OPINION: Moving beyond coal in Michigan, despite W. Va vs. EPA SCOTUS decision

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Last month, the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to EPA’s ability to fight climate change, holding in West Virginia v. EPA that the agency may not use its most effective tool under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce climate-disrupting carbon pollution from the electric power sector. 

But as damaging and backward as this decision is, it isn’t going to slow our progress toward decarbonizing Michigan or the country’s economy. 

Just before the ruling, the Sierra Club and our allies struck a settlement with Consumers Energy to retire the utility’s last remaining coal plant in 2025, 15 years earlier than planned. This is the 23rd coal plant in Michigan to announce retirement over the previous two decades, despite the absence of EPA standards for power plant carbon emissions. 

This resulted from long-term grassroots organizing by dedicated activists with Sierra Club and our allies, the failing economics of coal, and dramatic advances making renewable energy cheaper and more reliable. The same economic realities and public advocacy are forcing DTE to actively consider shortening the life of its last two remaining coal plants (Belle River and Monroe), regardless of additional action on climate by EPA.

It’s not a new trend; coal plants are shuttering despite being artificially propped up by political allies of the fossil fuel industry. In 2001, President George W. Bush announced his administration would create a coal boom, proposing to build 200 new coal plants across the country, including 20 in Michigan. In response, the Sierra Club launched our Beyond Coal Campaign, and through combined legal and grassroots organizing efforts, we stopped President Bush’s coal rush. 

Sierra Club and our partners blocked all 20 proposed coal units in Michigan, and in the years since, have retired 357 existing plants across the county, accounting for more than 65% of our nation’s coal fleet. Despite the former President’s best efforts, we ended up rushing away from coal, not toward it.

The Beyond Coal Campaign is part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to protect every person’s right to clean air and a stable climate and promote affordable clean energy that safeguards the health of our communities, protects wildlife, and preserves our remaining wild places. 

Industry experts have touted our campaign as “the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the history of the environmental movement.” We’re barrelling ahead in our effort to close all remaining coal plants in the U.S. and help communities and cities transition to clean energy, creating thousands of safe and good-paying jobs. 

As coal plants retire, we also work to ensure utilities plan for employee transitions, safely decommission the plants, and address environmental and economic impacts. 

Just like the Bush administration, President Donald Trump worked tirelessly to save the coal industry to no avail. He revoked the Stream Protection Rule, dismantled President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, weakened critical toxic pollutant safeguards for coal plants, and pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, to name just a few of his tactics. 

Despite his best efforts, we saw a record number of coal plants announce retirement and come offline during his presidency. In fact, 2020, his last year in office, was a banner year for climate change mitigation, during which time we secured the retirement of 40 coal plants across the country (including DTE’s Belle River plant in St. Clair County), the most ever in a single year. 

We also defeated Trump’s Department of Justice in court to secure a groundbreaking settlement that required DTE to spend more than $8 million on environmental justice mitigation projects in Michigan’s largest sacrifice zone, River Rouge, Ecorse, and the 48217 zip code.

Over the last two decades, we’ve faced gridlock in Congress on climate action, hostile administrations under the Bush and Trump presidencies, and now a Supreme Court decision that diminishes EPA authority at the precise moment when we need all hands on deck to combat the climate crisis. 

Nevertheless, our campaign is forging ahead with undiminished vigor, and dirty, expensive coal plants will continue to fail. Try as they might, executives in the coal industry and their political allies cannot stop the Sierra Club and our partners from moving Michigan and the county beyond coal, one plant at a time.


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