“Can coal be cleaned before it’s burned? Of course it can!”
Although this language comes from a 1970s advertisement from coal giant American Electric Power, this claim would be right at home with today’s “clean coal” advertising.
When someone sent us some old 1970’s newspaper advertisements from coal-burning giant American Electric Power, questioning proposed regulations to stop coal pollution, the language had a familiar ring to it. How long had the industry been telling us that coal was clean? Has the industry been using the same deceptive advertising campaigns to scrub its image (and delay important regulations to protect public health) for decades? So we went back through the archives to review the record.
We found that the coal industry has spent at least four decades spinning lies to convince us coal is clean, and any scientific evidence on pollution is crooked. The industry further claims that any pollution regulation will cost jobs and cripple the economy.
The origins of truth spinning by the coal industry dates back to the birth of public relations in the first part of the twentieth century. The coal industry claimed they had cleaned up dirty coal eliminating the “black froth” on streams so that nearby waterways would remain “pristine.”
The 70’s and the Clean Air Act
The real spin from the coal industry began in the 1970’s when the Clean Air Act introduced air quality guidelines to curb sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide that come from burning coal.
AEP also ran ads warning that scrubbers designed to remove life-threatening pollutants from smokestack emissions wouldn’t work, but would create large quantities of “oozy gook.”
In contrast, today AEP’s subsidiary, Appalachian Power has quite a different take on scrubbers. The company states on its website that the sludge from scrubbers is harmless: “…. This harmless substance then is sent to a landfill. The scrubber captures almost all of the SO2 produced from burning coal. That makes our air cleaner. It also gives plants the flexibility to use locally-available high-sulfur coal, which helps keep fuel costs low.”
To get around the local pollution problems and to adhere to the new air quality regulations, the industry started building tall stacks to disperse the pollution instead of reducing it. When the EPA targeted tall stacks, AEP again fought them tooth and nail.
When the Middle East oil embargo sent gas prices skyrocketing, the industry tried to use concerns about the crisis to support its agenda. The Saudis would buy US coal, screamed one advertisement. “What time is the electricity on today?” asked another. “Fanatical Environmentalists” were threatening America’s future, according to one ad.
In 1980 the U.S. government began what would be a decades-long effort to grapple with the problem of acid rain caused by sulfur emissions from coal-fired power stations.
The coal industry attacked the emerging scientific consensus on acid rain. Edison Electric Institute, funded by the utility industry and member of the Coalition for Energy Environment Balance, published “Facts About Acid Rain.” The author, Alan Katzenstein, later worked for the Tobacco Institute and claimed that second hand smoke was harmless.
1990 Clean Air Act Amendments
When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 despite a barrage of industry-launched court cases, scrubbers became mandatory for all new power plants. Yet the coal industry still argued that regulation would “short circuit America’s electricity system”
In fact, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments have saved billions of dollars spent on human health and worker days, according to a 2011 EPA analysis. A 2009 EPA report states that acid rain deposits over the US have decreased by 43 percent.
Enter the Greenwash
Once the coal industry had to comply with new standards, it began scrubbing the record of its resistance to public health standards. The industry claimed that its state of the art technology cleaned up the emissions and pollution from coal plants that they had furiously spurned the previous decade. “A cleaner environment is on everyone’s agenda” said the EEI.
Enter climate science denial
By the early 1990’s, there was a new threat to Big Coal. After years of scientists’ warnings about the impacts of greenhouse gases from burning coal and other fossils fuels, climate change began to emerge as a widespread concern. Once the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first report, the coal industry rolled out the same attacks on the scientific evidence.
A new industry front group, Information Council on the Environment, ran a test series of advertisements challenging climate science. The objective was to “reposition global warming as theory, not fact.” This strategy formed the beginnings of a decades-long, industry-funded campaign of climate science denial that continues to this day.
An economic argument was also used against climate action, with claims that a treaty like the Kyoto Protocol would ruin the economy. The “not global, won’t work” mantra of these ad campaigns has been a consistent excuse from U.S. officials in international climate talks for the last 12 years.
By the 2000’s, the coal industry increasingly relied on its “coal is clean” mantra.
Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, the coal industry coalition, argued that coal was “better for the economy and cleaner for our environment.”
Industry convinced federal agencies to pour taxpayer subsidies into a search for new coal emissions technologies including “carbon capture and storage,” or CCS.
CCS would bury C02 in underground aquifers. Despite being a prohibitively expensive and unproven technology, it has become the new poster child for clean coal.
By 2007, ABEC was claiming that they were going “beyond clean”. CCS was portrayed as being just around the corner, and pollutants like SO2 and NOX were now reduced to “near zero.”
In 2008, ABEC morphed into the “American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity” (ACCCE) that mobilized industry supporters across the country before the elections. ACCCE now claims “clean coal technology is real – and it is deployed across the U.S. and around the world to the benefit of people and our planet.”
The coal industry has spent decades trying to convince Americans that protecting our health and the environment will destroy the economy and leave us in the dark.
Yet our country has continually improved public health and environmental protections without the economic disasters hyped by the coal industry.
We couldn’t believe them then. Why should we believe them now?