Yes We Did: The Fight For Clean Air And Water, Clean Energy, And The Climate During The Obama Administration

On President Obama’s final day in office, here’s something I’m incredibly thankful for ― our air and water are a lot cleaner and safer than they were eight years ago, and we still have a fighting chance to turn the corner on climate change, thanks to the leadership of the Obama Administration and the hard work of grassroots community leaders in all 50 states. It might be your son or daughter, your mother or grandmother who is healthier today thanks to this progress. By tackling pollution from coal power plants, we’ve prevented tens of thousands of premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks. We’ve reduced the level of dangerous mercury pollution in our seafood. We’ve ushered in the era of clean, renewable energy. This is the progress we will be fighting for, and working to advance, over the next four years.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that, until this decade, the coal industry enjoyed a free pass from many of our nation’s most basic protections from pollution. For years, coal-fired power plants were allowed to dump 100 percent of their toxic mercury pollution and climate-disrupting carbon pollution into our air. There were essentially no federal standards for the disposal of the toxic waste and water pollution left behind after coal is burned in a power plant, and in hundreds of communities, it was dumped into poorly designed ponds and holes in the ground, which sometimes failed and resulted in catastrophic spills. To this day, mining companies continue blowing up mountains, dumping the waste in rivers and streams, and devastating landscapes ― including on the federal public lands belonging to all Americans ― all across this nation.

The coal industry used its clout to secure loopholes in bedrock protections like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and for decades the deck was stacked against communities on the receiving end of the pollution. More often than not, those were low income and communities of color. However, with the help, the advocacy, and the hard work of the Sierra Club and more than 100 partner organizations, that began to change under President Obama’s leadership. Community leaders and grassroots advocates fought for years to close these loopholes coal plant by coal plant, in the courts, on the streets, and in public hearings before every conceivable decision-maker.

These hardworking Americans took the time out of their busy lives to fight for these long-overdue pollution protections because they were the ones paying the price for this pollution ― paying with their health, the safety of their children, the earnings of a lifetime poured into their homes, and sometimes even their lives.

During his eight years in office, President Obama and the leaders of his Administration, including the Environmental Protection Agency, finally heard the voices of these Americans, listened, and took action. The progress over the past eight years on clean air, water, and climate protections has already delivered real improvements to the lives of all Americans on a big scale, including:

  • Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from coal plants, which are linked to health problems including asthma and heart attacks, fell to their lowest level since we started tracking emissions ― down 62 percent and 32 percent respectively, since Obama took office, and down 69 percent and 75 percent from their record highs.

  • Mercury pollution from power plants will be reduced by 90 percent from 2005 levels.

  • Climate-disrupting carbon pollution from power plants fell by 400 million short tons, equal to taking 77 million cars off the road every year.

  • 1.4 billion pounds of toxic power plant pollution will soon be prevented from entering our streams, rivers, and lakes.

  • Annual health benefits from coal plants retired or announced to retire since 2010 include prevention of 6,616 premature deaths, 10,264 heart attacks, and over 109,134 asthma attacks, and $3.1 billion saved in health care costs. (This figure excludes mortality costs and benefits from reduced pollution emitted by operating units.)

  • Renewable power generation is over 550 percent higher than it was in when Obama came into office, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs and a providing a major boost to our economy.

There’s no question that under President Obama’s leadership, these new protections are annually saving thousands of lives, preventing hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and other medical emergencies, and giving us a fighting chance to turn the corner on climate change.

At the same time, there is still much more work to do, and communities are still suffering from dangerous pollution. Just over half the coal plants in the U.S. are still operating and harming public health and our climate, mountaintop removal coal mining is still taking place in Appalachia and making people sick, and pollution from natural gas fracking and pipelines threatens communities across the nation. More resources and leadership are needed to diversify the economy in coal mining communities. But we’ve made big progress on some of our nation’s most stubborn health and pollution problems, and we still have a fighting chance to turn the corner on climate change, thanks to a tenacious grassroots movement and President Obama’s leadership.

As President Obama leaves office, clean energy is powering this country at record levels. Wind and solar were the biggest new source of power on the grid in 2015, both nationally and globally. Thanks to a nationwide grassroots movement, 45 percent of the coal plants in the U.S. are slated for retirement, with many more retirements to come, and no new conventional coal plants have broken ground in almost a decade. The amount of U.S. electricity from coal has fallen to a historic low of of one-third, down from half in 2010.

This shift in how we make electricity in America, away from coal and toward clean energy, is what created the space for the U.S. to provide climate leadership in Paris, and what will allow us to meet the commitments we made there. And it’s regular Americans who have been the engine of that transformation. In closing these coal pollution loopholes, President Obama and his Administration have responded to the call of Americans for clean air, safe drinking water, and a secure climate future for our kids. They have provided a foundation for the American people to keep making progress, in a decade that is sure to be one of the most pivotal in human history for the future of our common home.

Clearly, that progress will be harder to make under a Trump Administration packed with fossil fuel boosters. But momentum, public opinion, market forces, and people power are on the side of clean energy, and we are going to fight with everything we’ve got to keep moving this country forward. Join us. We need you now more than ever.