Sierra Club’s coal warrior talks natural gas, Sen. Manchin

By Maxine Joselow | 11/22/2019 01:07 PM EST

Mary Anne Hitt is director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which seeks to close coal-fired power plants around the country.

Mary Anne Hitt is director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which seeks to close coal-fired power plants around the country. Sierra Club

If politicians are looking to blame someone other than former President Obama for the so-called "war on coal," they might consider Mary Anne Hitt.

As director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, Hitt has worked tirelessly to force the retirement of coal-fired power plants around the country.

Despite President Trump’s promise to revive the struggling fossil fuel industry, her work seems to be paying off. Since Trump took office, nearly 300 coal plants have been earmarked for retirement.


Still, Hitt is quick to acknowledge the Sierra Club can’t take all the credit. The plant closures have been spurred along by grassroots advocates as well as market forces, such as the influx of inexpensive natural gas and renewables.

"It’s now cheaper to build new clean energy than to run an existing coal plant in most parts of the country," Hitt said in a recent interview. "And those economics are not going to turn back in coal’s favor."

Hitt grew up in eastern Tennessee, where she saw firsthand how air pollution from coal plants tainted the air in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she obtained a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana and served for six years as executive director of the group Appalachian Voices.

The 45-year-old recently spoke on the phone with E&E News from Shepherdstown, W.Va., where she lives with her husband, 9-year-old daughter and puppy. She addressed the "irreversible decline" of the coal industry, the environmental bona fides of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and criticism that the Beyond Coal campaign has unwittingly boosted natural gas.

What are some of the Beyond Coal campaign’s recent accomplishments?

Since 2010, it’s been announced that 299 coal plants are set to retire. We’ll actually reach coal plant number 300 any day now. That is over half the coal plants in the United States announced to retire. And there is a great deal of clean, renewable energy coming online to replace all that coal.

We also crossed a milestone in April when the United States, for the first time ever, generated more electricity from renewable energy than from coal. We got 20% of our power from coal and 23% from renewables. So we really have reached a tipping point in how we make electricity in this country. We have a lot more work to do on the way to 100% clean energy, and on the way to providing a just transition for workers and communities, but we are making steady progress.

Where is the campaign focusing its efforts today? Are you targeting a certain region of the country?

We’re working nationwide. We currently think about two-thirds of the coal plants in the U.S. that were online back in 2010 are candidates for retirement. So wherever those coal plants are located, we’re working in those places.

How would you describe the current state of the coal industry in the United States?

I think the coal industry in the United States is in an irreversible decline that’s going to continue. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One is the American people are demanding clean energy. We now have seven states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with 100% clean energy legislation and over 130 cities that have made 100% clean energy commitments. The second reason is the markets. It’s now cheaper to build new clean energy than to run an existing coal plant in most parts of the country. And those economics are not going to turn back in coal’s favor.

What does it say about the state of the industry that several coal plants have recently closed and several companies have recently declared bankruptcy?

In my view, it says that we need to be prioritizing and supporting a transition for workers and communities. I live in West Virginia, and this is a place where people have made great sacrifices to power this country for decades. I believe the best way that we honor that sacrifice is to support an economic transition for coal workers and coal communities. And that requires federal leadership and federal resources that are currently lacking.

What’s it like living in West Virginia and working on the Beyond Coal campaign there? Is it hard living in a place where you’re the minority when it comes to politics and stance on coal?

I feel like living in West Virginia and doing this work there keeps me grounded. It keeps me grounded in what this transition really means for workers and families in some parts of the country. And it also is a constant reminder of how much power the industry still has in some parts of America.

What are your thoughts on Sen. Joe Manchin [D-W.Va.], the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee? Is he a true environmental champion despite his support for the coal industry?

I would just say that I would love to see Joe Manchin use all of his political power and his position of leadership to lead the charge for a just transition here in Appalachia, to be honest with his constituents that coal isn’t coming back, and to throw all of his weight behind diversifying our economy and bringing sustainable new industries and job opportunities into the region. I think that’s where we really need his leadership right now.

What do you make of Republicans’ efforts to blame President Obama for the "war on coal"?

I think the phrase "war on coal" was a political talking point that frankly came out of the coal industry. When President Obama came into office, there were glaring loopholes that the coal industry enjoyed. We had no limit whatsoever on mercury pollution from coal plants, on carbon pollution from coal plants, on toxic water pollution from coal plants or on the disposal of coal ash. And people were suffering because of that pollution. It was killing people.

So in closing some of those loopholes, the Obama administration saved a lot of lives and cleaned up the air and the water in a lot of places. I think it’s a great legacy. And I think the phrase "war on coal" was a marketing ploy by the coal industry to try to prevent being held accountable for its pollution. And those days are over. They are going to be held accountable.

When President Trump took office, he pledged to revive the domestic coal industry. How’s that effort going?

Since Trump was elected, 61 additional coal plants have announced retirement. And 60 have actually retired. So I think it’s clear that his promise to bring back coal was an empty political promise that he didn’t have any plan to deliver.

Some environmentalists say the Beyond Coal campaign has unwittingly boosted natural gas, as coal plants shut down and were replaced with new natural gas plants. How would you respond to this criticism?

We fight very hard with every coal retirement to have that coal plant replaced with 100% clean energy. And fortunately, there is increasing momentum behind renewable energy. We are increasingly seeing utilities opt to replace coal with clean energy instead of gas. But of course, that is not always the case. And having a coal plant replaced with gas is not the outcome we’re looking for in our work.

Other environmentalists have said the Sierra Club gets too much credit for the closures of coal plants around the country. How would you respond to that criticism?

I want to be crystal clear that we work with over 300 partner organizations all around the country. The Sierra Club could not do our work without those partners.

I do my best to be mindful of the privilege I have in my position here at a big organization. And I’m always open to learning and doing better if there are places where we could do a better job of making sure all of our amazing partners are recognized for their incredible work.

The one other thing I would want to say is that of the 299 coal plants that have announced retirement, many of those retirement announcements happened because of regular grassroots folks who were living with the pollution from those plants and worked for many, many years for a better future for their community. And the true power of the Beyond Coal campaign is regular, ordinary, grassroots people who are working for a better future for their communities. I think that can be lost in the headlines.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up right outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is there. And I went to the same high school as Dolly Parton.

Are there any coal plants near there?

No, although when I was growing up there, the trees at the high elevation in the national park were dying because of high levels of air pollution from [Tennessee Valley Authority] coal plants. And my dad worked for the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was interviewed by Walter Cronkite about acid rain in the Smoky Mountains. So I certainly was aware of some of the other impacts of coal pollution from a young age.

What do you do for fun outside of work?

I’m a musician, and my husband and I play a lot of bluegrass and Americana music with our friends. We’ve been in various bands over the years. I can play some instruments, but I’m not great at any of them.

Which instruments?

I play guitar. I once played the saxophone and the bassoon and the piano, but those are all a distant memory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.