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Fight Against Coal Plants Draws Diverse Partners

By Susan Moran (The New York Times) - January 22, 2007

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Richard D. Liebert turned his back against a hard wind the other day, adjusted his black cap and gazed across golden fields of hay. Explaining why he is against construction of a big coal-burning power plant east of town, Mr. Liebert sounded like one more voice from the green movement.

“The more I learn about global warming and watch the drought affect ranchers and farmers, I see that it’s wind energy, not coal plants, that can help with rural economic development. Besides, do we want to roll the dice with the one planet we’ve got?”

But Mr. Liebert, despite his sentiments, fits nobody’s stereotype of an environmentalist. He is a Republican, a cattle rancher and a retired Army lieutenant colonel who travels to South Korea to train soldiers to fight in Iraq.

He is also an example of a rising phenomenon in the West. An increasingly vocal, potent and widespread anti-coal movement is developing here. Environmental groups that have long opposed new power plants are being joined by ranchers, farmers, retired homeowners, ski resort operators and even religious groups.

Activists say the increasing diversity of these coalitions is making them more effective.

“You’re seeing a convergence of people who previously never worked together or even talked to each other,” said Anne Hedges, program director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, which is spearheading three lawsuits aimed at blocking construction of the power plant near Great Falls. “They’re saying these coal plants don’t make any sense, whether from an economic or environmental or property-rights standpoint.”

Power companies concede that anti-coal coalitions are indeed becoming more effective — and they describe that as a threat to the reliability of the nation’s electric grid. In their view, building more coal-burning power plants is the most realistic way to meet the rising demand for electric power.

“It’s clear new coal-fired generation is running into roadblocks,” said Rick Sergel, president and chief executive of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. “I don’t believe we can allow coal-fired generation to become an endangered species. We simply must use all the resources we have.”

Natural gas is an alternative to coal for electricity generation. But Mr. Sergel said the industry worries about relying too heavily on gas because it is far more expensive, prices have become volatile and a share of the gas supply has to be imported.

New nuclear power plants are on the drawing board, but they are many years from completion. And although energy conservation and efficiency, as well as renewable energy, will play larger roles in the future, they are not enough to meet the nation’s growing appetite for electricity, Mr. Sergel said.

The collaboration of former strangers — even enemies in some cases — to fight coal development is largely a Western phenomenon. While medical groups, city officials, environmental groups and others have banded together to fight coal plants near cities east of the Mississippi, the power plants in the West are largely in rural areas and thus directly affect farmers and ranchers living on the plains, the prairies and near the Rocky Mountains.

Government projections suggest that coal, which provides 50 percent of the nation’s electricity and a quarter of its total energy, will continue to dominate the nation’s energy mix, despite its environmental problems. As of last May, the Energy Department projected that 151 coal-fired plants could be built by 2030 to meet a 40 percent rise in demand for electricity, largely from soaring populations in Western states.

“Coal is still very much alive,” said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.

But opponents of coal plants are winning some battles. Reports from the government, the industry and environmental groups show that at least three dozen coal plants have been canceled or scaled back in the last two years.

Bruce E. Nilles, a lawyer who directs the Sierra Club’s national coal campaign, said his organization and collaborating groups had filed 29 lawsuits and administrative appeals against proposed coal plants. Aside from legal battles, the power industry said rising construction and labor costs and regulatory pressure were contributing to the cancellations.

Ranchers and farmers have featured prominently in several recent battles over power plants. In Jerome County, Idaho, for instance, Sempra Energy of San Diego had planned to build a large plant to burn pulverized coal. A coalition that included the Jerome County Farm Bureau, a dairy association, ski resort owners, other landowners, local politicians and environmental activists defeated Sempra. They also prompted a two-year statewide moratorium on such coal plants.

And in Iowa, a 77-year-old retired farmer living on the land his great-grandfather settled in 1879 has galvanized ranchers, farmers and environmentalists to fight plans by the LS Power Group of New Jersey to build a coal plant on his property.

In 2003, the farmer, Merle Bell, sold LS Power an option to buy his land. He said that even though he had doubts about the wisdom of coal plants, he thought he had little choice because the company was also purchasing an option on his neighbor’s land and said it would build the plant anyway. Mr. Bell later changed his mind. His coalition is pressing the Iowa Utilities Board to kill the plant, which also faces larger permitting hurdles.

“I grew up here,” Mr. Bell said from his home just east of Waterloo. “I rode ponies here. I farmed and raised cows, chicken and hogs here. A coal plant would be bad for the environment, and I don’t want to see it harm people living here and future generations.”

For many farmers and ranchers, protecting the land they till hardly means that they have become environmentalists. In fact, seeing environmentalists as potential allies and not enemies has been awkward for many of them.

C. J. Kantorowicz grows winter wheat on 6,000 acres near the proposed Highwood coal plant east of Great Falls. Last fall he joined other farmers in a zoning lawsuit against Cascade County commissioners to stop the plant. Until he went to an organizing meeting that another farmer, Robert Lassila, held at his house, Mr. Kantorowicz loathed environmentalists. So he winced when he was introduced to a pathologist who had started a local environmental group to fight the proposed plant. She came to talk about the public health and environmental risks.

“I think global warming is a hoax, and I hate to hitch my wagon to environmentalists,” Mr. Kantorowicz said recently in his living room after a hard day planting winter wheat. “I went to the meeting with the mind that I’d shoot holes in her story, her environmentalist’s view. But she and others convinced me they were right by being honest and answering our questions in detail about pollution and such.”

Robert Lassila’s son, Daryl, lives next door to his parents. He recalled some of the neighbors bristling when the meeting started.

“Many were looking at each other nervously and wondering who brought the environmentalists here and is there a back door to this place,” he said. “But they stayed put and here we are, together in this fight.”

For many farmers and ranchers, their aversion to coal is more pragmatic than philosophical. Their crops and livestock have been plagued by severe droughts and storms lately, and some wonder whether those are linked to global warming. Whether that proves to be the case, the strain on their finances has made them more interested in renewable-energy projects, like wind turbines, on their land.

Janyce and Leonard Harms, who grow wheat and millet in Hereford, Colo., near the Wyoming and Nebraska borders, last year agreed to allow eight towering wind turbines on their land. The turbines are part of the new 274-turbine Cedar Creek wind farm owned by BP, the huge energy company, and Babcock & Brown. The project is expected to churn out electricity for some 90,000 homes, mostly near Denver.

The Harmses, though a bit skeptical about coal plants, have not become involved in any battles. But they typify the fascination with wind energy that is sweeping rural America. They have received about $5,000 from the wind farm’s owners for leasing their land, and once the wind farm is fully operational by year’s end, they will receive at least $3,500 a year per turbine.

“We’re not environmentalists by any means,” Ms. Harms said as she gazed through her sliding glass door at the huge turbines spinning in the distance. “I see this as supplemental income. We’re getting older and we’d like to retire. This is a great deal, and the fact that it’s clean energy makes it even better.”