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State Protests Against Coal Erupt Across the U.S.

J. Mijin Cha

While Congress fails to make any inroads into establishing a meaningful energy policy that moves us beyond fossil fuels, advocates around the country are vocalizing their opposition to dirty energy. In just the last few weeks, coal opponents have staged protests in at least six different states. They may not be getting much national attention, but it’s clear that advocates on the state level are making their preference for clean energy known.

Last Saturday alone, protesters marched in Bridgeport, Connecticut against the continued operation of an aging coal-fired power plant; advocates in West Virginia walked into a mine to show their opposition to mountain removal mining; and protests against the Schiller coal-power plant arose in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Advocates in Montana are protesting against plans to allow coal mining on public lands. Plans to build export terminals to ship coal to Asia on the West Coast are being protested in Oregon and Washington State.

As we’ve pointed out before, coal is bad for the environment and bad for human health. Burning coal is the leading source of air pollution in the U.S. Coal mining is incredibly destructive and dangerous. Coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, the coal industry has spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying to water down regulations on the industry and its waste. In 2011, mining industry interests spent $16.5 million in lobbying alone. Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, received more than $187,000 in mining related donations, more than any other federal candidate in 2011. In turn, McKinley sponsored a bill to prevent the EPA from designating coal ash as hazardous.

For the mining industry, lobbying and campaign contributions are just an investment in future business growth. It’s totally worth it for them to throw money at legislators because, as the McKinley example shows, once legislators are bought, they introduce laws and regulations that save the industry millions of dollars, even if it puts the public at greater risk for health hazards and permanently damages the environment. This is just one of many examples where money in politics dictates policy outcomes.

And, it’s far from a level playing field. Environmental interests spent around $8 million in 2011, but that was to fight all environmental attacks. The mining industry spent more than twice that just for mining interests alone. Add to that the nearly $150 million spent by the oil and gas industry in 2011 on lobbying alone and it’s not even a contest. While a meaningful climate policy would be great, getting money out of politics would do more to combat climate change than anything else.