An advertising campaign that previously pushed the phrase "clean coal" launches new spots this week focused on jobs and low-cost power, the latest offering in a three-year, nearly $120 million effort to sell Congress and the White House on coal's future. Increasingly, there are signs that it is working.
Coal companies and utilities that use coal in the past year have won a number of gains. Top policymakers, including President Obama, are echoing a key message from the ads, that technology in the future could reduce coal's carbon pollution and keep coal a part of the energy mix.
The Obama administration last week created a task force charged with advancing five to 10 commercial demonstrations of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology by 2016. Obama told a White House gathering, "If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future." That followed the inclusion in the stimulus bill earlier this year of $3.8 billion for research, development and deployment of carbon capture and sequestration projects.
Coal has gotten other recognition, too. Climate legislation in the House and Senate offered coal-fired utilities help adjusting to a proposed cap on carbon emissions. The bills also contained funding for carbon capture and sequestration. And the industry's arguments about jobs and low-cost power have resounded in Congress. The energy and climate bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stalled in the Senate, in part, as many lawmakers voiced concerns that coal interests had made: The legislation was too draconian and would kill jobs and raise energy prices.
"There's a reason companies do these campaigns," said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's because they tend to work."
At the same time the industry has marked some gains, it has seen significant resistance in other areas. Mountaintop-removal coal mining proposals are getting increased scrutiny under the Obama administration, and plans for new coal-burning plants have stalled in the face of rising uncertainty about possible climate regulations. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) last week criticized the administration for what he called inconsistent messages about the future of coal. Coal interests say it shows more education efforts are needed.
Coal's ad campaign dates back to the summer of 2007, when Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a precursor of the coal trade group that later became American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), told its members it needed to commit to a lengthy and expensive effort to protect coal. They would have to spend $35 million to $40 million a year through 2010 as Congress decided major energy issues, said Joe Lucas, senior vice president for communications at ACCCE.
The group spent $37 million on ads in 2009 and $38 million in 2008, Lucas said. About the same is budgeted this year, he said, although that could increase if climate and energy legislation activities pick up in Congress. The campaign could stretch into 2011 if there is no vote on a climate bill this year, Lucas said.
The ad effort has offered a number of spots, from how coal is becoming "clean" through technology to a series last summer with people in the Midwest talking about how coal provides low-cost electricity important to their budgets and businesses.
Three new ads have a similar motif but feature people who work at the Thunder Basin Coal Co. plant in Wyoming. The mine is part of Powder River Basin, a 20,000-square-mile region in Wyoming and Montana that produces 400 million tons of coal annually, almost 40 percent of the nation's total. It is also controversial because of what environmentalists say is destruction to the land.
"It's been very successful" at conveying information, Lucas said of the coal ads, adding, "it has brought front and center a discussion on how we get electricity in this country."
One sign of the effort's success, he said, is that it has triggered rival ads from both environmentalists and the natural gas industry. A natural gas trade group that said the House bill has heavily favored coal and other interests started an ad campaign last summer talking about natural gas as a cleaner source of power.
Environmentalists want to block many of the coal industry's goals but concede they have a forceful opponent.
"The coal industry has a stranglehold over the U.S. Congress more than anything that would be reasonable," said Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "Whether that's because of a $120 million in advertising spending," in addition to spending on lobbying, he added, "remains to be seen."
Climate legislation that the Sierra Club and other environmental groups want sputtered out in Congress "in no small measure due to the scare tactics that have been spread by the coal industry and their allies in the utility industry," Dorner said.
The Sierra Club last year was part of a group behind ads that took on coal's campaign. A coalition of environmental groups joined with former Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection and started the Reality Coalition, which aired ads declaring, "There's no such thing as clean coal," based on the fact that there is no commercial-scale plant removing and sequestering coal's carbon emissions. There are no immediate plans for new ads to challenge coal's ongoing campaign, Dorner said.
Coal is facing opposition ads on a smaller scale, however. Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group that opposes mountaintop removal for mining, is running Internet ads that ask for help blocking a Massey Energy Co. operation that would blast apart Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. The ad shows scenes of mountaintop removal with the words "1 million acres ravaged, 2000 miles of streams buried, 500 mountains destroyed for cheap coal. One mountain can still be saved with clean wind energy. Help build a wind farm and save a mountain."
The Sierra Club, meanwhile, works at the local level to thwart coal mining. The environmental group's "Beyond Coal Campaign," an effort to block additional new coal plants, has been successful, Dorner said, stopping 100 such plants since 2002. The campaign works to generate local opposition to plants so that regulators will not allow them to proceed.
ACCCE's latest ads focus on an economic message along with an environmental one. The new ads were in the works prior to Obama's announcement on the CCS task force.
The group picked Power River Basin for the new ads, Lucas said, because "it is really the Caspian Sea, or really the OPEC of coal production" in the United States. Arch Coal's Black Thunder Mine there produces coal responsible for generating 25 percent of the country's electricity, he said.
The ads are unscripted, with each of the three people featured talking about what they do and why they work at the coal mine, said ACCCE spokeswoman Lisa Camooso Miller. The ads feature production trainer Cheryl Brannan, mine dispatcher Shane Evans and regulatory affairs manager Wendy Hutchinson.
"What we do is important because the nation depends on coal to turn their lights on affordably," Brannan says in the ad in which she's featured. "I'm a second-generation coal miner. ... My parents migrated up here only for the coal mining because it was such a good-paying job with good benefits, good health care for their children, and when it came to it and I had the opportunity to do it, I jumped at it. We have enough coal reserves in this basin that my 6-year-old daughter could still get a job pretty easily when she graduates from college."
The other two ads were not yet available, but the one with Hutchinson talks about the environmental safeguards at the plant, Lucas said. Hutchinson, he said, is a self-described environmentalist with a degree in environmental science from Ohio State University who moved to Wyoming and owns a buffalo ranch. In the ad, he said, she talks about the coal company restoring land and how through her job she's ensuring that another person who wants to own a ranch there can do so.
The ads will run on cable stations, including CNN, MSNBC and FOX, with the goal of influencing lawmakers.
"Our strategy and our goal all along is to educate not just the policymakers here in D.C. but to help people outside the Beltway understand the contribution that coal makes," Miller said.
But coal critics say the industry has not been honest about the cost of using coal.
"The coal industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars misrepresenting what they do and the health effects on the American people," said David Di Martino, spokesman for the Clean Energy Works campaign, a coalition of about 60 environmental groups, labor unions, religious organizations and veterans groups that want climate legislation. "It's hard to believe anything they say when they've been caught using phony people and they've been caught writing phony letters."
An ACCCE subcontractor last year sent House members forged letters that alleged to be in opposition to the House climate bill. Another group called Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, which calls itself FACES of Coal, has used images on its Web site that are from stock photos.
Dorner with the Sierra Club said there are both environmental and health costs to using coal.
"They pretend to have an easy, no-cost solution to all of our problems," Dorner said. "If you say that there's a solution to something and there's absolutely no cost, that's not very genuine. There are tons of hidden costs."
"When you realize the true cost of coal, it's not the cheapest resource," Dorner added.
None of the energy sources account for external costs, said Green with AEI. Wind turbines cause "visual blight," Green said, and have the issue of taking land. Solar power is blamed for endangering some species, he said.
Even as it has worked to generate support for coal, ACCCE has found itself in conflict with at other companies with coal interests. At the end of last summer, Duke Energy and Alstom Power, a French company working on carbon sequestration, left ACCCE.
Brown in an interview last week declined to say whether there was a conflict between ACCCE's promotion of coal and its opposition to aspects of climate legislation.
"As part of a larger conversation that's going on," including advertising, mainstream media and social media, "you're seeing more and more talk about CCS. As part of keeping that conversation going, it's certainly not unhelpful," Brown said of the ACCCE campaign. "To the extent that they're helping promote that dialogue, we applaud them."
The points about coal's future are valid ones, he said.
"How can we move forward with an electricity strategy in this country that doesn't include coal?" Brown said. "It's central to the electricity supply because it is used in plants that must run all of the time."
"Over the last several years, there's a greater willingness to consider coal with carbon capture as part of portfolio of solutions," Brown said. Additionally, he said, "there's a recognition that because of the nature of energy politics, it's better to address the needs of coal states."
There also is truth to some of the ad's points on supply, Green said.
"There really is no immediate, affordable alternative to using coal power in the middle of the country," Green said.
A simple message?
Coal may have gained ground because the messages it puts forward are short and simple, several analysts said.
"The simpler and crisper and leaner you can make a message, and one that broadly addresses people's concerns without them thinking broadly about it, the more successful you're going to be," said Bob Kenney, principal at Context Marketing, a consulting firm that advises on consumer behavior. "Consumers easily drift off when a message gets too complicated."
A brand, Kenney said, needs to "create one very distinctive and compelling space you own in the consumer's mind."
"The coal people in a very broad sense are trying to brand coal as a very simple and clean energy solution," Kenney said, by saying, "You don't have to think about it; we have a solution here. It's not real complicated."
ACCCE probably did focus groups, surveys and other market research, asking about perceptions about coal, "what messages resonate, how deeply held the beliefs are, identify the messages most important to the people you want to reach." You can then "build on the messages with sub-messages," Kenny said.
Adding "clean" to the word "coal," he said, "was a very shrewd move."
While coal presents a "a very simple and feel-good solution to obviously a difficult problem," Dorner said, whether that solution is viable or not is in question. The investments needed to make carbon capture and sequestration a reality would raise electricity costs 20 to 60 percent, he said.
Testing to determine whether carbon capture and storage is commercially viable will take at least a decade, Green said. Deployment could take 40 years or more, he said, because infrastructure would have to be replaced.