The Dirt on Clean Coal | The Nation


The Dirt on Clean Coal

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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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Democrats face significant obstacles in the fight to strengthen voting rights.

The right to vote is under the most sustained attack since King marched from Selma to Montgomery.

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.

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?

The driving force behind coal's rebranding effort is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a 
$40 million campaign funded by all the major components of the modern coal industry--mining companies, power plants, railroads, rural electric co-ops. ACCCE's ad blitz features sleek piano music and high-tech images of the globe; a panoply of workers voicing their belief in new technology; and, of course, President Obama, speaking at a campaign stop in coal-rich southwestern Virginia. "This is America," Obama tells the crowd. "We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can't tell me we can't figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work." The ad closes with Obama supporters chanting a familiar refrain: "Yes we can!" To promote its message, ACCCE hired a top ad firm out of Vegas and a well-connected Washington PR outfit, spending three times as much last year as the health insurance industry did on the "Harry and Louise" ads in 1993-94.

ACCCE's office in downtown Washington is empty, but not for long. The group just hired Paul Bailey, a former operative for the oil and electric power industries, as its top lobbyist and will soon fill three more upper-level positions, bolstering a fleet of fixers who spent more money than anyone else--nearly $10 million last year--lobbying on climate change-related legislation, according to the Center for Public Integrity. For now, most of ACCCE's staff work elsewhere, in regional offices and from a nondescript office park in Alexandria, Virginia, at 333 John Carlyle Street. That location is infamous, having housed two radical right-wing groups--the Western Fuels Association and the Greening Earth Society--that formed the backbone of the effort to disprove the science of global warming. Out of the widely discredited denialist movement, ACCCE grew.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, compares the strategy of these early groups to that of the tobacco industry, which for decades argued that cigarettes didn't cause cancer. "Doubt is our product," Brown & Williamson stated in an internal memo in 1969, "since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." In 1992 a scientific consensus was emerging around the seriousness of global warming, and President George H.W. Bush attended an international climate change conference in Brazil that laid the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol. Around that time the Western Fuels Association--a consortium of coal producers--introduced an ad campaign to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)," Oreskes details in a forthcoming paper. Its print and radio ads posed questions like "If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder?" and "How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?" On Earth Day 1998, Western Fuels launched a front group called the Greening Earth Society to promote "positive environmental thinking," namely, the idea that increased CO2 emissions would benefit humanity. The group called CO2 "an amazingly effective aerial fertilizer" and posited that global warming would boost agricultural productivity and create a healthier planet. Greening Earth's founder, Fred Palmer, presented a ready-made villain for the environmental movement. "Every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO2 into the air, you're doing the work of the Lord," Palmer said.

Greening Earth and Western Fuels worked in partnership with the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), an industry group co-founded by railroad exec (and future Bush II treasury secretary) John Snow and Steve Miller, a top aide to former Kentucky Governor Brereton Jones. In the mid-'90s CEED lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol, which it called "wrong in its science, wrong in its approach, wrong to surrender, wrong for America." The group employed the research of Frederick Seitz--a fixture in the tobacco industry--to argue that CO2 was "NOT A Pollutant" but rather "Earth's Basic Building Block." "We caution policymakers to fully examine the evidence available regarding climate change and global climate modeling," Miller said at the time. "Indeed, many scientists maintain that [greenhouse gas] emissions from electric power plants are not contributing significantly to overall warming trends."

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