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Michigan at Center of National Coal War

Successful campaign turning other states toward new technologies and jobs

May 6, 2008 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Alliance for Planet Earth
  Students in Charleston recently rallied against a new coal plant proposed by Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric utility.
SAN FRANCISCO – The mounting opposition to the construction of as many as seven new coal-burning power plants in Michigan is part of a national campaign that is challenging both the economic and environmental wisdom of using coal’s 18th- and 19th-century technology to generate electricity and jobs in the 21st century.

The campaign, coordinated by the Sierra Club from offices here and in Washington D.C., Richmond, Va., and Madison, Wis., is among the most successful ever launched by the 116-year-old organization. Deploying research, classic grassroots organizing, and the latest online outreach tools, the club's “Stopping the Coal Rush” project has attracted broad bipartisan appeal at the grassroots and in the highest councils of government as it attacks coal-burning plants for accelerating global warming; harming land, water, and air; and holding back the development of America’s portion of a new, worldwide, sustainable energy industry.

Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist, for instance, opposes any new coal-burning plants in his state, while Democratic U.S. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is battling new coal plants in his.

The campaign's achievements are told in the growing number of proposed coal-burning power plants that have been cancelled or halted by vigorous public protest. Of the 150 new coal-fired power plants proposed since 2004, 65 have been defeated. Fifteen more are likely to be halted, according to the Sierra Club. One of the most noted opposition campaigns nationally, in fact, occurred in Manistee, Mich., in 2003 and 2004, when a Texas developer's plan to build a $700 million, 425-megawatt plant was defeated by residents concerned about the consequences to their health, the environment, and their city's economy.

But Bruce Nilles, the director of Sierra’s national campaign, in an interview from his office in Wisconsin, cautioned that he and other anti-coal leaders are far from satisfied. The utility and coal industries are mounting an expensive and influential counter-attack in the media, Congress, and in state capitals.

Mr. Nilles said that 17 new coal-fired power plants are either under construction across the country or nearing groundbreaking, and another 15—including one small and three large coal-burning plants proposed, respectively, in Marquette, Midland, Bay City, and Rogers City—are in or very close to the permitting stage, seeking state authority to operate.

Moreover, utilities are proposing about 60 other generating stations across the country, but have not yet formally begun the process of acquiring state operating permits.

“We're making progress, but we're also a long way from thinking our work is done,” said Mr. Nilles. “There is a serious risk for all of us if we don't persuade governors and citizens that we have a global climate crisis and an economic crisis, and that we can solve both by doing something other than building coal-burning power plants. Our goal is to persuade an awful lot of people to consider those other options.”

With two or three plants in the conceptual stage, five already planned, and most of those in various stages of permitting, Michigan now leads all states in the number of coal-burning power plants that utilities want to construct, supplanting Texas and Illinois, said Mr. Nilles.

Unlike top elected leaders in some other states, however, Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has hardly uttered a word about coal in public. And while the governor often touts the development of an alternative-energy manufacturing sector in Michigan, her Department of Environmental Quality continues to quietly process new coal plant permit applications. The agency also recently turned down a formal petition asking it to begin regulating coal-plant emissions that cause global warming, a decision it is now defending in state court.

Coal: Miracle or Monster?
The basic lines drawn by the opposing sides in the growing national contest over coal are bright and clear. The coal industry and utilities assert that the fuel source most abundant in the United States is coal, and that when burned in steam-producing plants produces about half of the nation's electricity at prices that are the envy of much of the industrialized world. As demand grows in the U.S., say supporters, coal is a logical fuel choice. There is so much coal in America that even at current rates of consumption, the supply will last centuries.

Coal producers and utilities are making this case in a series of national and regional television advertisements that essentially argue that reducing the use of coal could cripple the American economy.

The industry’s critics refute that and other coal industry assertions and argue that the entire industrial lifecycle of coal has long been an environmental calamity, and is rapidly becoming an economic one as well.

Burning coal in power plants, say scientists, is the single largest source of carbon dioxide, the gas that is playing a huge role in heating the Earth's atmosphere. Burning coal, they say, also produces mercury and other heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and other toxic pollutants that have contaminated lakes, streams, and the atmosphere in Michigan and many other states with acid rain and smog. Mining coal has caused great damage as well, including acid mine drainage that ruins streams and lakes, and enormous disruption in natural landscapes caused by strip mining and blowing the tops off mountains in Appalachia.

Money Talks
Recently, though, the economic case against coal has grown, too, spreading to Wall Street and governors’ mansions. The price of a new coal-powered plant is now huge—$2 billion to $3 billion and increasing, according to recent statements by major utilities. And the price of coal is climbing as fast as the price of oil. It has tripled since early in this decade.

Lastly, says the Sierra Club and its alliance of supporting organizations, America has much cleaner, less expensive alternatives—conservation, energy efficiency technologies and practices, and wind, solar, hydro, and biomass energy. The technologies are proven and being put into practice—very slowly in Michigan, but with increasing speed in other states. Those battling coal are making a strong case that failing to embrace renewable energy sources will wreck the American economy.

States are starting to take notice of the economic argument. Texas, with 4,400 windmills, is now the largest wind-generating state in the country. T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman whose personal fortune exceeds $3 billion, made the first down payment in April to build the world's largest wind farm. He intends to spend $10 billion to erect 2,700 turbines across 200,000 acres of the Texas Panhandle over the next four years, producing 4,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 1 million homes.

Iowa has developed 1,800 new jobs in factories that build wind-driven generating equipment. Pennsylvania, according to Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, has generated 3,500 new industrial jobs in its four-year-old renewable energy industrial sector.

Pacific Gas and Electric, a privately owned utility in California, announced in March that it was planning to build three thermal-solar-powered electrical generating stations in the state’s Mojave Desert capable of generating 900 megawatts, or equal to the power produced by a very big coal-fired plant.

Some Key Battles
The intensity of the campaign to stop new coal-burning power plants has surprised leaders on both sides. In Kansas, the state government last year banned the construction of two new coal-fired power plants. When the Kansas Legislature, under pressure from utilities and the coal industry, overrode the ban, Democratic Governor Kathleen Sibelius vetoed the bill three times.

“This decision not only preserves Kansans' health and upholds our moral obligation to be good stewards of this beautiful land,” Governor Sibelius said in March, after the first veto, “but will also enhance our prospects for strong and sustainable economic growth throughout our state. Instead of building two new coal plants, which would produce 11 million new tons of carbon dioxide each year, I support pursuing other, more promising energy and economic development alternatives.”

In South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League just published an economic analysis of Santee Cooper's proposed 660-megawatt coal-fired plant in Florence County. The League, a statewide research and advocacy group based in Charleston, found that the utility's price tag for the new plant was at least 35 percent lower than the actual cost, and that the number of jobs that the plant would produce in the region was much lower than the utility's estimate. For instance, Santee Cooper said the construction phase of the project would generate 1,200 jobs. The Conservation League said the actual number of jobs would be 228.

Santee Cooper has not responded to the Conservation League's findings. Ben Moore, the climate and energy program director at the Coastal Conservation League, said the economic analysis has carried weight in the state. “We're confident that time is on our side,” said Mr. Moore. “The economics of the new plant are getting worse. The economics for the alternatives are getting better. One of the things our study did was contest Santee Cooper's message that this plant was a jobs program. Our study says that 70 percent of the jobs will go to companies and people coming from out of state.”

Even companies that have successfully guided new coal-plants to the construction phase are more mindful than they've ever been about the negative consequences of coal. Duke Energy, a North Carolina utility, is just starting construction of a 800-megawatt coal-power plant 50 miles southeast of Charlotte. It also acquired the permits to build a second $2 billion, 630-megawatt coal-powered plant in Indiana. The Sierra Club and its legal partners are contesting both permits.

The Duke Energy Energy Corporation's chief executive, Jim Rogers, said in March that his company won’t build any more coal-fired power generators, unless they can be constructed without allowing any carbon emissions to escape into the atmosphere, a capture and sequestration technology yet to be invented for large-scale coal-burning operations.

“We know that we need to make that transition to a low-carbon world,” he told reporters in Raleigh, N.C.

Keith Schneider, a nationally known writer and producer, is the director of communications at the Apollo Alliance, a national coalition of labor, green, and business groups, based in San Francisco, that advocates new policies to advance the clean energy economy. Keith founded the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 and served as executive director and in other senior positions until September 2007. Reach him at keith@mlui.org, and read his blog, Mode Shift.

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