How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain  

Posted by Big Gav in

Great post title from WorldChanging, taking a look at the marketing of "clean coal".

Several years ago, in Gillette, Wyoming, I fell into a long conversation with the vice-president of a large American coal company about coal's public image problem. Gillette is in the center of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of the coal boom in America, where 60 foot seams of coal lay just below the surface.

This vice president, who did not want his name to appear in print, was deeply concerned about coal's future and expressed frustration with environmental attacks on coal, suggesting that it was all a problem of perception: "People don't like coal because it's black," he told me.

"If it were white, all our problems would be solved."

Whenever one of those slick ads for "clean coal" pops up on CNN, I think about that conversation in Gillette. The $35 million "clean coal" campaign, spearheaded by a coal industry front group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (formerly known as Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), is nothing less than a nationwide effort to paint coal white.

And to the coal industry's credit, they're doing a pretty good job."Clean coal" is touted by Republicans and Democrats alike as the solution to America's energy troubles.

The logic is simple: America has lots of coal. We are a technologically advanced society. Ergo, we can clean up coal. What's the problem?

Well, here's one: "clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans," "clean coal" is a phrase that embodies the Bush-era faith that there is an easy answer for every hard question in America today. We can have a war in Iraq without sacrifice. We can borrow more than we can afford without worrying about how we'll pay it back. We can end our dependency on oil by powering our SUVs with ethanol made from corn. And we can keep the lights on without superheating the climate through the magic of "clean coal."

Here's another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.

Of course, the "clean coal" campaign is not about reality – it's about perception. It's an exercise in re-branding. Madison Ave. did it for Harley Davidson motorcycles and Converse shoes. Why not Old King Coal?

It's not a difficult trick – just whip out some slick ads with upbeat music and lots of cool 21st century technology like fighter jets and computers. Run the ads long enough, and people will believe.

But the real goal of the campaign is not simply to re-brand coal as a clean and modern fuel – it's to convince energy-illiterate TV viewers that the American way of life depends on coal. The ads remind us (accurately) that half the electricity in America comes from coal, then shows images of little girls getting tucked into bed at night or Little Leaguers playing ball under the lights.

The subtext is not simply that, without the electricity from coal, the lights will go out and your family will be plunged into darkness. It's that, without coal, civilization as we know it will come to an end. As one utility industry executive asked me while I was reporting Big Coal, "Have you ever been in a blackout? Do you remember how scary it was?"

From the coal industry's point of view, this is a brilliant way to frame the argument. If the choice is, coal or chaos, they win. ...

That's a false choice, of course.

The coal industry may not want to acknowledge it, but we're living in the 21st century now. We have indeed figured out other ways to generate electricity besides burning out 30 million year old rocks. And with each passing year, those alternatives are getting cheaper and smarter.

Wind is already less expensive than coal in many parts of the country, and so is large-scale solar thermal. Google is exploring enhanced geothermal. The creaky old electricity grid will soon morph into a system that looks more like the internet, driving big gains in efficiency and allowing for real-time pricing of a kilowatt of power.

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