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The Dirt on Clean Coal | The Nation

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The Dirt on Clean Coal

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CEED and its ilk found a receptive message on Capitol Hill, where the Senate unanimously opposed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, making the United States the world's only industrialized nation to ignore the threat of climate change. Yet a message of denial and confusion got the industry only so far, so the main backers of CEED, including Western Fuels and major coal producers like Peabody and Southern Company, formed Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to promote clean coal.

Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Special thanks to DeSmogBlog for additional research support.

About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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Going forward, CEED and ABEC spent less time disputing the science of global warming and instead featured coal as the lifeblood of the American economy, maintaining that any regulation to reduce emissions would be disastrous. The industry had a willing booster in George W. Bush, who quickly broke his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant and appointed coal lobbyists to top positions in his administration, granting the industry a long and now familiar wish list of favors, including gutting the Clean Air Act and easing standards for mountaintop mining.

But increasing public awareness of global warming and the Democrats' takeover of Congress in 2006 foreshadowed challenges for the industry. A September 2007 poll commissioned by ABEC showed that 51 percent of "opinion elites"--a sample of upper-income, well-educated, business-oriented Americans--believed that coal was not a fuel for America's future. In 2007 fifty-nine new coal plants were rejected or put on hold; only a dozen have been built since 1990. "We're walking around with a bull's-eye on our forehead," Jim Rogers of Duke Energy told journalist Jeff Goodell.

CEED and ABEC correctly recognized that the industry had to be for something, rather than against everything. In 2007 ABEC quadrupled its ad budget to combat what it called "outdated perceptions about coal," and in early 2008 CEED and ABEC morphed into ACCCE, delivering the fine-tuned message that global warming is real and that clean coal can help solve it. The group used the research from its 2007 poll as the basis for its huge marketing campaign, designed a logo of an orange power cord plugged into a rock of coal and jumped into the presidential campaign.

ACCCE understood that the road to the White House frequently travels through coal country, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado. Even Iowa, a place synonymous with corn, gets four-fifths of its energy from coal. So the group showed up early and often, recruiting a "grassroots army" of staffers in bright blue T-shirts to trail the candidates, passing out promotional materials at every stop, co-sponsoring presidential debates and running ads in key swing states. The group spent $2 million at the Democratic convention alone. At a moment of soaring gas prices and deep economic insecurity, ACCCE conveyed a series of easily digestible talking points: 50 percent of the nation's electricity comes from coal; coal is 77 percent cleaner (when you don't include CO2 emissions) now compared with 1970; America is the Saudi Arabia of coal; coal is cheap, plentiful and clean.

One moment during the campaign, in particular, illustrated the enduring power of the coal industry and the emerging imprint of clean coal. At a mid-September stop in Maumee, Ohio, Joe Biden told a questioner on a rope line, "We're not supporting 'clean coal'.... No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they're going to build them, over there [in China] and make 'em clean, because they're killing you." John McCain seized on the comment, launching the Coalition to Protect Coal Jobs, and supporters at a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio chanted, "Mine, baby, mine!" CEED co-founder Steve Miller, who had become president of ACCCE, urged Biden to "clarify" his remarks. The Obama campaign quickly responded with a Clean Coal Jobs Task Force of coal-state Democrats. "I support clean coal technology," Obama said in the final presidential debate. "Doesn't make me popular with environmentalists."

On election day ACCCE released a poll showing that 69 percent of "opinion leaders" supported coal as a fuel for America's future, a huge turnaround from the previous September, and Obama prevailed in coal-rich states such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. ACCCE even got Biden to sign a "clean coal" hat.

"There absolutely has been a change in message," ACCCE chief spokesman Joe Lucas admits. "It's a pro-technology message." Lucas, an amiable Southerner who likes to mix it up with his opponents in the environmental movement, grew up in coal-rich Kentucky. He served as the spokesman for the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and joined the Energy Department during the Clinton Administration, where he says he was affectionately known as Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's "coal hack." He went to work for the coal industry in 1998 and has been with it ever since. Lucas is a Democrat, but his deputy, Nick Meads, ran the Republicans' 2008 campaign in Virginia.

I met Lucas in DC on March 3, the day after 2,500 environmental advocates descended on Capitol Hill for what was billed as the country's "largest protest against global warming." The coal industry--and a coal-fired power plant that operates just blocks from the Capitol--were the targets. I asked Lucas about the discrepancy in message between his current group and its past associates, like the Greening Earth Society. "We never said that there was going to be a beneficial global warming phenomenon," he told me. "Some groups did. We're not scientists. And we never played scientists. We've only repeated what the scientific community has said writ large."

When asked by CNN recently to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether burning coal contributes to global warming, Lucas responded, "I don't know. I am not a scientist." He gave a more Rumsfeldian answer when I posed a similar question. "Here's what is the absolute truth about the science of climate change," Lucas said. "There are certain things which we are certain about. There are other things that we are less certain about. And there are many things about which we are uncertain." But, he added, "given where we're going with technology, we don't see that any remaining uncertainties should be an impediment for action."

Although the message on coal has changed, many of the actors--and their actions--remain the same. For instance, Ned Leonard, a longtime Western Fuels operative, became a vice president at CEED and is now the go-to guy on clean coal technology at ACCCE. One of the group's funders, the massive Georgia-based utility Southern Company, spent the better part of $14 million successfully lobbying against Congressional legislation that would have required the United States to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And a few weeks after the group was formed, ACCCE lobbied against a bill introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner that would have mandated a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Lieberman-Warner bill proposed hundreds of billions in subsidies to the coal industry, but nevertheless ACCCE ran print and radio ads against it, calling it a "job killer" and arguing that any regulation of CO2 should be left to the states--even though the group also opposed state-based regulation. Such shell games have become a hallmark of the industry.

The EPA is preparing to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and Congress will likely draft cap-and-trade legislation this year. As the debate heats up, major business outfits like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are sure to fight back aggressively, as are more traditional coal companies like Peabody and Southern. Lucas says ACCCE plans to spend "at least as much" on lobbying as it did last year, but he promises a less confrontational approach. "We shouldn't focus on whether carbon dioxide will be regulated (it will), or if ACCCE could possibly support regulation (we do)," he wrote on his blog. "The conversation now should be about how we're going to reduce CO2 emissions." Though it opposed Lieberman-Warner, Lucas says, ACCCE supports "a timely adoption of a mandatory federal program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." He points to a bill drafted last year by Representatives John Dingell of Detroit and Rick Boucher of southwestern Virginia as something ACCCE could support.

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