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Fighting Pollutors Pits Environmental Groups Against Each Other

The EPA announced new rules to govern new power plants carbon emissions. Where does that leave environmentalists?

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency released proposed rules governing carbon emissions by the next generation of power plants. These rules recognize that carbon pollutes—that it poses a danger to the health and livelihoods of America's citizens—and that, in the future, electricity cannot produce as much carbon as it does today. Plenty of people in this country, including the Republican candidates for president, wouldn't agree with either of these ideas, so environmentalists can count the existence of any rules governing carbon pollution as a victory. But it's a small one, and it leaves two polluting industries—coal and natural gas—with enough strength to pose a continuing threats.

The new EPA rules forbid the construction of coal-fired power plants until the technology to capture coal's carbon becomes economically viable. But they're lenient enough that today's gas-fired power plants will get through. These rules only apply to yet-to-be-built power plants: Although the EPA has the power to create rules for existing power plants, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson indicated that the agency doesn't plan on it—at least, not any time soon. That leaves environmental groups with two challenges: shutting down coal plants that already exist and fighting against the natural gas plants that are gunning to take their place.

Fighting coal and fighting natural gas are two different battles. And environmental groups disagree on how and when to fight those battles. While national environmental groups trained their attention on coal, groups outside the capital came to see natural gas as at least an equal threat, both because gas drilling threatens water and air quality and because switching from coal to gas will not decrease carbon emissions enough to scale back the worst climate change threats. The gas industry has little interest in addressing either of those issues. National environmental groups are pushing back harder on the gas industry than they were, but not hard enough for some grassroots groups.

The Sierra Club has landed right in the heart of these intra-enviro tensions. The group has been battling existing coal plants with great success, pushing 106 coal-fired power plants toward retirement since 2010 and kept dozens more from being built. Since the EPA has not set any rules to limit the carbon from plants like these, shutting them down is the only way they'll stop spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

When the Sierra Club started fighting coal, it saw the natural gas industry as a potential ally. Other green groups came to the same conclusion, and for many years touted natural gas as a "bridge fuel"—a lower carbon alternative to coal that would one day yield to renewables. The Sierra Club actually took money—tens of millions of dollars—from the natural gas industry while fighting against coal, a fact the group only admitted in February. Executive director Michael Brune said he broke off the financial relationship in 2010 when he took over the organization.

While national green groups had allied with the natural gas industry, local chapters wanted to fight against natural gas and hydrofracking and were frustrated when their parent organizations shot down those ideas. And while the big groups are coming around to the idea of the gas industry as an enemy, not a potentially ally, they're mostly advocating for stricter oversight of fracking, not an outright ban. Environmentalists who've been fighting against fracking on a local level want more.

On Monday, a coalition of environmental groups launched New Yorkers Against Fracking, which will push to ban fracking in New York State. Sandra Steingraber, an environmental writer and advocate who recently won a Heinz Award for her work, is donating much of her $100,000 prize to the coalition. She also published a public letter to the Sierra Club — a break-up note in which she pointed to fracking as an irreconcilable difference.

"National Sierra Club served as the political cover for the gas industry and for the politicians who take their money and do their bidding," Steingraber wrote. "It had a hand in setting in motion the wheels of environmental destruction and human suffering. It was complicit in bringing extreme fossil fuel extraction onshore, into our communities, farmlands, and forests, and in blowing up the bedrock of our nation. And I can’t get over it."

These tensions and conflicting strategies existed before the EPA announced its the latest regulations, but the new rules help codify the current state of affairs. The natural gas industry will continue to grow. Old coal plants will continue to pollute. The government won't step in to change that reality right now, and environmentalists will have to either find the resources to fight against both coal and gas, or choose which one matters more right now.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Martini DK

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