By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008
The phrase "clean coal" was repeated by virtually every major presidential candidate this year. Now the battle over what it means is heating up.
A group of environmental organizations concerned about global warming, including one backed by former vice president Al Gore, is launching an advertising campaign this week to counter the coal industry's efforts to promote what it calls "clean coal."
The groups will spend millions of dollars on television, newspaper and outdoor ads, the first of which shows a factory door in the middle of a barren landscape and the slogan: "In reality, there is no such thing as 'clean coal.' " The ads say that "there isn't a single commercial coal power plant in America today that captures its global warming pollution."
The campaign is a response to a $15 million-plus ad campaign that began earlier this year by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-backed group that has tried to spruce up coal's image.
A 30-second television version of the environmental groups' ad will air this weekend on news talk shows. It was shot in the desert of California by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is best known for its work as the creator of the 'truth' anti-tobacco campaign, and with companies including Microsoft, Burger King, Volkswagen and Domino's Pizza. The ad shows a man saying, "Let's take a look at a state of the art clean coal facility." He walks through a door leading to a patch of land that is vacant as far as the eye can see. "Amazing," he says, as he looks around. "The machinery is kind of loud," he yells sarcastically into the breeze, "but that's the sound of clean coal technology."
"Basically we're saying you've heard a lot about clean coal, let's take a closer look," said Dagny Scott, a vice president at the ad firm.
But Joe Lucas, vice president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, says that technology has helped coal plants meet environmental standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and that it will ultimately help reduce carbon dioxide emissions too. "To use the words of a new resident of Washington, 'Yes we can' invest in the technologies to make us capable of storing and capturing carbon from coal plants," Lucas said.
The ad battle is part of a fight over the future of coal plants, which has been thrown into doubt by Supreme Court and Environmental Protection Agency rulings about carbon dioxide being subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists say that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to retrofit plants with carbon capture equipment once they're built. But coal industry advocates hold out hope.
Gore, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate change efforts, and other organizations -- including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation -- are backing the ad campaign to try to influence public debate on the eve of the new administration. "Coal is not clean. It is one of the leading sources of global warming pollution and the technology does not exist today to make it clean on a widespread scale," Gore said in an interview.
"We cannot base the strategy for human survival on the illusions of the industry that coal is already clean. It is not," he added. "What they want to do is build hundreds, if not thousands, of new coal plants on a vague promise that they might be able to retrofit those plants with a technology that does not exist."
Lucas responded, "If we agree that we are going to need carbon capture, because coal is going to be an important part of our future, then this is what we should be talking about."