The Clean Coal Wars Heat Up — Who Will Win?


Photo via Eco Scraps

Lobbyists, advertising, propaganda, O my! It's a crucial juncture in the road for so-called clean coal. The coal industry knows it, politicians know it, and environmentalists know it. They all see a huge opportunity—and thus they've all become embroiled in what Greenwire has come to call a Propaganda War. With millions of dollars flying around, celebrity heavyweights joining the fight, and an uncertain future for Big Coal, to say that things are heating up is a massive understatement. Needless to say, the coal industry is out of its comfort zone—from 2002 to 2007, Big Coal spent a measly $93,000 on lobbying efforts. In 2008, it spent $10,000, and that's just on lobbying—another $38 million went to advertising. There's no hiding the fact that the industry heads are spooked—which is why they'll be spending even more on advertising this year. Up to $200 million by some accounts.

Clean Coal Wars

And all that advertising, is it doing any good? Well, you're pretty damn familiar with the term 'clean coal', aren't you? Even if you consider it a paradox or a joke, you know the shorthand. That's their victory—because not even close to everyone sees it that way. Including Obama. In fact, he's pledged—albeit cautiously—to support carbon sequestration research efforts. And that pledge, captured on video from one of his stump speeches, is the coal industry's shining jewel of an ad spot. A full blown TV and internet ad campaign? $38 million dollars. The popular, Democratic president proclaiming his support for clean coal? Priceless.

However, even with all that money flying around, this is a case when the environmental advocates aren't exactly the underdog. Across the battle line, you'll find a well-funded, well oiled machine fighting "clean coal" advertising efforts. The Al Gore led Reality Coalition has fired back with ad spots like the Coen Brother's now famous Clean Coal Ad. Other previous TV spots have peddled the same message.

Clean coal opponents have something else on their side—the internet. Scantly funded bloggers have taken on Big Coal in a truly big way—by using their superior web-savvy to blog for the environment and filling the Google search returns with a bevy of articles debunking the clean coal myth. I just did a quick search before writing this post: other than the neutral Wikipedia and How Stuff Works returns, 4 debunked clean coal, and one editorialized in favor (just a note: the lede to that one began "It's our god-given right to burn coal").

What's at Stake?

Long term legislation that would solidify coal-fired power plants as a part of the US's energy future. And with major climate and energy bills being debated in Congress at this very moment, this is a crucial juncture indeed.

Who's Winning the Clean Coal Wars?

It's hard to say—there's no doubt that the coal industry has the resource advantage. And Obama has spoken in favor of researching clean coal. But his Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has said before that "Coal is my worst nightmare." And pop culture backlash against clean coal has been pretty visible—clean coal opponents have done a good job keeping the scales balanced, so that the average American could probably be described as at least "skeptical" about clean coal.

Can we tell who's winning in terms of funding? If so, clean coal is losing out to renewable energy technology: in the stimulus clean coal research was designated $3.5 billion, compared to the $80 billion allotted to alternative energy development.

And the Victor is . . .

For the time being, it's the coal industry. In the face of an EPA that will soon have the power to regulate carbon emissions, clean coal is the industry's only viable lifeline. Big Coal is, after all, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the country. And Obama and lawmakers aren't willing to take the clean coal option off the table—but perhaps the $3.5 billion in research and the cautious pledges are intended to pacify the coal industry during an envisioned transition to renewable energy. An optimistic way to look at it could be that Obama is aware of the apparent futility of clean coal efforts (in the scheme of the stimulus $3.5 billion isn't exactly a vote of confidence), but he's managing political maneuvers to begin smoothing the road away from dirty coal.

So in the long run—barring some major development that makes carbon sequestration viable environmentally and economically--it's definitely feasible that clean coal opponents are helping steer the nation towards a cleaner energy future.

More on "Clean Coal"
Clean Coal Spokesman 'Doesn't Know' if Coal Plant Emissions Cause Global Warming (Video)
Clean Coal Carolers from an Industry Run By Morons
Water, Clean Coal Focus at Beijing's Clean Tech Conference

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Clean Energy | Coal | Congress | Consumerism | Economics

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