By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008
A group backed by the coal industry and its utility allies is waging a $35 million campaign in primary and caucus states to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change.
The group, called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, has spent $1.3 million on billboard, newspaper, television and radio ads in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.
One of its television ads shows a power cord being plugged into a lump of coal, which it calls "an American resource that will help us with vital energy security" and "the fuel that powers our way of life." The ads note that half of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired plants.
The group has also deployed teams on the campaign trail; about 50 people, many of them paid, walked around as human billboards and handed out leaflets outside Tuesday's Democratic debate in Nevada with questions for voters to ask the candidates.
"In Iowa, there is a saying that you don't get to be president unless you go through Iowa. We'd like to say that you don't get to be president unless you understand how complicated this issue is," Joe Lucas, the group's executive director, said Wednesday night during a stopover en route from Nevada to South Carolina.
The group's message -- that coal-fired power plants can be clean, and that more of them are needed to meet the growing demand for electricity -- comes when opposition to new coal plants is mounting because they generate greenhouse gases. In Kansas, where a state agency rejected a permit for two proposed coal plants, opinion polls show that roughly two out of three people opposed the plants. That sentiment, plus soaring construction costs and uncertainty about federal climate change legislation, last year prompted U.S. companies to abandon or postpone plans to build dozens of new coal plants.
The coal mining industry is fighting back. It increased the budget of the National Mining Association, the industry's main lobbying group, by 20 percent this year, to $19.7 million. Last September, the industry also boosted the budget of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices more than fourfold. The roster of backers includes 28 companies and trade associations such as Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Duke Energy, Southern Co. and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
The controversy over coal has been especially heated in Nevada, where environmental groups and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, who represents the state, have opposed construction of three new coal-fired power plants. "They're all dirty," Reid said last fall. He urged utilities to rely on energy efficiency and solar and wind power. (Last year, according to a report issued yesterday by the American Wind Energy Association, wind made up 30 percent of all new electricity generating capacity.)
On Tuesday night, the issue came up during the debate among the three leading Democratic presidential candidates.
Former senator John Edwards said, "I believe we need a moratorium on the building of any more coal-fired power plants unless and until we have the ability to capture and sequester the carbon in the ground."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said, "I have said we should not be siting any more coal-powered plants unless they can have the most modern, clean technology. And I want big demonstration projects to figure out how we would capture and sequester carbon."
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) did not commit himself on coal plants but said Americans had to make their buildings, lighting and appliances "more efficient."
"Yes, we do need to be more energy efficient," Lucas said. "But even as we become more efficient, we're plugging more things into the wall."
The ads being run by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices talk about "clean coal." New power plants are cleaner than they used to be because they must meet more stringent federal regulations limiting such pollutants as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. But climate change is linked to carbon dioxide emissions, which are not yet regulated; those emissions have dropped more modestly as plants have become more efficient.
The group's newspaper ads avoid that distinction. They say that today's carbon-fired plants are "70 percent cleaner based on regulated emissions per unit of energy produced." That does not refer to carbon dioxide.
New coal-plant technologies that might capture carbon dioxide and store, or sequester, it underground are expensive, experimental and not in commercial use. But Lucas says carbon capture and storage "is no longer a pipe dream. It's nearing a point where it's real." Many environmentalists argue that until that time, the United States should focus on renewable energy such as solar and wind. Coal advocates say those energy sources cannot be relied on 24 hours a day and, so far, the energy they produce cannot be easily stored.
ABEC's ads, produced by the same firm that made "what happens here stays here" ads to promote Las Vegas to tourists, also talk about "affordable" energy. The group says in a TV ad that the price of coal is one-third that of other fuels. But coal prices have risen, albeit not as much as oil. And environmentalists and economists argue that the price of coal does not include substantial environmental costs.
"We welcome a vigorous debate about our energy future and solving global warming. Unfortunately ABEC is spending millions of dollars on misinformation about our energy choices . . . instead of engaging in a real debate about the true costs of coal and clean energy alternatives," said Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club's national coal campaign.
Environmentalists are also worried that the ads aired by ABEC so far are just the beginning of what could be a much bigger offensive once Congress gets down to work on a climate change bill sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.). An ad targeting that bill is currently being shown on video monitors at the baggage carousels at Dulles International Airport.
In 1993, an ad campaign by the health-care industry featuring a fictional couple named Harry and Louise helped torpedo the Clinton administration's health-care proposal. Now, some supporters of the Lieberman-Warner bill fear that the coal industry may use a similar strategy to kill legislation aimed at slowing climate change by stressing potential consumer costs and not the societal benefits.
"Big coal may launch a 'Harry and Louise'-style disinformation campaign to sink global warming solutions in Congress," said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress.
One of the coal industry group's radio ads hints at those themes. A woman asks: "How can we become less dependent on foreign resources? What fuels will keep power bills reasonable and be environmentally responsible?" A man responds, "We have many questions for our candidates, and coal has to be part of the discussion."
Lucas is working on that. Last year, he wrote letters that appeared in a dozen newspapers. On Tuesday, he appeared on Nevada public radio. On Wednesday, the group's views were quoted approvingly in an editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "We're getting the message out," Lucas said.