The backers of the proposed Highwood coal plant in Montana announced they are reversing course and will instead build natural gas and wind energy facilities. The announcement comes after a series of successful legal challenges to the plant mounted by Earthjustice attorneys going back to 2007 aimed at addressing the coal plant’s harmful environmental effects, including approximately 2.1 million tons of CO2 the plant would emit each year. CO2 is a major global warming pollutant.
An official with the company seeking to build the coal plant told a Montana newspaper the decision to switch from coal to cleaner fuels was due in part to the successful legal challenges mounted by Earthjustice attorneys Abigail Dillen and Jenny Harbine. The official also cited an “aura of uncertainly,” as well as a lack of ready-to-use technology to produce clean coal, and an absence of clarity on national coal policy, as other reasons for the about face.
Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center said the decision was an enormous step forward noting, “We can no longer continue to ignore global warming.”
This appears to be the first coal plant to reverse direction since the Obama administration took over. Environmental advocates are optimistic that other proposed coal fired power plants currently challenged by Earthjustice, like Sunflower in Kansas and Desert Rock in New Mexico, may soon follow suit.
Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen said, “Earthjustice challenged the building of this dirty coal-fired power plant because of the massive global warming pollution it would emit. All along, Earthjustice hoped that our challenge would force a switch to cleaner, and hopefully renewable, sources of energy, so we’re heartened to see the announcement today. Highwood is one of many dirty coal plants we are currently challenging in court. We hope the others will also see the writing on the wall and make the switch to clean energy.”
Highwood was to be built by the Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, which is made up of a handful of rural electric cooperatives in south central Montana. The pending costs of the coal plant have nearly doubled from $456 million to nearly $900 million according to published reports.
In the wake of a federal Earthjustice lawsuit in 2007, the federal Rural Utilities Service announced that it would not fund the Highwood coal plant — or any other coal plants through 2009. According to SME’s chief executive, Tim Gregori, regulatory uncertainty and environmental litigation prevented the plant from obtaining alternative financing.
SME’s decision to back away from coal comes after years of concerted opposition by citizens concerned about global warming and harmful air pollution. Earthjustice represented citizen groups in several actions challenging the plant’s failure to address CO2 emissions that are driving global warming and to install state-of-the-art controls for hazardous air pollutants and fine particulate matter or soot (PM2.5) that causes asthma, heart attacks, and even premature death.
Earthjustice represents the Montana Environmental Information Center, Citizens for Clean Energy, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association.