When you think coal, you probably picture Appalachia, Loretta Lynn, and old-timey miners. The fuel is known to wreak environmental havoc when mined, moved, and burned, though Trump promised a coal comeback and appointed fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. But the battle over the black stuff is also being fought right here.
“The Northwest has become a thin green line of blocking coal exports out of the U.S.,” says Robin Everett, lead organizer at Sierra Club Washington. In 2011 there were plans for six different coal export sites in Washington state; so far all but one have been stopped before they ever broke ground.
“We’re essentially keeping the coal in the ground,” says Everett. Local environmentalists lobbied at long, boring public utilities meetings, helping convince the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission to deny necessary permits. The Seattle-based victory has global impact; with no route to ship coal, mining slows in Wyoming and less is burned overseas. The final export site in Longview could end with the help of this spring’s state ecology department environmental impact study, cutting off a funnel for 48 million tons of coal.
Seattle isn’t merely on the defensive. Puget Sound Energy pulled a third of its power from coal plants until activists helped force PSE to retire its Colstrip plant in late 2016. More importantly, the plant’s eastern Montana home would be perfect for windmills. A stiff breeze is renewable and more plentiful than, say, another fossil fuel like natural gas.
“We are at a pivot point,” says Everett. And these moves show “you don’t have to choose between economic vitality and sustainable practices.”