by Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign

Contrary to the impression you may have been left with after reading a recent Associated Press piece about the future (or lack thereof) of coal in this country, the reign of “King Coal” is ending.

Though the AP piece makes some good points (specifically, noting that “the process [for producing electricity from coal] has changed little since Thomas Edison built the first plant in 1882” and that even after $3.4 billion in stimulus spending, there is currently “no way of capturing carbon” from coal-fired power plants), the idea that coal-fired power is expanding as opposed to rapidly declining is inaccurate.

Just a few years ago, “King Coal” was hoping to build 151 new coal-fired power plants while the Bush Administration’s coal-friendly federal regulators were “on the job.” This was a troubling idea for many reasons. From the mine, to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest and most dangerous energy source. It causes four of the five leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases. It destroys mountains and releases toxic mercury into communities. The carbon pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants is responsible for more than 30% of our country’s total global warming pollution.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In response to this Coal Rush, the Sierra Club in 2005 launched a nationwide Beyond Coal campaign with a broad swath of allies to block these plans.

As of today, the Sierra Club and our allies have blocked 129 new coal plants from being constructed, keeping well more than 530 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. No new coal plants have broken ground since 2008 and clean energy is filling the vacuum, with record amounts of both wind and solar power projects up and running in 2009. Yes, there were some coal plants that sneaked through and came online in 2008 with enormous help from the Bush Administration’s coal-friendly permitting process. That number of coal plants, however, is a fraction of what was planned and represents significantly less than the growth in clean energy during the same time period- growth that would not have been possible if the energy market had been swamped with filthy coal. The wind industry alone added 8,300 MW to the grid in 2008- more than five times the 1,400 MW of new coal added to the grid that year.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Make no mistake, the Coal Rush is over. The costs of the plants that did make it through should serve as a reminder than no clean energy project has ever taken five years to build and witnessed 100 percent cost overruns. The steps to finally move America beyond coal have begun.

We are now in phase two of our efforts to dethrone King Coal, get our energy infrastructure out of the 19th century and build a modern and clean power sector. This phase involves retiring and replacing the oldest and dirtiest coal plants and opening up more market share for clean energy. Since January 2009, more than 8,300 megawatts of existing coal (about 16 average-sized coal plants) have been slated for retirement in the next decade. The tens of thousands of dedicated grassroots activists who first help to stop the coal rush are now busy phasing out outdated existing coal plants.

While we have made significant progress over the past few years, our work is clearly far from done.

It was an outrage when earlier this summer, corporate polluters relied on a minority of Senators to block action to cut coal plant pollution when conservationists, labor, veterans, communities of faith, small businesses and everyday citizens all agreed it was the right thing to do. Failing to address this problem puts all the collective future of our country, and our planet, in jeopardy. Scientists tell us that to avert runaway global warming we need to phase out coal plants in less than two decades.

Ending coal’s contribution to global warming, as well as the smog that plagues most of our cities, is a top priority for the Sierra Club, and we will continue to fight for the necessary changes in federal policy. With Congress stymied by a minority of Senators, we are engaged in other venues to address the litany of serious problems caused by coal.

Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is busy working on enforcing clean air and clean water laws designed to end the regulatory loopholes too-long exploited by King Coal. After eight years of Bush Administration backsliding and inaction, the safeguards seek to put public welfare back on top of the priority list. Among those safeguards are efforts such as:

The EPA is currently in the process of hosting public meetings across the country to hear input on these rules, with the first hearing on the Good Neighbor rule to be held in Chicago on Thursday, August 19.

Strong regulation of each step of coal’s dirty and dangerous life-cycle (from the reckless mining practices to the hazardous disposal of the toxic byproduct of the waste left over when coal is burned) is not only going to level the playing field between coal and clean energy, it is also to usher in a new era of American energy.

We know that continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future. If our economy is to be revitalized by the clean-energy industry, if the health and safety of families is to be considered, if we want to have any hope of stopping the worst effects of climate change, King Coal’s reign cannot continue.

We have made unprecedented progress in recent years to prevent new coal plants and massive amounts of new pollution for decades into the future, but our work is not done. Whether it is pursuing federal legislation that will cut carbon pollution or pushing and supporting Lisa Jackson as she enforces the law to protect public health and our communities, we will continue the fight to move our country beyond coal.