Protecting Americans from Power Plant Pollution
On September 20, the Environmental Protection Agency will release new safeguards against carbon pollution that, if expectations are on target, will confirm something investors, governors, community leaders, and everyday Americans have been saying for a decade – in the 21st century, it just doesn’t make sense to build new coal-fired power plants. To be specific, we’ve said that 179 times.
Since 2002, an unprecedented national network of more than 100 organizations and tens of thousands of volunteers has stopped the construction of 179 proposed coal-fired power plants across the U.S. This happened in red states and blue states, under the leadership of Republican and Democratic governors, in coalitions including doctors, teachers, mayors, ministers, dads, moms, young people, and pretty much everyone under the sun. As the director of the Beyond Coal Campaign at the Sierra Club, I’ve had the privilege of being part of many of these campaigns, alongside volunteer co-lead Verena Owen and senior campaign director Bruce Nilles.
As a result of that scrappy, tenacious effort, almost no one is trying to build a new coal plant in America today. Investors and decision-makers abandoned those projects because the proposed plants would have harmed the health of local residents, increased dangerous air and water pollution, crowded out markets for wind and solar, and pushed our climate over the brink. As time wore on, those proposed coal plants had an increasingly hard time competing with clean energy like wind and solar.
Today, it’s painfully clear that, with Americans bearing the loss, suffering, and multi-billion dollar price tag of climate-related disasters like Western wildfires and Superstorm Sandy, it would have been sheer madness to lock our nation into another generation of reliance on coal, our most carbon-intensive energy source and the single biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.
Now the EPA is expected to release a draft carbon pollution standard for new power plants that would finally require the coal industry to deal with its climate-disrupting carbon emissions, which, to date, it has been dumping into our shared atmosphere without any limits whatsoever. As President Obama put it in his June 25 climate speech at Georgetown, “Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”
This standard covers all fossil fuel plants. Unfortunately, the standard for natural gas plants will likely not be as strong. We will push hard to strengthen that standard, so that we don’t incentivize a new generation of natural gas plants and all the climate, water, and air pollution they would create.
Goodness knows we don’t need to. Just last week, utility Xcel Energy announced it was making big new investments in wind and solar because – get this – they were actually cheaper that natural gas. Simply put, clean energy has been cleaning coal’s clock for some time now, and it’s now catching natural gas as well, even when gas is at record low prices. Rapid innovation and the real-time effects of climate disruption are turning energy markets on their heads, and there will be no return to the past for the coal industry.
But that isn’t stopping the coal industry from trying to drag us backwards. There has already been much whining about the new power plant standard from coal barons and their friends in high places, and EPA is encountering fierce resistance. And that’s just a warm-up to the fight over standards for existing power plants that will follow next summer.
It will be up to all of us to get strong standards across the finish line, and there will be lots of opportunities to get involved this fall, which I’ll write about here in the coming weeks. The EPA must remain steadfast, and the agency should keep this in mind – over the past decade, without the backing of the White House or a fraction of the resources of their fossil fuel opponents, regular Americans said no to new climate-destroying coal plants 179 times, and instead chose a cleaner energy path for their communities. It’s long overdue that we do the same as a nation.