The Coal Story

The Rise and Fall of King Coal

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energy of falling water, animals, and humans was largely replaced by coal. Coal fueled nearly everything in the early industrial era, from locomotives to factories to the furnace in the basement of your home. But as oil, gas, and other fuels emerged during the twentieth century, coal came to be used primarily for generating electricity. Other fuels like natural gas increasingly replaced coal even for electricity, and by 1992 construction of new coal-fired power plants had virtually ceased. [i]

Shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney called together an “energy task force” composed principally of energy corporation executives. The task force’s final report recommended that 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants be built, with an emphasis on plants burning coal.

By 2007 there were 151 new coal plants in 38 states in various stages of completion, from initial proposal to operation, according to a list compiled by the Department of Energy.

In response to the spate of new plants, local organizations began springing up all over the country with names like Coloradoans for Clean Energy and Citizens Against the Mesaba Project, loosely linked by websites and email lists and supported by some large national environmental organizations.

Opponents of coal-fired power plants had a variety of arguments and motivations. Scientific evidence increasingly implicated coal plants in the epidemic of asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Areas around coal plants experienced devastating contamination of air, water, and land by such pollutants as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates. New coal-mining technologies, such as mountaintop removal, had a devastating effect on land and water, particularly in Appalachia. As awareness grew of the threat posed by the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, so did awareness of the critical role of coal in producing them. America’s leading climate scientist James Hansen concluded that ending emissions from coal is “80 percent of the solution to the global warming crisis.” [ii]

Growing evidence indicated that energy alternatives were available and not only safer but potentially cheaper and more reliable. Google, for example, issued a highly publicized “Clean Energy 2030” plan indicating that the use of coal and oil could be halted and the use of natural gas cut in half based on energy efficiency, wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

Clean-energy advocates used these arguments in a wide variety of arenas that influence policy. Federal energy and environmental agencies have been critical in determining the fate of coal-fired generators; not only the EPA but such agencies as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense have encouraged or discouraged coal-fired plants. Electric companies are regulated by state utility agencies, and coal opponents have brought hundreds of actions before them. State environmental regulators and siting agencies often must also sign off—and have frequently been urged not to do so.

The president, Congress, governors, and state legislatures have been key players in utility policy decisions. Campaigns have aimed to influence mayors, city councils, and municipal utility districts. Energy corporation officials and industry associations have been a prime focus: fewer than twenty-five CEOs control more than 70 percent of all coal-fired power generation in the United States. Banks, other financial institutions, and investors have also been pressured. Courts and judges have been appealed to hundreds of times where laws and regulations were interpreted to favor coal plants. Coal plants have been challenged in referendums and fought over in elections. Media and civil society organizations have proved to be crucial arenas as well.

By the end of 2007, 59 proposed coal plants had been canceled, abandoned, or placed on hold. By 2012, 165 coal plants had been stopped; not one new plant has broken ground in nearly two years.

What accounts for this astonishing turnaround? Public opinion played a crucial role. A September 2007 Opinion Research Corporation poll found that when people were offered alternatives about which electricity source they would prefer, only 3 percent chose coal. [iii] Another poll showed that 75 percent of the public supported a five-year moratorium on coal plants and increased investment in alternatives like solar, wind, and efficiency measures. [iv]

The abandonment of coal plants and projects was the result of a mélange of economic, environmental, and political forces. For example, by the end of 2007 one entrepreneur, Warren Buffett, had canceled six new coal-fired power plants. Author Ted Nace closely examined these decisions and concluded that they resulted from an accumulation of pressure. State-level laws and policies were an important factor, including strict carbon dioxide emissions standards enacted in California and Washington; renewable portfolio standards in California and Washington; Oregon’s integrated resource planning process; and climate change legislation in Oregon, California, and Washington. Economic factors, such as rising construction costs for coal plants and the increased competitiveness of alternatives like wind power were also crucial. The prospect of national carbon legislation weighed heavily on business expectations.

Public participation also played a crucial role, including regulatory participation by mainstream environmental groups such as the Northwest Energy Coalition and litigation and the threat of litigation by groups such as the Sierra Club. Public participation also included “a medley of citizen actions that ‘raised the negatives’ for coal, including anticoal statements by mayors in several Rocky Mountain cities, direct action protests by groups such as Rising Tide, Alexander Lofft’s petition drive in Utah, personal advocacy by prominent figures such as James Hansen, and concerted campaigns to place a public stigma on coal, such as the Foolie awards” [v] that mocked coal advocates.

Five hundred coal-fired power plants remain. But from 2009 through 2012 there has been a wave of closings and announcements of closings. lists more than two hundred recent and likely future coal plant retirements and conversions in the United States. [vi] Many of the closing plants are old, decaying, and obsolete; the median age of a coal-burning unit is more than forty-two years. [vii]

The principal reasons for the recent closings are economic. According to Susan Tierney, former assistant secretary of energy, “[C]oal plants have been facing a perfect storm of falling natural gas prices, a continued trend of high coal prices, and weak demand for electricity.”

[T]he recent retirement announcements are part of a longer‐term trend that has been affecting both existing coal plants and many proposals to build new ones. The sharp decline in natural gas prices, the rising cost of coal, and reduced demand for electricity are all contributing factors in the decisions to retire some of the country’s oldest coal‐fired generating units. These trends started well before EPA issued its new air pollution rules. [viii]

The low price of natural gas has made it cheap relative to coal. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), spot prices for natural gas were close to a ten-year low in March 2012. At the same time, coal prices have remained relatively high, partially because of booming coal exports. The plants being closed are often very old, making them both inefficient and expensive to run. An additional factor is the possibility of additional EPA regulations, such as the standards for mercury and other airborne toxins from power plants issued in December 2011 but still under challenge in Congress and the courts.

These aging, highly polluting plants have been the focus of an expanding clean-energy campaign. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, for example, has set a goal of retiring one-third of the nation’s aging coal fleet by 2020 and replacing them with clean energy. Its strategy is to make sure current environmental laws are enforced, help local communities that oppose existing plants, and encourage the use of alternative power sources. In July 2011 it received a $50 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for this work, which it expects to spread to at least forty-five states. [ix]

One crucial aspect of transitioning beyond coal is its impact on jobs and workers. Workers in coal-producing and coal-using industries worry about this transition’s effect on their own jobs. Workers in other industries worry whether there will be reliable and affordable electricity for their employers and themselves. Coal advocates often take advantage of these fears to argue that closing coal plants will lead to job disaster. What can those who want to promote a transition to clean, renewable energy say—and do—to address the very real concerns of workers and the organizations that represent them? [x]

TransAlta: Labor Backs a Transition Beyond Coal

In 2011 environmental, labor, and other groups reached an agreement to phase out the state of Washington’s only coal-fired power plant. The process by which they reached agreement embodies many of the key elements for including the concerns of workers and their unions in transitioning beyond coal.

For more than half a century, the state of Washington has received the bulk of its electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam and other hydroelectric sources. But in 1973 the Centralia Power Plant was opened and began burning coal from the nearby Centralia Mine. In 2000 the complex was bought by the Alberta-based TransAlta corporation, which closed the mine in 2006, laying off several hundred workers.

As early as 2004, Public Citizen ranked Centralia as the thirty-sixth most polluting power plant in the United States for carbon dioxide emissions. [xi] Stephanie Kodish of the National Parks Conservation Association noted that “Every year, millions of visitors to Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks are unable to see the postcard views they expect because they have been obscured by haze pollution largely caused by the TransAlta power plant.” [xii] Emissions from the plant were also an embarrassment to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who had staked out a national and international role as an advocate for clean energy and had promoted a pioneering state law restricting greenhouse gases.

In April 2009 TransAlta secretly negotiated a deal with Governor Gregoire and the state Ecology Department to modestly reduce mercury and nitrous oxide emissions. Washington environmentalists blasted the deal and even the National Park Service’s Don Shepherd, who reviews regulations for factories that pollute air near national parks, said, “We have some major concerns about this.” [xiii] The Ecology Department promised hearings, but over the next year no hearings were held.

In September 2009 a coalition that included Earth Justice, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed an appeal to pull an air pollution permit granted to TransAlta by state regulators. Calling the plant the number-one source of global warming, mercury, and haze pollution in Washington State, the coalition expressed dissatisfaction with the governor’s deal with the company.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club, together with public health, labor, and faith-based groups, launched a campaign to close the plant by 2015, with job retraining for its three hundred workers. [xiv] Doug Howell, director of the Sierra Club’s Coal-Free Washington campaign, proposed also to end a $5 million tax exemption for TransAlta and use the funds to retrain TransAlta workers in green-energy technology. [xv]

At an April 2010 forum in Vancouver, one of the speakers was longshoreman Cager Clabaugh, who worked at the Port of Vancouver. The port handles imported wind turbine components, and Clabaugh reported that the port’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union had gained nearly two hundred members since 1995 when the “wind rush” began.

Clabaugh also pointed out that clean-energy advocates needed to take into account the potential loss of three hundred jobs if the Centralia plant were to close. “There are three hundred workers that rely on that plant to provide for their families. They make two and a half times the county average wage. What I would like to see happen is get some infrastructure in place so those folks have some place to transition to.” [xvi]

Another forum in Olympia drew two hundred people. According to a blog for the Sierra Club’s campaign,

Things got interesting during the Q&A session. There were about a dozen people from the Boilermakers Local, one of the unions represented at the plant, who asked some really good questions about the future of their jobs. It’s obviously something everyone is concerned about, and the discussion could have gotten ugly, but everyone remained respectful and there was a very lively, back-and-forth conversation about Centralia, green jobs, and what should be done to make sure that we meet our climate goals while also protecting jobs.

And even after the Q&A ended, the discussion continued, with clumps of Sierra Club activists and union members talking for a good hour, until we finally had to clear the room. [xvii]

At the state legislature in February 2011, the environmental groups supported a bill that would transition the Centralia plant off coal by 2015. They also agreed to support a substitute bill that would push the deadline back to 2020.

The company asked to continue till 2025 to protect jobs and maintain the electricity supply. Bob Guenther, president of the Centralia Central Labor Council and a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represented the largest group of the Centralia plant’s employees, was formerly a TransAlta mechanic for thirty-four years; he testified in support of the company’s position that the plant should be kept open. [xviii] Several hundred Centralia area residents, plant employees, and union members rallied on the steps of the state capitol to support the company’s position. Centralia mechanic Patrick Conaway said he was worried about losing a good-paying job that supports his family. He said the company had added pollution controls and that “they’re doing everything they can on their part.” [xix]

In the face of potential deadlock, Governor Gregoire initiated negotiations between the environmental groups and TransAlta. The IBEW was not included in the negotiations—whereupon the environmentalists made a strategic decision to advocate for TransAlta’s workers. [xx] “They insisted that the plant’s workforce be retained throughout its closure and cleanup; that workers be trained in the technologies that would replace coal, especially energy efficiency, and that the company, not the taxpayers, subsidize the transition.” [xxi] The result was an agreement that one of the plant’s coal boilers would be shut by 2020 and the other by 2025. Forty percent of the plant’s 250 employees will reach retirement age before the closing, and the rest will have at least eight years in their current jobs. [xxii]

The company also agreed to provide $30 million to a community investment fund and $25 million for an energy-technology transition fund. [xxiii] TransAlta was allowed to sell long-term contracts for coal-fired power, but also agreed to install pollution control technology.

According to the Seattle Times, “Labor groups backed the deal because of the fifteen-year phaseout and the company’s financial contribution.” [xxiv] Guenther notes that “When we saw that a smooth transition was on the table and that we were going to keep this community healthy, we saw that as an opportunity to make this happen.” Without the transition guarantee, “we’d have been fighting that to the nth degree.” [xxv]

A spokesperson for the Sierra Club observed, “We were pushing for a faster retirement, but this agreement allows for a smooth transition in the community and time to reconfigure the electrical grid to integrate the region’s abundant wind and solar resources instead of rushing to gas.” [xxvi] K. C. Golden of Climate Solutions called the plan an example of all parties agreeing to make the transition away from coal. “I’m delighted that it’s going to happen in a way that gives everybody time to make the right investments.” [xxvii]

What made the unexpected agreement possible? According to Kathleen Ridihalgh of the Sierra Club, it was in part because of relationship-building dating back to 1999, when the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle created “one of the first blue-green alliances.” Even while labor and green groups seemed to be at loggerheads over the Centralia plant, environmental, public health, religious, political, corporate, and labor representatives continued meeting and talking. According to Ridihalgh, “Having those discussions was very, very helpful.”

While environmentalists had initially pushed for worker retraining, they learned from these discussions that retraining was not what TransAlta workers—most of whom were fifty or older—wanted. Instead, union officials identified the crucial needs as job security, community reinvestment, and transition time—issues the environmental groups subsequently fought for in the negotiations. [xxviii] Participants in the process emphasize that the $30 million fund for local economic development was crucial to labor’s support for the final agreement.

When the legislature approved the Coal-Free Future for Washington bill embodying the agreement, its advocates stressed its benefits for both jobs and the environment. Doug Howell, director of the Coal-Free Future for Washington campaign said, “This is a win-win-win for our health, the environment, our economy, and the Lewis County community.” The legislation was the result of “environmentalists, labor unions, health experts, faith leaders, the local community, the corporation, the governor, and legislators all working together.” Earth Ministry executive director LeeAnne Beres said, “This bill will transition our state off of coal while providing much-needed investment in energy efficiency and economic development in Lewis County.” It was a step toward a future in which “all God’s children have clean air and water and the opportunity to earn a living wage.” [xxix]

The success of the campaign to retire Washington’s TransAlta coal-fired power plant was aided by three critical strategies. It addressed the jobs and economic development needs of the affected local communities. It protected the livelihoods of the power plant workers directly affected. And it involved the affected workers and unions in forging a solution that would work for them. The rest of this manual explores how to implement these three strategies.


[i] For background on the history of coal, see Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History (New York: Penguin, 2003).

[ii] James Hansen to Gov. Jim Gibbons (NV), 14 April 2008.

[iii] Opinion Research Corporation, A Post Fossil-Fuel America: Are Americans Ready to Make the Shift? (Princeton, NJ: Opinion Research Corporation, 2007).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ted Nace, Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal (San Francisco: CoalSwarm, 2010), 96. Nace further evaluates financial causes of project abandonment on pp. 106–8.

[vi] The list of predicted coal plant retirements can be found at:

[vii] Dr. Robert Peltier, “Predicting U.S. Coal Plant Retirements,” Power, May 1, 2011.

[viii] Susan F. Tierney, “Why Coal Plants Retire” (Boston: Analysis Group, 2012).

[ix] Sierra Club, “Bloomberg Philanthropies Commits $50 Million to Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign to Move America Toward Cleaner Energy.” Press release, July 21, 2011. For state-by-state information on the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaigns, see

[x] For additional information on coal plant retirements, see For additional information on preventing new plants, see See also the Sourcewatch Coal Portal:

[xi] Ilan Levin and Conor Kenny, “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants: Plugged into the Bush Administration” (Washington, DC: Environmental Integrity Project and Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, 2004).

[xii] Environmental Priorities Coalition, “Legislature Passes Landmark Legislation to Transition Washington Off Polluting Coal-fired Power.” Press release, April 21, 2011.

[xiii] Warren Cornwall, “State’s Secret Deal with Coal Plant Sparks Outcry,” Seattle Times, April 7, 2009

[xiv] Kathie Durbin, “Sierra Club Organizes Effort to Close Coal-Fired Plant in Centralia,” The Columbian (Vancouver, WA), April 25, 2010.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “Let’s Move Washington Beyond Coal” blog.

[xviii] Scott Martelle, “Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now,” Sierra Magazine (Jan/Feb 2012).

[xix] Phuong Le, “Opponents Square Off Over Washington’s Coal-Fired Plant,” Seattle Times, February 15, 2011.

[xx] Martelle, “Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now” (see n. 19).

[xxi] Mark Hertsgaard, “How a Grassroots Rebellion Won the Nation’s Biggest Climate Victory,” Mother Jones, April 2, 2012.

[xxii] Martelle, “Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now” (see n. 19).

[xxiii] Jim Christie, “TransAlta to Phase Out Coal Boilers in Washington State,” Reuters, March 5, 2011.

[xxiv] Craig Welch and Mike Lindblom, “Agreement Reached to Stop Burning Coal at Centralia Power Plant,” Seattle Times, March 5, 2011.

[xxv] Martelle, “Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now” (see n. 19).

[xxvi] Christie, “TransAlta to Phase Out Coal Boilers” (see n. 24).

[xxvii] Phuong Le, “Bill Moves Washington Plant Off Coal by 2025,” Seattle Times, April 11, 2011.

[xxviii] Martelle, “Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now” (see n. 19).

[xxix] Environmental Priorities Coalition, “Legislature Passes Landmark Legislation” (see n. 13).