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
“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
“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
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.”
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