Clean Coal Turnabout?

A clean-coal lobbying group talks of a “shared … commitment” with the Obama administration on the environment. Hmm.

Okay, it’s past Thanksgiving and the election is long over, but a series of ads I saw on television on election night keep playing in my mind. They were about the virtues of coal. Why would such ads stay with me? Let me explain.

The ad campaign to throw the ‘bums’ out

It all starts with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a trade lobbying group made up of coal-mining companies and utilities with coal-based power, which, according to its website, “supports policies that will ensure affordable, reliable, domestically produced energy, while supporting the development and deployment of advanced technologies to further reduce the environmental footprint of coal-fueled electricity generation.” (Emphasis mine.)

All good stuff in principle. In practice the ACCCE has had a hard time balancing the objective of using coal with the objective of protecting the environment.

That problem was in full display in the runup to the election when the ACCCE launched a blitz of ads telling voters “that now is the time to stand up to the EPA’s anticoal agenda.” While technically nonpartisan, the message was pretty clear — get Obama and those environmental-regulating crazies out of the White House.

Take for example the “Home Field Advantage” ad above (uploaded on October 3, 2012) with the following voiceover:

“Our current leadership in Washington has taken us down a … path paved by heavy-handed EPA regulations, a path relying on fads not fuels, a path leading away from energy independence, a path that fails to recognize the connection between low-cost energy and desirable, high-paying jobs. … It’s time to send leaders to Washington who will build a future on a solid foundation. Your vote is your voice. Now is the time to make it heard.”

Other salient quotes from the ads include:

“The regulations coming down are going to increase the cost of producing electricity which is going to make the power bills go up even more so, and I don’t understand why we’re getting rid of the cheapest form of electricity we’re set up to make and put it out of business.” (“Losing Power”)

“The rules and regulations they’re making at the EPA are affecting real lives,” says J. Howard Spencer, the town manager of Glen Lyn, Virginia. “It takes the hope away from children. Where can they get a job? (“Losing Power”)

“I think we need an EPA; however, I think that they have far overstepped their reach and we’re feeling it as consumers in every aspect of our lives.” (“Coal = Future”)

But still claiming the green banner

Paradoxically, while bashing the Environmental Protection Agency, the ads also claim coal-industry credit for environmental progress:

“The technology exists for clean coal.” (Watch video.)

“The time is ticking, America. … It’s time we recognize that the nearly $100 billion spent on clean coal technologies have resulted in real environmental progress.” (Watch video.)

And this is where I call foul and ask for help from the fact-checkers. You want to promote coal, that’s your business. You want to promote coal while also claiming to be champions of the environment — not so fast.

  1. While the coal industry takes credit for the sizable reductions in SOx and NOx emissions — about 90 percent per unit of electricity generated since 1970 — these reductions actually came about as a result of regulations promulgated by the EPA via the authority granted it under the Clean Air Act and its amendments. Laws and regulations that the coal industry fought against tooth and nail, and predicted would result in dire consequences (see here and here). Not only did the predicted doom and gloom not occur; the air-quality benefits and savings in health-care costs have been substantial. (See also here.)
  2. EPA is now in the process of developing and promulgating updated regulations for SOx and NOx emissions to take effect with landmark regulations for mercury. In its pre-election rhetoric — those ads we’re talking about — the ACCCE was against those regulations and actively encouraged people to cast their ballot to prevent such measures from going forward.

A kinder, gentler clean coal coalition speaking out now?

But an interesting thing happened on November 6th, at least on CNN where I watched the election returns. While there was still a plethora of clean coal ads — including some from Exxon Mobil, the sponsor of “CNN live election night coverage” — the spots showed a softer side.

Gone was any bashing of the administration or the EPA, and all that remained, in warm, lush tones and pretty pictures of nature in all its glory, were the virtues of coal as a homegrown, plentiful and clean energy source.

Could it be that the coal lobby had gotten the message from the polls and decided that there would not be a change in the White House (their ads notwithstanding) and they’d better clean up their clean-coal image as an Obama administration-basher before the election was called? Maybe so.

More importantly, were those ads a sign that the coal industry was ready for a détente with the Obama team including the folks at EPA? Not likely, but you never know. The ACCCE has not released a press release since late October. And this quote from its Web page on “Clean Coal Technology” suggests that an olive branch to the administration could be in the offing:

“We share the Obama administration’s commitment [to clean coal]. As an industry, we are committed to a clean energy future with coal — and that future involves the use of advanced technologies to further reduce emissions including the capture and safe storage of [carbon dioxide] CO2.”

In trying to read the tea leaves from such a statement, the critical issue ultimately comes to be what is meant by “clean coal.”

What about reducing air pollution?

Clean coal is often thought of as technology (like carbon capture and storage) that removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the effluent that is produced when coal is burned. (And, by the way, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report, the technology for carbon capture and storage may “exist,” but it is a long way from becoming commercially viable.)

But in fact clean coal, in the ACCCE’s own parlance, means a whole lot more than that — clean coal technology is actually a range of different technologies that, among other things, remove, in the ACCCE’s words, “traditional pollutant emissions like sulfur dioxide (SO2); nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are a precursor to smog; and particulate matter.” (Now if we’re really talking clean, we’d need to also consider issues related to mountaintop mining and disposal of coal ash, but let’s not for now).

The ACCCE claims to on board with all this:

“We’re committed to ensuring that America’s energy future is a clean one. Of course, commitment is more than a word — it requires action. We have a long history of deploying clean coal technologies to reduce air emissions.”

Of course, claiming a commitment that goes beyond words is just that — words. How could they really demonstrate that commitment?

Here’s an idea: remove opposition to the new EPA regulations that promise cleaner air using existing technologies. And while you’re at it, try being a constructive partner with EPA as it develops a sound policy for dealing with the roughly 130 million short tons of toxic coal ash we generate each year. Deal?

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