Environmentalists Launch Assault
to Halt Coal Plants
Jan 20, 2008 - Deseret News (Salt
In federal and state courtrooms across
the country, environmental groups are putting coal-fueled
power plants on trial in a bid to slow the industry's
biggest construction boom in decades.
At least 4 dozen coal plants are being
contested in 29 states, according to a recent Associated
Press tally. The targeted utilities include giants
like Peabody Energy and American Electric Power down
to small rural cooperatives.
From lawsuits and administrative appeals
against the companies, to lobbying pressure on federal
and state regulators, the coordinated offensive against
coal is emerging as a pivotal front in the debate
over global warming.
"Our goal is to oppose these projects
at each and every stage, from zoning and air and water
permits, to their mining permits and new coal railroads,"
said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club attorney who directs
the group's national coal campaign. "They know they
don't have an answer to global warming, so they're
fighting for their life."
Some projects in Utah, Texas, Wyoming,
Florida and several other states have been abandoned
Some were canceled over global warming
concerns. Utilities backed off others after their
price tags climbed over $1 billion due to rising costs
for materials and skilled labor.
Last week, the National Park Service
drafted a letter that called a $3.8 billion, coal-fired
power plant "unacceptable" because it would foul air
and water and mar scenic views in the Great Basin
The letter to the Nevada Division of
Environmental Protection was in response to a draft
air permit issued for the 1,500-megawatt Ely Energy
Center, located in Ely, Nev., approximately 120 miles
from Wendover. It is a project of Reno-based Sierra
Pacific Power Co. and Las Vegas-based Nevada Power
The division can issue a final permit
without substantial changes in the draft document,
amend the permit or deny it after reviewing comments.
Industry representatives say the environmentalists'
actions threaten to undermine the country's fragile
power grid, setting the stage for a future of high-priced
electricity and uncontrollable blackouts.
"These projects won't be denied, but
they can be delayed by those who oppose any new energy
projects," said Vic Svec, vice president of the mining
and power company Peabody Energy.
While observers say forecasts of power
grid doom are exaggerated, the importance of coal
-- one of the country's cheapest and most abundant
fuels -- is undeniable.
Coal plants provide just over 50 percent
of the nation's electricity. They also are the largest
domestic source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide,
emitting 2 billion tons annually, about a third of
the country's total.
Environmental groups cite 59 canceled,
delayed or blocked plants as evidence they are turning
back the "coal rush." That stacks up against 22 new
plants now under construction in 14 states -- the
most in more than two decades.
Mining companies, utilities and coal-state
politicians promote coal in the name of national security,
as an alternative to foreign fuels. With hundreds
of years of reserves still in the ground, they're
also pushing coal-to-diesel plants as a way to sharply
increase domestic production.
The outcome of the fight over coal could
determine the nation's greenhouse gas emissions for
years to come, said Gregory Nemet, assistant professor
of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin.
"It's pretty much irreversible," Nemet
said. "Once a coal plant is built, it will last 50
years or so."
But in opposing coal projects across
the board, environmentalists risk hobbling more advanced
coal plants that could rein in at least some of those
emissions, Nemet said. He added that rising demand
for electricity means more power "has to come from
"There's too much pressure -- in terms
of energy independence and the inexpensiveness of
that resource -- to not use that coal," Nemet said.
One of the latest challenges to a utility
came in the heart of coal country -- Montana, which
boasts the largest coal reserves in the nation
. On Friday, a state panel refused to
rescind an air-quality permit it had granted for a
plant proposed for the Great Falls area by Southern
Montana Electric, despite concerns about the plant's
carbon dioxide emissions. The 250-megawatt plant is
projected to emit the equivalent of 2.8 million tons
of carbon dioxide annually, as much as a half-million
The Montana Environmental Information
Center, which had asked the panel to review the permit,
vowed to appeal the ruling.
Nilles said the Sierra Club spent about
$1 million on such efforts in 2007 and hopes to ratchet
that figure up to $10 million this year.
Meanwhile, coal interests are pouring
even more into a promotional campaign launched by
the industry group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices.
It spent $15 million last year and expects to more
than double that to $35 million in 2008, said the
group's director, Joe Lucas.
Funding for the group comes from coal
mining and utility companies such as Peabody and railroads
that depend on coal shipments for a large share of
Peabody's Svec acknowledged a rush to
build new plants but denied the goal was to beat any
of at least seven bills pending before Congress to
restrict carbon dioxide emissions -- a charge leveled
by some environmentalists.
Rather, he said, the construction boom
is driven by projections that the country will fall
into a power deficit within the next decade if new
plants are not built.
Industry attorney Jeffrey Holmstead
said that could lead to a future of rolling blackouts
as the economy expands and electricity consumption
increases. Holmstead was in charge of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's air program during the first five
years of the current Bush administration.
The power deficit cited by industry
officials is based on projections from the North American
Electric Reliability Corp. NERC vice president David
Nevius said his group is "neutral" on what kind of
plants should be built to meet rising demand.
"We're not saying the lights will go
out. We're just saying additional resources are needed,"
Nevius said. "We don't say coal over gas over wind
Utilities currently burn more than 1
billion tons of coal annually in more than 600 plants.
Over the next two decades, the Bush administration
projects coal's share of electricity generation will
increase to almost 60 percent.
That projection held steady in recent
months even as courts and regulators turned back,
delayed or asked for changes to plants in at least
Environmental opposition to coal plants
was galvanized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in
April that said carbon dioxide is a pollutant open
The case, Massachusetts vs. U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, involved vehicle emissions. But
environmentalists aim to use the decision as a fulcrum
to leverage regulators to take a harder line on greenhouse
gases in several emerging power plant disputes.
The result could serve as an early barometer
of the reach of the Supreme Court ruling.
More tests of the two sides' arguments
are certain. Industry groups say at least 15 coal-fired
power projects are nearing the end of the approval
process and could soon start construction.
(c) 2008 Deseret News (Salt Lake City).
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