The Coal Industry Wants You In The Dark

If you’ve watched any cable news show in the last year, chances are you’ve probably seen one or a thousand ads from the fossil fuel industry attacking regulations and/or trying to paint their products as necessary for prosperity. If nothing else, the sheer volume of prime-time advertisements makes one thing strikingly apparent: the fossil fuel industry has a LOT of money.

Recently, I saw yet another one of these ads–this one from a coal industry front group called “America’s Power”–and another thing struck me: They really think that with enough money, with enough serious looking actors, and enough repetition, they can make Americans believe (or forget) anything. My fear is that they may be right.

This short 30-second spot is a great example of the dirty energy industry’s strategy of deceit. Let’s take a look and then deconstruct it point by point:

Transcript:

We’re hearing a lot about fairness from this administration.

But is it fair for their EPA to increase what Americans pay for electricity, by imposing expensive new regulations on coal?

With all the pain at the pump, now is the time to act before those who can least afford it feel even greater pain, at the plug.

Coal: It’s affordable, abundant, and ours. Learn what you can do at AmericasPower.org.

[Clean Coal. Now is the time.]

“We’re hearing a lot about fairness from this administration.”

The sinister voice tells us that we’re hearing a lot about fairness from the administration, but we can tell from the sinister voice that we aren’t supposed to believe the administration really cares about fairness. No, it is much more, sinister than that. But just what is this administration up to? Let’s find out:

“But is it fair for their EPA to increase what Americans pay for electricity, by imposing expensive new regulations on coal?”

Well, yes, I’d say so. But of course this isn’t really what’s going on, and common sense tells us that the coal industry really doesn’t give a crap about how much Americans pay for energy. This is about their own self-interest, and nothing else.

But let’s talk about these regulations first and then we’ll get to the cost issue later. The ad mentions regulations, but doesn’t think it’s important to mention what these regulations are or why they were established in the first place. I suppose we are to believe the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed these regulations just because it’s evil and hates fairness. Turns out, that’s not the case at all. Let me fill in the gaps the ad so conveniently left blank.

There are two main regulations related to coal-fired power plants that the EPA has instituted in the last year: Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and New Source Performance Standards (CO2 Limits). I’ll address each individually:

Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — So what is this horrible fairness-crushing regulation all about? Let’s ask the Clean Air Council:

[T]he first national standard to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The “Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards” will set new technology-based emissions limitation standards for toxic air pollutants such as mercury.

The proposed rule will prevent 91 percent of mercury emissions from power plants annually, reduce acid gas emissions from power plants by 91 percent, and reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions from power plants by 55 percent. These reductions will lead to significant health benefits, including the prevention of up to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, and over 12,000 hospital and emergency room visits. According to Clean Air Council Executive Director Joseph O. Minott, “the EPA, through its proposed rulemaking, is taking a critical step towards protecting the health of millions of Americans.”

You know, it almost looks like the EPA imposed these regulations to save lives—thousands of lives every year—rather than out of boredom. How strange that the coal industry ad failed to mention the fact that the regulations they are whining about are regulations that keep them from inadvertently killing 17,000 people each year with toxic gases!

So back to fairness–does the coal industry think it is fair that those living around coal-fired power plants are forced to breathe in toxic air pollution? Does the coal industry think that 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks and over 12,000 hospital and emergency room visits, every single year, are fair? Apparently those costs of coal power are perfectly acceptable to the coal industry, so acceptable that they’ve created an ad campaign directed at fighting for the “right” to continue making people sick and dead.

New Source Performance Standards — These are the EPA’s new regulations seeking to limit the amount of CO2 coal-fired power plants are allowed to spew into our atmosphere with impunity. The idea behind them is simple: We are warming the planet with greenhouse gases, if we don’t reverse course soon we are in big trouble, so maybe we should start thinking about phasing out CO2 belching coal power. As someone who just suffered through a record-breaking heatwave in DC, followed by a historically nasty freak thunderstorm with hurricane force winds that uprooted a tree next door and left me without power for over three days, I think this sounds very reasonable. I’m sure those fleeing historic forest fires in Colorado also think it is high time the U.S. Government does something about limiting our country’s contributions to climate change.

So what does this fairness-killing regulation actually do? Turns out, not as much as you might think:

Any new plant built in the United States will have to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide per megawatt-hour. The vast majority of modern natural-gas plants meet that standard, so they should be fine. Conventional coal plants, however, average upward of 1,800 pounds per megawatt-hour. They’re not so fine.

This effectively means, analysts agree, that it will be impossible to build any new coal-fired power plant in the United States that can’t capture and store its own carbon emissions. Right now, there are two carbon-capture projects in development, one out in West Virginia and one in Texas, but the technology is still costly and unproven. For the time being, then, this is a moratorium on all new coal plants.

Practically, though, that might not have a huge impact in the short term. The rule won’t affect existing power plants, and it won’t affect any coal-fired plants that are already permitted or set to begin construction within a year. According to a Department of Energy report (pdf), there are 24 such plants in the works. This rule would affect any future coal-fired plants — but right now there are hardly any such plants being planned in the United States. In recent years, utilities have been shifting away from coal on their own, largely due to other pollution regulations and the influx of cheap natural gas. The Energy Information Adminstration was already projecting that no coal plants would come online between 2017 and 2035.

So existing coal-fired power plants, or new plants that have already been approved, won’t be affected by this rule and can continue to spew heat-trapping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere without a care in the world (yay fairness!). The only thing that will change is that there will now be even less incentive to pursue new coal-fired power plants, which doesn’t do much more than underscore an existing trend away from coal.

So let’s talk about fairness again. Is it fair that until now coal-fired power plants have been allowed to contribute to global warming, without paying any costs for that environmental damage? In economics they call this a negative externality—a cost (either financial or in terms of some sort of damage) that innocent bystanders must pay for the actions of someone else (who gets away free and clear). To me, a negative externality seems like the exact opposite of fairness.

What this pro-coal ad campaign is all about is convincing the public, the innocent bystanders, that they should fight for the coal industry’s “right” to hurt them and not have to pay for it. The coal industry thinks it should be able to keep all the profit for itself, and pass on the harm—the premature deaths, the health problems, the hospital visits, the climate change—onto innocent bystanders. And what these regulations are all about is saying “enough is enough” and trying to limit the most egregious of these damages–to rein in the coal industry on behalf of the innocent bystanders.

And the thing is, the EPA isn’t even doing it that forcefully. With all the harm caused by dirty coal power, with all its costs to society, the deaths, the illness, the contributions to climate change, the EPA would be justified in shuttering every single coal power plant in the country and forcing the industry to pay reparations to those it hurt and to help clean up the environmental damage it caused. That would start to look like fairness, if that’s what we really care about here. That is all to say that the coal industry should quit whining about some light regulations when they should have to face much worse consequences.

“With all the pain at the pump, now is the time to act before those who can least afford it feel even greater pain, at the plug.”

Let’s ignore the fact that gas prices have been falling (and partially as a result of President Obama’s crackdown on oil speculation). Let’s also ignore the fact that the coal industry’s newfound concern for American wellbeing is transparently fake (I think we’ve already established that the coal industry doesn’t care what happens to the public). The fact is that the CO2 regulations won’t effect any existing power plants, so those standards will not raise energy prices for the public. The toxic pollution regulations, on the other hand, may result in higher electric bills. As David Roberts at Grist noted:

Every plant that’s out of compliance has to install the “maximum available control technology.” There is some flexibility — more than industry admits — but there’s no getting around the fact that this is going to be an expensive rule. It’s going to kick off a huge wave of coal-plant retirements and investments in pollution-control technology. That is, despite what conservatives say, a good thing, since the public-health benefits will be far greater than the costs. Every country on earth is modernizing its electric fleet. Even China’s ahead of us. These crappy old plants are an embarrassment and good riddance to them.

So as old, dirty coal-fired power plants are [finally] retired, electricity rates for some customers (in areas where coal power dominates) may indeed rise in the short-term. But as Roberts pointed out, the public health benefits will far outweigh the minor rise in utility costs. Simply put, the 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, and over 12,000 hospital and emergency room visits are expensive to society, and when those bad things happen to people who are uninsured, this cost is passed on to taxpayers. Essentially the coal industry is narrowly defining “costs” here, and ignoring all those “hidden” external costs that they impose on the public. The fact is, at the end of the day these regulations save Americans money. Lots of money. From the Clean Air Council:

Factoring in both the public health and economic benefits, the EPA estimates that the proposed standards will provide $13 in benefits for every dollar allocated to power plant pollution reduction, reaching a potential level of over $140 billion annually. “It is clear that the benefits both from public health and economic perspectives far outweigh the costs of implementing these safeguards,” said Minott. “The Clean Air Council appreciates the efforts taken by the EPA in proposing standards to limit dangerous power plant pollution. We ask the EPA to continue fighting for the most effective standards which will protect the health of all Americans.”

The coal and oil industry also loves to claim environmental regulations cost jobs (again, they like to pretend they just care so much about your welfare!), but the fact is that modernizing existing power plants and promoting clean energy alternatives actually creates jobs:

The proposed standards also include numerous economic benefits. The EPA estimates that the new standard will provide 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 permanent utility jobs. The new standard will also help avoid an estimated 850,000 missed work days.

“Coal: It’s affordable, abundant, and ours. Learn what you can do at AmericasPower.org.”

Yes, it’s somewhat cheap, but the costs were already rising long before the EPA stepped in (and the “cheap” argument only takes into account the monetary cost of digging it up and setting it on fire, and not the staggering environmental or public health costs). Yes, it’s relatively abundant (but that doesn’t mean it isn’t environmentally destructive to dig up, and evidence suggests that we’ve already passed peak production of coal in some areas). And yes, it’s “ours” (if by that you mean it is a natural resource collectively belonging to the American public—but of course so is clean air). But the coal industry ad left out one thing: It’s also dirty as hell, hurts all of us, and is clearly not the future of energy or anything else.

“Clean Coal”

The ad ends with the coal industry’s campaign tagline: “Clean Coal. Now is the time.” alongside an orange extension cord plugged neatly into a lump of black coal.

Little did I know that’s how we get power for coal! Here I thought it was a dirty process, one that started with blowing the tops off beautiful mountains, raining sediments and toxins down hillsides and into streams, and ended with the coal being burned in a power plant, releasing smoke, soot and toxic chemicals into the air (not to mention tons of CO2 that accelerates climate change).

I guess that isn’t the picture the coal industry is trying to paint about coal. Instead, we are to believe that coal is neat and tidy, like little natural batteries we can plug appliances into. Of course the ad isn’t literally suggesting that is the case, but that’s the subconscious image they are trying to hook the public with. This is about image association and obscuring the ugly reality of coal. They don’t want the public to associate coal with black soot, smoke stacks, and the black lung. The image they want to come to your mind when you hear the word coal is simply us getting power from a simple rock, next to their slogan in soothing blue and green type. How lovely.

I find it ironic that this ad ends with the coal industry wrapping itself with this “clean coal” slogan, when the entire ad was clearly fighting efforts to make coal cleaner. The whole point of these EPA regulations they are fighting is to make coal less dirty. The ad was nothing if not an acknowledgment that making an inherently filthy form of energy production clean would cost a lot of money (much more money than it is actually worth). The coal industry made it clear that they would prefer to keep their energy production dirty, because it would be “unfair” to make them spend more money to clean it up.

…Yet they end with “Clean Coal. Now is the time.”

If you are thinking that it sounds like they are blatantly contradicting themselves, in the span of 30 seconds, it’s because they are. They want you to think they are already producing this unicorn called “clean coal”, when in reality they know it’s a fantasy and just spent 30 seconds trying to convince you to tell the EPA to let them keep it dirty. The reality is that the falling prices of clean energy sources like solar and wind, and the availability of cheap natural gas, has not only doomed coal, it has made more expensive “clean coal” unrealistic. The coal industry wants you to believe they are clean now, but it’ll never happen:

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is still too expensive to be viable. And, to date, governments haven’t figured out how to nurture CCS the way they’ve helped solar or wind or biofuels get off the ground. Case in point: A new report from the Congressional Budget Office finds that Congress has authorized $6.9 billion for developing carbon capture since 2005 — but, so far, there’s little to show for it.

All summed up, this 30 second coal industry ad is a desperate attempt to hide the truth about coal-fired power. It tries to paint coal as a clean technology that is being threatened by an out of control EPA that just hates fairness. They want you to blindly accept their self-interested story, and never ask yourself what problems the EPA is trying to fix. They don’t want you to know about the 17,000 premature deaths, the 11,000 heart attacks, and the over 12,000 hospital and emergency room visits. They don’t want you to know that they are making profit, while they pass on all of the hidden external costs to you, the innocent bystander. They want you to think they are the victim. They want you to fight the EPA on their behalf, to fight for their “right” to hurt you, to actually fight against your own interests. They want to keep you in the dark. They want you to not know any better. They are counting on you not knowing any better. That’s what this ad is all about.

But now you know.

So the next time you turn on a cable news show, and inevitably see an ad from a dirty energy front group attacking the EPA and claiming they care so much about you, remember all the details they are hiding from you, and spread the word.


Note: Check out www.AmericasCoalPower.org, a parody site from the Natural Resources Defense Council and these ads parodying the coal industry’s “clean coal” scam:









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