Ads displayed at Washington subway stops and airing on national television call "clean coal" a myth. Tell that to President Obama, his Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.
Five months into an advertising war on coal, the phrase "clean coal" not only endures, it has become political shorthand. Everyone -- from Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- refers to clean coal or clean coal technology. Environmentalists call the "clean coal" rhetoric dangerous, saying it creates complacency about the need to move toward true carbon-free energy. Policymakers, environmentalists say, know that coal remains one of the most polluting sources of energy.
The word war over coal is escalating. There are billions of dollars at stake, as Congress moves toward historic legislation that could decide winners and losers in the green energy economy. Already, there are signs of small victories by the coal camp.
"To a certain extent, it is a propaganda war," said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "The coal industry believes the environmental community wants to put it out of business. The environmental groups are afraid the clean coal concept is appealing enough to lawmakers, it will stymie their progress in getting rid of coal."
Coal's boosters and its critics are vying to shape public perception about the fuel. For coal, winning the battle could mean securing billions of dollars for years to come. Coal companies want federal money for research on removing and sequestering carbon emissions and to preserve their position as dominant players in the United States' energy supply. Meanwhile, environmentalists are hungry to minimize the role of polluting fossil fuels and capture federal money for wind, solar, other renewable power sources and conservation efforts.
Both sides are spending tens of millions of dollars in the fight.
A coalition of coal backers spent about $38 million on advertising last year and another $9.9 million on lobbying. That compares with the $93,000 spent annually on lobbying from 2002 through 2007.
Groups that say "clean coal" is not economically viable have also escalated their efforts. After coal supporters ran television ads last fall, a coalition of environmental groups joined with Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection and started the Reality Coalition. It began airing ads declaring, "There's no such thing as clean coal." That slogan is based on the fact that no commercial-scale plant exists that removes and sequesters carbon emissions from coal.
The Reality Coalition will not reveal how much money it is spending but said its advertising purchases are "competitive" with the coal industry's buys.
At the heart of the battle are the phrases "clean coal" and "clean coal technology" that linguists find particularly potent.
"The image is 'You can wash it, you can make coal clean,'" said George Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of cognitive science and linguistics. "Technology is miraculous. All problems are solved by technology."
Since most thought is subconscious, he said, that kind of message seeps in and affects people's attitude.
Clean also means good, said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of several books, including "The Argument Culture." She said the coal fight is an example of what she writes about in that book. People get two sides of an argument and do not know which is correct, she said.
For now, both sides in the coal fight are claiming the edge.
There is evidence the coal industry has made inroads. The phrase "clean coal" made its way into four bills so far this year. Two have become law, including the financial stimulus measure that allocates $3.5 billion for research on clean coal technologies.
Even when the phrase "clean coal" is omitted, coal is not left out. "Clean coal" does not appear anywhere in the discussion draft of climate legislation from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But the rough draft talks about grants for research and development on carbon capture and sequestration, which would be funded through assessments on energy producers.
That language came as the result of talks between Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.); Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming; and Rep. Rick Boucher, (D-Va.), a coal industry supporter.
The draft does not designate a dollar amount for those grants. Separate legislation from Boucher proposes about $1 billion annually.
"Coal is America's most abundant domestic fuel, and today, coal accounts for more than one-half of the fuel used for electricity generation," Boucher said when he introduced that bill. "Given our large coal reserves, its lower cost in comparison with other fuels and the inadequate availability of fuel alternatives, preservation of the ability of electric utilities to continue coal use is essential."
Dealing with coal is necessary because it provides about half of the country's electricity and because China, India and other developing nations will keep using it despite the climate change concerns, congressional aides said.
"We can do obviously great things with clean energy, but if we don't figure out coal ... on the global warming side and the economics side, we will potentially lose both those battles," said Eben Burnham Snyder, spokesman for Markey's select committee.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, meanwhile, has issued qualified support for carbon sequestration research. Many see that as a significant shift. In a presentation at University of California, Berkeley, before Obama picked him to lead the Energy Department, Chu said, "Coal is my worst nightmare."
"As Secretary Chu has said, we need to transform the way we use and produce energy in this country to end our dangerous dependence on foreign oil and reduce the threat of pollution," DOE spokeswoman Tiffany Edwards said. "We will do that through investments in clean coal technology to reduce our carbon footprint, while also developing the next generation of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources."
Chu also has said it will take at least eight years before a research project could show whether carbon capture would be commercially viable.
Poll shows movement
Those who accuse the coal industry of trying to falsely portray itself as green acknowledge that the phase "clean coal" has slipped into political speech. But they reject the notion that the coal industry is ready to be part of the green energy economy.
When you look at the bigger picture of what Congress has done since January, the real push is toward renewable power, said Brian Hardwick, spokesman for the Reality Coalition.
The economic stimulus law provides about $80 billion for renewable power programs, incentives, work on an electricity grid and conservation efforts, Hardwick said. Meanwhile, there is $3.4 billion set aside for research and development to see whether it would be commercially viable to capture and sequester coal's carbon emissions.
"We're pretty happy with how that balance worked out," Hardwick said of the stimulus.
The coal coalition also said it has seen a shift in its direction. In a September 2007 national poll, opinion leaders opposed the use of coal by a margin of 52 to 46 percent, said Joe Lucas, spokesman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE, a partnership of industries involved in producing electricity from coal.
But when the survey was repeated last October, 72 percent supported using coal and 22 percent opposed, Lucas said. Both sides developed ads they believed would influence voters, journalists and ultimately policymakers.
The Reality Coalition hired famed advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which had done the "Truth" anti-smoking campaign. The coalition then hired famed movie-director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who directed a spot in which a man sprays an air freshener labeled "clean coal." Dirt comes out of the container as a family of four coughs. The strategy called for humor to pull people into a dry, technical subject, said Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
"We hopefully can point out what we consider to be the whole absurdity of clean coal and also engage people on the issue who otherwise might not be paying attention," Hitt said.
The coalition also put ads in Washington subway stations featuring a mermaid and space alien holding coal and text declaring, "there's no such thing as clean coal."
Obama featured in coal ad
But the pro-coal forces have a powerful weapon in their ad effort.
Barack Obama, while running for president, spoke about coal at a campaign rally. A coalition representing coal interests repackaged his words into a television ad that is still running.
"Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent," Obama says in the ad. "This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in 10 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."
After Obama said those words, the ad wrote itself, Lucas said.
Other observers, however, said parsing the president's words shows that he is not saying clean coal exists today. The words in the speech sound as though they were "very carefully calculated, calibrated words, with the judicious use of double negatives. I don't think those words were not chosen judiciously," said Joel Darmstadter, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, nonprofit group that conducts research on energy issues.
"Don't tell me that we can't," Darmstadter said, "is different from saying, 'Yes, we can.'"
ACCCE designed its ads after using polling and focus groups.
The latest ad from the group shows a series of workers and tells viewers how coal powers the U.S. economy, "jobs powered by affordable energy generated by our most abundant fuel, coal, the source of half of our electricity." The ad does not refer to clean coal except for a logo at the end.
Hardwick, with the "no such thing as clean coal" ad group, said he believes the ad shows the coal industry knows its "clean coal" ads are not working.
And his response to the coal group's latest advertisement indicates where the ad war could be headed. If the industry is going to promote itself as an inexpensive energy source, he said, he will be asking people to consider "the real costs of coal" -- including global warming and natural resources destroyed by mining practices.
"As we look to how to build our energy future," Hardwick said, "we have to determine if that's the way we want to go."
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