As we celebrate our 25th anniversary this year, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on our impact, consider the challenges we’ve faced, and ensure our successes inform our current efforts as we expand our global footprint and capabilities. This month, we’re diving deep into CATF’s humble beginnings and early successes, which laid the groundwork for our bold, strategic approach to advocacy — recognizing the ways our quarter decade of experience has positioned us to achieve meaningful climate progress in our 25th year and beyond.
Laying the groundwork for effective U.S. advocacy during the early years
Today, CATF works across the globe on a range of climate, clean air, and energy initiatives, but we started in 1996 as a six-person team of lawyers (including our Executive Director Armond Cohen and current Legal Director Ann Weeks), policy analysts, and energy experts in Boston, Massachusetts. Our founding team came out of New England’s Conservation Law Foundation and from other nonprofits, where they collaborated on energy and environmental issues facing New England. We had a singular mission: control pollution from United States coal plants. Harnessing the power of many legal authorities, we set out to generate incentives to get the coal industry to clean up its act.
CATF’s original strategy revolved around the simple premise that creating economic incentives for the electric generating industry to either control its pollution or transition to cleaner alternatives for electricity production will improve air quality, public health, and the U.S.’s climate trajectory. We aimed to secure many different regulations on pollution from the largest, dirtiest U.S. coal plants to protect public health and the environment with a highly tactical, scalable campaign model, partnering with over 30 state and regional organizations across the eastern U.S. and Texas. Our focus was a multipollutant strategy: national regulations governing the transport of air pollution across state lines, controlling air toxics, power plant cooling water, and coal combustion wastes — understanding that the rules would present the economic choice between applying pollution control or planning retirement and replacement of old dirty plants with new cleaner, lower-carbon energy sources.
We supported pioneering analyses on emissions health impacts and harnessed the power of a tenacious team of litigators across partner organizations and with state Attorneys General. In coalition with our state and regional environmental group partners — many of which we continue to work with today — we pushed for controls to be added to coal plants that would remove air toxics and improve public health. To portray in human terms what was at stake, we also published Death, Disease, and Dirty Power, the first national study on the public health impacts of coal-fired power plants that estimated their pollution caused 30,000 premature deaths per year. Ultimately, our Power Plant Pollution Campaign helped reduce power plant emissions from smog and soot by more than 70%, and air toxics by over 85%. The rules we championed have played a role in the industry’s decision to retire a third of the nation’s power plants, with nearly all currently scheduled to be retired by the 2040s.
These initial successes set the foundation for our later work. Guided by the best available scientific and economic data, undeterred by political ideology, and always ahead of popular environmental thinking, we focused our efforts on any and all promising pathways to slash emissions. In 2000, we became the first environmental NGO to sound the alarm on the dangers of super pollutants like methane and black carbon. Shortly thereafter, we launched and led the National Diesel Clean-Up Campaign to mitigate harmful air pollution from diesel vehicles in coalition with over 40 state and local partner groups. These campaigns and durable partnerships culminated in numerous state and federal initiatives to reduce harmful emissions from a variety of sources.
Key achievements and milestones over our 25-year history
CATF’s powerful campaigns and advocacy work in the U.S. have been essential to expanding the boundaries of the climate dialogue to create incentives for proactive technological advancements, pragmatic policies, and the establishment of regulations to implement them. The organizing work we did in the early years has matured into coalitions with other environmental groups and with other energy sector players that help ensure success and broad backing for our initiatives. As an initially small and nimble team of scientists, lawyers, advocates, and industry experts working to leverage the power of our partner organizations, we take pride in the long list of our accomplishments:
- Achieved mercury and other air toxics emissions reductions from coal-fired and oil-fired power plants, through a litigation and regulatory effort that began in the early ’90s and resulted in the final U.S. EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which became fully effective in 2016. MATS has delivered significant emissions reductions since it was implemented in power plant mercury, acid gas emissions, and other toxic metals. Because of the acid gas reductions, MATS also yielded substantial reductions in fine particulate matter, exposure to which also causes significant respiratory harms. We continue to defend these rules.
- EPA finalized the first-ever carbon dioxide emission limits on new coal-fired power plants in 2015 after years of our advocacy. Recently reaffirmed even by the Trump EPA, they are set at a level based on partial carbon capture and sequestration.
- Helped to catalyze the first direct regulation of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
- Provided expert legal and technical input and defense during EPA’s creation, promulgation, and challenge to the Clean Power Plan, a landmark climate regulation aimed at reducing carbon emissions from U.S. electricity generation, and successfully challenged the Trump Administration’s “Dirty Power Plan” rule, which we are now continuing to defend in the Supreme Court.
- Defended and continue to press for the tightening of U.S. EPA rules under the “good neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act. This work has been going on since CATF’s founding. It requires continuing updates in emissions reductions to implement the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in areas of the country that are impacted by pollution drifting across state lines that cause downwind nonattainment problems. Those rules have resulted in significant reductions in smog and soot across the Eastern U.S. and promise similar reductions in the Midwest and Western states.
- Worked with the Biden transition team to catalyze two executive orders directing the reconsideration of a number of public health and climate protections and championed the use of science in regulatory decision-making.
- Worked in coalition with partners across the public health and environmental community in successfully opposing the Trump Administration’s efforts to censor scientific and economic studies that form the basis of informed regulatory decision making, particularly those relating to air pollution health effects, climate change impacts, and the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Engaged the EPA on reinstated and stronger proposed oil and gas methane emissions standards.
Applying what we have learned to our advocacy today
Today, a large portion of CATF’s advocacy in the U.S. remains rooted in our environmental regulatory and litigation work, which implements our U.S. initiatives. Our legal team — led by founding member and Legal Director Ann Weeks — continues to push for a cleaner, lower-carbon domestic energy sector, and our work focuses now not just on electricity production, but also on other industrial sources, oil and gas development sources, and transportation. CATF’s policy, technology and legal advocacy work has been successful in making sure that technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, for example, are now part of the public dialogue.
As we continue growing and expanding our technology innovation, analysis and energy modeling efforts, and regulatory advocacy, our team’s focus remains on identifying the root causes of climate pollution, finding realistic solutions, building coalitions with powerful stakeholders, and focusing on scientific and economic data over mainstream narratives. This approach is foundational to CATF, and it has never wavered.