Hello from Never Land! Adventures as a Coal Industry Insider

by Carroll Muffett

June 26, 2008

It’s the Golden Age of Coal! Did you know that? I admit, I myself had no idea. But apparently it’s true. "There has never been a better time to be in the coal business and to be an advocate for coal!" How do I know that? Fred Palmer told me. And he must know, because he’s Senior Vice President for Government Relations at Peabody Coal, the world’s biggest private coal company.

Now, you must be asking yourself, why on earth would Fred confide that sort of thing to Greenpeace? I suspect that right about now, Fred is asking himself the same question. As are any number of other speakers at Coal USA 2008, which, according to its sponsors, is "the ‘must attend’ event on the Coal industry calendar."  

Maybe because we sponsored their conference! With the biggest wigs from 170 energy companies sitting in a single room and sharing their profit-fueled dreams for a coal-powered future, it seemed like just the sort of place we should be. So, we filled in a form, wrote ’em a check, and got ourselves four bright, shiny invitations to attend the conference.

Of course, coal people aren’t the biggest fans of "those Greenpeace f**kers," as one delegate politely put it today. So, we took a play from the coal industry’s own playbook, and created an organization they’d be more comfortable with. It’s our own version of "astroturf," the fake environmental organizations the coal industry helped perfect decades ago (like the now defunct "Greening Earth Society," which argued that global warming was a good thing because all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would make the world greener).  

So, we created "Tomorrow’s Energy Today," an upbeat if remarkably ambiguous website about the many virtues of coal. ("It’s America’s most abundant fossil fuel!"…Hard to argue with that.) And Tomorrow’s Energy Today sponsored the conference.  

Lesson for the future: if you’ve got a few grand to spare, I highly recommend that you sponsor a coal industry conference. It’s an amazing bargain! They put our logo and URL all over everything. On the conference website. On signs in the hall. On people’s presentations.  And on every single page of the glossy conference brochure. They even gave us a booth!  Now that’s value for your money.

And we put it to good use.  As a service to coal industry insiders, who seem a little blind to coal’s many downsides, we redirected the URL to take them right to the best information currently available on coal: the Coal is Dirty website.

We decorated the booth with precisely the sort of give-aways you should expect at a coal industry conference:  to educate coal execs about coal’s role in America’s asthma epidemic, we’re giving away asthma inhalers with the label "Coal — takes my breath away!" To help them understand how coal mining poisons streams and rivers, we brought water bottles filled with mine discharge. And to remind them that burning coal is the biggest single cause of global warming, we’re giving away keychains that say "Global Warming? Coal is the key."   

In turn, we’re learning alot from our new coal industry friends. For instance, did you know that Alaska is now a target for new coal mines? ("Shhh.  It’s our secret", said the coal traders.) Or that you can expect your home energy costs to go through the roof because coal companies are finding it much more profitable to export "excess supply" to foreign markets than to sell it here at home? Or that the only thing the coal industry hates more than environmentalists is the natural gas industry?

Or that "the United States is a developing country." That one from Fred Palmer again. I could listen to that guy talk all day. He’s like a Crazy Quote Machine. According to Fred, using MORE coal is in the public interest because "Coal is Life itself (through the medium of electricity)." Wow! Who knew? See, I told you we were learning stuff!

Although the industry guys weren’t expecting our presence, they adapted pretty quickly, and at the end of the morning they asked me to speak. (I think they were worried I would stand up on a chair and yell if they didn’t give me a mic.) The morning’s presenters had talked about how this was a conference about coal, and not about the environment. I told them that for Greenpeace, and other environmentalists across the country, any conversation about coal is a conversation about the environment. When you mine coal, it wrecks the local environment. When you burn coal, the emissions affect the health of communities where it’s burned. Acid rain and mercury pollution affect the environment and human health hundreds of miles away. And carbon dioxide from coal burning power plants is the biggest contributor to global warming. In light of these facts, I said, any discussion about coal is a discussion about the environment.  

I told them it was nice to hear coal industry execs admitting the reality of global warming after decades of denying it. It was also nice to hear them no longer arguing (a la The Greening Earth Society) that global warming could be a good thing. But it seems pretty ironic that, after so long denying the problem of global warming, the coal industry is now arguing that it’s part of the solution. We can keep burning coal, they all said, we just need to dump the carbon dioxide into the ocean or into the ground. It’ll all be fine! Our friend Fred Palmer certainly made that argument.

He gave a presentation on how Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology would allow us to go on using coal for decades while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Fred called CCS an "Enabling Technology." I couldn’t agree more.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an "enabler" is someone or something that "enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior." And that’s precisely what CCS does: its a dangerous myth that provides America with a convenient excuse to keep burning coal and pumping carbon dioxide into the air, rather than confronting its fossil fuel addiction and taking real action to stop global warming. You don’t get more self-destructive than that. Like Greenpeace noted in its recent report, which we’ve shared widely at the conference, Carbon Capture is a False Hope and a dangerous distraction from real climate solutions.

As the meeting broke for lunch, the meeting delegates were greeted by 3 unexpected activists. Kate, Drew and Mike, aged 9, 10 and 11, respectively, stood at the door handing out asthma inhalers to everyone who passed. A few people took them and said "Thank You."  Others looked away uncomfortably. And one of them summoned two burly security guards to escort the kids out of the room. "They were really big, scary guys," said Kate.

And the kids laughed. Because they were proud to be brave. And to stand up for what’s right. Even against those really big, scary guys.

-Carroll Muffett

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