Interest groups spending tens of millions of television ad dollars in a fight over carbon emissions and the existence of “clean coal.”
Coal industry magnates, who would lose big if new pollution standards are signed into law, spent between $35 million and $45 million on advertising this year - most of it on television ads aired during the 2008 campaigns - pitching “clean coal” as a new environmentally friendly fuel.
But the concept of “clean coal” is somewhat nebulous - it encompasses a number of techniques for reducing pollution by chemically washing coal or capturing and storing emissions - and the most effective technology, carbon sequestration, is still 10-15 years from being built for American plants.
The marketing campaign, as well as a relatively low investment in researching “clean coal” technologies according to one study, have environmentalists and liberal think tanks calling foul on the coal companies.
To that end, environmentalists led by former Vice President Al Gore launched a counter-attack earlier this month, buying advertising disputing industry claims that “clean” coal exists. Spokesmen for different groups involved in the campaign did not immediately answer questions about how much money was being spent on their advertising campaign, but have called it a multi-million dollar effort in previous comments.
The Reality Coalition launched a second television ad Monday, a parody of a coal executive smelling a lump of “clean coal,” which leaves a black smudge on his nose as he deadpans for the camera.
“Clean coal” supporters say the fact that carbon sequestering technology is not market-ready nationally is not in dispute, and that the environmentalists have put words in their mouths.
“There are all kinds of options we’re pursuing,” said Joe Lucas, senior vice president for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy, a group of 48 coal companies and power plants that have spent heavily on the “clean coal” marketing campaign.
“The industry is stepping up to help with carbon reduction, that includes educating the public about why investing in new technologies is very important,” Mr. Lucas said.
President-elect Barack Obama has supported investing in “clean coal” technology. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank with deep ties to the incoming Obama administration, however skewered coal supporters in a study released Monday.
The coal industry’s marketing campaign is akin to American carmakers lobbying strategy that led to the need for a bailout, said Dan Weiss, who co-authored the study on how much the coal industry has spent advertising and lobbying for clean coal, versus how much it has spent on research.
“They spend very little in research and spend a lot of money in trying to convince people not to make them do anything,” Mr. Weiss said on a conference call with reporters. “The hypocrisy comes in when you look at what they’re actually doing.”
Mr. Weiss estimates that for every $17 members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy earned in profits in 2007, they spent $1 on researching carbon reduction technologies.
But the CAP report had one coal supporter laughing at its premise.
“These are silly reports; they’re nitpicking little reports that pull a datapoint out and make a big issue out of something that is largely irrelevant,” said Frank Maisano, spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities and transportation companies.
“They haven’t grappled with the reality that coal is a major part of keeping the lights on in this country,” he said.