Coal's well-funded lobbying group today launched a television ad campaign featuring ordinary people talking about the importance of low-cost electricity, a message analysts described as coal's effort to rebrand itself before the Senate tackles climate legislation.
The campaign from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), an alliance of coal and utility companies, features 30-second unscripted spots with a electric-utility executive, an Ohio small-business owner and a St. Louis, Mo., energy efficiency consultant. Two-minute Internet videos offer similar messages on cost, availability and the environmental strides made by coal-fired utilities.
The ads come as ACCCE pushes forcefully to gain support for coal. The lobbying group just rolled out a so-called citizens army of more than 200,000 volunteers to visit town hall meetings and other functions attended by members of Congress, where they will ask questions about energy policy. That effort is aimed at influencing senators, particularly those from states that rely on coal for power.
"The fact that companies will pour their billions into these kind of programs suggests that they think they have impact," said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Clearly, they believe that this does sway public opinion for their product, or they wouldn't advertize."
Using real people is an effort to connect to voters and generate positive feelings about coal, Green said.
"This kind of campaign ... is about winning the hearts and minds of people who are fiscally strapped in a recession," Green said.
The TV campaign also arrives as ACCCE is under fire politically for its ties to a dozen fraudulent letters that were sent to three Democratic House members urging them to vote against their chamber's climate bill. Made to look as if they came from advocacy groups based in the lawmakers' districts, the letters came from a lobbying firm, Bonner & Associates, which was working on behalf of ACCCE.
ACCCE blamed the letters on a Bonner employee who has since been fired. But congressional furor over the incident remains, and environmental groups are working to keep that anger alive.
The ad campaign that starts today with the launch of Internet videos had been planned for months. It is launching now because it is finally ready, ACCCE spokesman Joe Lucas said. The ads will run on cable and network television in Washington, D.C., and Midwestern states. Lucas would not reveal the cost of the ads but said they are part of a $15 million to $20 million media budget this year.
Lucas said the ads are a way of showing the importance of coal to real people, in terms of its connection to low-cost power and jobs.
"These are people who are talking in their own words," Lucas said. The ads, he said, "tell the story from the perspective of people who live at the end of the power line."
In one ad, Fred Shelton, a nonprofit agency worker who helps low-income residents with energy efficiency, talks about the importance of power prices.
"A lot of people have to make decisions on whether to pay their utilities or buy a meal," Shelton says in the ad. "If energy costs were to increase, it would be very devastating to them. We need coal to make it more affordable to the everyday consumer. Low-cost coal is very important."
The Sierra Club, a coal opponent, described the ads as inaccurate. The biggest cause of electricity rate spikes in the country is the building of new coal-fired power plants, said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign..
"We're out there telling people, if people want lower electric bills, they want to steer well clear of coal," Nilles said.
Nilles also questioned the trustworthiness of ACCCE, given that it is linked to fraudulent letters sent to House lawmakers.
Lucas of ACCCE said Sierra Club is "cherry picking," using a fact in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that said the cost of building new coal plants is increasing. The same report said the cost of new generation for other power sources is increasing, as well, he said.
ACCCE's television ads employ a strategy called "values mapping," said Green with AEI. A company applies its values to individuals, hoping that viewers will recognize them as their own values.
"You figure out the values of the people who are using your product," Green said, then use "phrases or concepts that make these values more visible to people, then associate it with your product." That helps generate positive feelings about the company, he said.
"They're awareness builders," Green added. "They're raising the threat of higher electricity prices."
The ads do not mention the House energy bill or the Senate taking up climate legislation, but Lucas said the timing is partially connected to legislative efforts.
"This is an important time for us to be out there with this message," Lucas said. The ads, he added, "will certainly play to the backdrop of the dialogue" about energy.
As there is no Senate climate bill yet, Green said, the ads make sense in that they focus more on the concept of energy prices and availability than on asking people to oppose specific legislation.
Coal received many provisions it sought in the House bill but is pressing for more in the Senate.
Coal interests want a provision in climate legislation that would limit how much businesses must pay for carbon dioxide emissions under a cap-and-trade program. Coal also wants financial support for research into ways to capture carbon emissions and sequester them underground. And the industry wants to slow down the pace of the cap, which in the House bill tightens over time.
For its ads, ACCCE used a talent scout who found the people to appear on camera, Lucas said. In one of the spots, small-business owner Olivia Albright talks about power costs while standing in her Toledo packaging shop.
"Every piece of equipment in my shop runs on electricity. It needs to be plugged in. If it's not, it doesn't work," Albright says in the ad. "There would be some hard decisions for me to make if the energy costs went up. I would have to let some of my employees go. ... I need something that's going to be there, something that's affordable. Electricity from coal does that for me."
Venita McClellon-Allen, an executive at the utility American Electric Power Co. Inc., speaks in her ad about the availability of coal-fired power.
"Wind is a great option for the future, but it is not the 24/7 resource that we require," McCellon-Allen says. "We have to be able to meet our customers' needs in the middle of the night or the hottest summer day. Coal will help us do that regardless of what Mother Nature's doing."
The ads also talk about coal as cleaner than it has been in the past.
"The coal plants we're building today are light-years ahead of the ones built 30 years ago. They're cleaner, they're more efficient, and they're much better for the environment," McCellon-Allen says. "Coal is plentiful, dependable, and it's affordable."
The Sierra Club's Nilles said coal is not a clean option, and environmental groups have attacked coal for describing itself as clean. Currently, there is no commercial-scale coal plant in operation that removes and sequesters carbon dioxide emissions, which are linked to global warming.
But ACCCE's Lucas said environmental groups have limited use of the phrase "clean coal" to the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions. When coal backers talk about clean coal, he said, they are referring to advances over the last 30 years to remove many pollutants.
Where is the Reality Coalition?
The new ads strike a different tone than those used earlier ad war over the phrase "clean coal."
Coal supporters last fall ran television ads talking about "clean coal." That campaign was part of $38 million that coal backers spent on advertising last year. In response, 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."
Lucas called the climate coalition's ads "snarky."
The Reality Coalition did not reveal how much money it spent, saying at the time that its ad purchases were "competitive" with the coal industry's buys.
The Reality Coalition in the spring moved from California to Washington, D.C., saying that it sensed the timing was right to be in the nation's capital. But the group has since disappeared from public view, not responding to reporter inquiries. The group's last Twitter tweet was April 28.
Several have speculated that the Reality Coalition withdrew at the behest of Democrats who feared the group's activism and ties to Gore would keep moderates from voting for the House climate bill. Whatever the reason, the exit leaves no one with a big bankroll to fund ads competing with the new ones from coal.
Nilles of the Sierra Club said environmentalists will continue their awareness efforts but that he expected ACCCE "will spend a lot of money to try to influence public opinion."