In 1955 the Tennessee Valley Authority built what was at the time the world’s largest coal plant, near Kingston, Tennessee. More than fifty years later, the Kingston Fossil Plant produces enough electricity to power 670,000 homes and emits nearly 11 million tons of carbon dioxide–the greenhouse gas most responsible for global warming–each year. On December 22 a dike broke at the plant, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic black sludge downhill into the ground, water and homes of eastern Tennessee. The infected area was some forty times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and became known as the “nightmare before Christmas.”
The spill underscored the negative images the word “coal” often conjures up–battered communities in Appalachia, underground explosions, exploited miners, brutal strikes and black lung. Yet the American coal industry, which pumps 2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year and contributes more than one-third of the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, is nothing if not resilient. Despite rising public concern about global warming and a growing awareness that coal is an irrevocably dirty business, the industry is spending millions of dollars on a slick messaging campaign stressing its “commitment to clean.”
Critics argue that “clean coal” means anything the industry wants it to, pointing out that of the country’s 616 coal plants, none are carbon-free or close to it. The viability of an environmentally sustainable future for coal is questionable, and so is the industry’s commitment to cleaning itself up. The Center for American Progress recently released a report showing that the country’s biggest coal companies have spent only a fraction of their multibillion-dollar profits developing technologies to curb carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. “The ads and other public clean coal activities are merely designed to delay global warming solutions without suffering a public relations black eye,” the CAP report stated.
“Clean coal is like a healthy cigarette,” Al Gore likes to say. “It does not exist.” Gore is spearheading the Reality Campaign, a countereffort with environmental groups like the Sierra Club featuring an ad by the Coen brothers that’s known as “No Country for Coal Men.” Ted Venners, founder of Evergreen Energy–a company in Colorado that reduces CO2 emissions from coal by 8 percent compared with traditional coal–shares Gore’s skepticism. “It is an oxymoron,” Venners says. “Even after the process of cleaning coal, it’s not clean.”
In the coming months, as Congress and the Obama administration dole out billions in stimulus dollars to kick-start a green economy and draft sweeping legislation to curb climate change, the future of coal will be at the heart of the debate over energy policy. The ultimate impact of the clean coal lobby will be measured by its influence on Capitol Hill and the corresponding outcome of pending legislation. For that reason, this controversial campaign raises a number of questions that will help shape our energy future for years to come. How serious is the industry about developing clean coal, and can it happen? Does the latest message indicate a more environmentally friendly policy, or just a crafty makeover? Can the same people who told us that global warming didn’t exist–or that it was a good thing–suddenly be trusted to help solve the climate crisis?