concerning environmental justice and fairness to the communities directly affected by power plant pollution and retirements, so that all boats will be lifted by the clean energy revolution the rule portends," a document from the Sierra Club states.

The group's victories over coal's biggest customers have come from a focus on an assortment of regulations. Environmentalists have won cases over sulfur dioxide, coal ash, ozone, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and more.

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