About a year ago, I wrote an article for the Iguanadiscussing Gainesville Regional Utilities’ (GRU) consumption of coal mined using mountaintop removal, a highly destructive practice seen throughout Appalachia. At the time, approximately 62 percent of GRU’s energy mix came from coal, and 60 percent of that was from mountaintop removal (MTR) sites. Scientific evidence was mounting that MTR was having serious, long-term effects on human and ecosystem health in Appalachia, and yet, day after day, MTR coal was being shipped to Gainesville and burned at the Deerhaven power plant.
When I co-founded Gainesville Loves Mountains in early 2011, I knew that our struggle would be lengthy and difficult. The technocrats who oversaw GRU’s fuel procurement were unaccustomed to the sort of questions we were asking and disinterested in considering the externalities of their business decisions. Yet the dramatic changes that we witnessed in 2012 are both exciting and humbling.
Within only a few weeks of submitting my previous article to the Iguana, GRU announced their 2012 coal contracts, in which the share of MTR coal in their portfolio had dropped to almost zero. As it turned out, the growing availability of cheap natural gas, resulting partly from the controversial gas drilling practice known as “fracking,” had driven fuel prices so low that it caused the bottom to fall out of coal markets. Whereas our utility had previously considered deep-mined coal a luxury it could only sometimes afford, new market conditions enabled them to sign one-year contracts for nearly 100 percent deep-mined coal and still come in under budget. This seeming victory was reconfirmed in September 2012 when we were informed by GRU staff that as a result of decreased coal consumption, high coal inventories, and availability of power from the new biomass plant coming online in 2013, GRU did not anticipate any further Central Appalachian coal purchases until late 2013, if at all.
GRU has not been alone in this transition. At the national level, the coal industry has been dealt some serious economic blows over the past year. Between depleting Appalachian coal reserves, rising costs to mine the remaining coal there, and growing competition from cleaner energy sources, environmental journalist David Roberts concludes that “Coal is a paper tiger, far more vulnerable than virtually anyone in U.S. politics understands.”
It has certainly been an awkward position to be in, to have “won” our local campaign against purchasing MTR coal and to see King Coal in retreat, at the expense of an increase in fracking. This “victory” is obviously inadequate, however, and our campaigns have continued.We are currently working with longtime ally Mayor Craig Lowe to sponsor a legislative directive to GRU to permanently end its purchases of MTR coal. This legislation will come before the City Commission over the next few months, and we will need your support to get it passed.
We received further good news in October when Rep. Corrine Brown co-sponsored HR 1375, The Clean Water Protection Act, which would outlaw mountaintop removal coal mining nationally. We are currently working with other organizations throughout the state in hopes of bringing more Florida Representatives on board in support of HR 1375.
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, in March 2012, we launched a new campaign to pass a city-wide energy conservation ordinance aimed at the rental market. The fact remains that all energy sources come with consequences, and we have a responsibility as energy consumers to reduce our impacts as much as possible. While GRU has made some good strides in providing energy efficiency incentives to owner-occupied properties, some of Gainesville’s most vulnerable consumers—residents and small business owners who rent—have been unable to benefit from these incentives. We believe that the ordinance we are proposing would not only lead to a healthier environment, but also strengthen our local economy, help those hardest hit by high utility bills, and create good-paying local jobs.
We hope to detail this ordinance in a future issue of the Iguana, but in the meantime, you can support both our anti-MTR and energy conservation campaigns by following “Gainesville Loves Mountains” on Facebook or by requesting to join our mailing list (firstname.lastname@example.org).