As the coal industry reminds us, more than 50% of our nation's electricity is produced by burning coal. Another fact we know -- burning coal is the dirtiest way we produce electricity today and is one of the leading sources of global warming pollution. And, we know the idea that coal is somehow "clean" today is simply a myth.
The 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash that spilled into the Kingston, Tenn., area in December wasn't "clean." The 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants put into the atmosphere each year isn't "clean" either.
Fortunately, more and more local and state governments are coming to the realization that coal as it exists today is not an economically viable or environmentally sound solution. According to the New York Times, more than 80 proposals for building new coal plants were quashed in the last year due to economic or environmental concerns. Lawmakers from Michigan to Kansas to Nevada are looking to the wind and the sun to repower their economies and put their residents to work.
So why is the industry spending tens of millions of dollars on a marketing campaign trying to convince people they're "clean" rather than actually cleaning up their act?
In the end it boils down to a business decision. The industry could invest retrofitting old, polluting coal plants and creating new technologies to ensure a truly clean future. But it is far cheaper for them to lobby to protect the dirty status quo and advertise to give the public a false sense of cleanliness that doesn't exist.
Even as the coal front group asserts, laughably, in its latest round of advertising that coal is "meeting the climate challenge," the coal industry and its allies are actively lobbying against real climate solutions.
They've set up a "chicken and egg" argument to stall progress on climate legislation and maintain the status quo: Climate legislation is stalled until we have carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in place, but at the same time no significant action by the industry to commercialize CCS. The industry couples its optimistic position on the potential for CCS with foreboding saber-rattling if our nation reduced its reliance on their dirty fossil fuel. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Over the past year, his organization [ACCCE] has spent nearly $40 million on television and radio spots and other outreach efforts to bolster public support for coal, and to reinforce fears that limits on its use will raise living costs."
This is eerily reminiscent of tactics used by the coal and utility industries to forestall regulation of acid rain-causing emissions under the Clean Air Act in the late 1980s.
At the time then-CEO of Southern Company (currently an ACCCE member) said, "A law that sets unrealistic compliance dates will increase the cost, risk the reliability of electric service, disrupt the long-range planning of utilities, frustrate the regulatory process, and foreclose the use of "clean coal" technologies." [Testimony of Edward L. Addison, President and CEO of Southern Company, Clean Air Act Reauthorization September 7, 1989, House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, 101st Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO, 1990. p. 562]
Now, after fighting tooth and nail against the Clean Air Act regulations, the industry touts their relative cleanliness. ACCCE's website is littered with references to the fact that "coal is 70 percent cleaner than it was" in the 1970s. No thanks, of course, to the coal industry.
And, as Dan Weiss at the Center for American Progress astutely notes, their dire economic predictions were wrong then too.
This pattern has repeated itself time and again.
The reality is that the industry has known for decades that burning coal was a leading cause of global warming pollution. But rather than cleaning up its act, they invest in glossing up their image.
It's time for the coal industry to put its money where its mouth is. The industry just got an historic multi-billion government investment in research to capture and store carbon pollution n the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and you can be sure they'll be asking for more taxpayer dollars soon. Meanwhile, coal companies are reporting record profits, but spending relatively little on CCS research. This is, ironically, particularly true of ACCCE's member companies. A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that the ACCCE-member companies made a combined profit of $57 billion in 2007 alone while investing over several years only $3.5 billion in CCS research. Given the recent public investment in research and development, the industry should come clean on what they estimate this technology will ultimately cost and let the public know what they will pony up to make it a reality.
Unfortunately, we can't afford to delay any more. The world's leading scientists report that the climate crisis is getting worse at a rate faster than predicted, and we have to begin dramatically reducing the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere immediately if we are to avoid the most severe consequences.
We can and should develop all potentially viable clean energy solutions including "no emission coal technology" if it can be proven to work on a commercial scale. That said, we need to rapidly increase use of the clean, carbon-free energy technologies that exist and are already providing energy to American homes and businesses. Energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal can power our country, create jobs and won't destroy our planet. But as everyone knows, these clean renewable technologies are at a disadvantage while the actual costs of dirty fuels like coal and oil continue to be unaccounted for. The coal industry has a deep and abiding appreciation of that basic fact and protecting this status quo is the core motivation for their "clean coal" obfuscation effort.
For now, we need to stake our energy future on reality, not a bogus marketing campaign.
Brian Hardwick is the spokesperson for the Reality Coalition, which released a new ad today directed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Reality is aimed at exposing the cynical and dishonest nature of the coal industry's "clean coal" campaign. For more information and to watch the new Reality ad, go to www.thisisreality.org.
Follow Brian Hardwick on Twitter: www.twitter.com/briandhardwick