Big Coal: decades of deception

by Cindy Baxter

September 13, 2012

Can coal be cleaned before its burned? Of course it can!”

Although this language comes from a1970s advertisementfrom coal giant American Electric Power, this claim would be right at home with todays clean coal advertising.

When someone sent us some old 1970s 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 theblack frothon streams so that nearby waterways would remain pristine.

The 70s and the Clean Air Act

The real spin from the coal industry began in the 1970s when the Clean Air Act introduced air quality guidelines to curb sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide that come from burning coal.

The coal industry pursued an aggressive PR offensive. American Electric Power (AEP), then the countrys largest coal-burning utility company, launched ads calling for modifications of the Clean Air Act, or else the country would face galloping unemployment.

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 AEPs subsidiary, Appalachian Power has quite a different take on scrubbers. The companystates on its websitethat 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 themtooth 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. TheSaudis would buy US coal, screamed one advertisement.What time is the electricity on today? asked another.Fanatical Environmentalistswere threatening Americas future, according to one ad.


What acid rain?

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, publishedFacts About Acid Rain. The author, Alan Katzenstein, later worked for the Tobacco Institute andclaimedthat 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 wouldshort circuit Americas electricity system


But the lights stayed on.

In fact, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments have saved billions of dollars spent on human health and worker days, according to a2011 EPA analysis. A 2009 EPA reportstatesthat 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 everyones agendasaid the EEI.

Enter climate science denial

By the early 1990s, 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 testseries of advertisementschallenging 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. Thenot global, wont workmantra of these ad campaigns has been a consistent excuse from U.S. officials in international climate talks for the last 12 years.


The new clean coal

By the 2000s, the coal industry increasingly relied on its coal is clean mantra.

Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, the coal industry coalition, argued that coal wasbetter 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 goingbeyond 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 nowclaimsclean 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 couldnt believe them then. Why should we believe them now?

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