Coal industry flails around for a new PR strategy
Last week I looked at the coal industry’s failed PR efforts, which even Luke Popovich, the head of the National Mining Association, admits has not worked: “Anyway, ‘war on coal’ never resonated with much conviction among ordinary Americans. For them, the EPA keeps the air and water clean, their kids safe.”
One of the problems, of course, is that coal is Americans’ “least favored” energy source, according to a recent Gallup poll. Despite the silly “war” rhetoric, most people understand that we need to move away from coal and the damage it does to our health, environment, and climate. So now the coal industry is searching around for a new slogan, desperately hoping that some better PR will somehow offer a defense against growing concerns about air pollution and climate change, as well as competition from cleaner sources of energy. One of the closest observers of the coal industry, Ken Ward, noted:
So naturally, since arguing there is a “war on coal” didn’t work, the mining lobby is rethinking it’s strategy, right? Well, you might think so … but instead what Popovich proposes is an even broader campaign along those same lines:
… A ‘war on industry’ could become a more potent and plausible concern to members of Congress who can fix a bad court decision.
So Popovich’s initial suggestion was to conflate coal with something else that more people might be concerned about defending, though clearly he still likes the “War on ______” format. But perhaps “Industry” isn’t quite right as the pretend target for this make believe “war.” Recently, the coal industry and its backers seem to be testing out some other attempts.
Ken Cuccinelli, the climate denier running for Governor in Virginia, tried to expand the appeal of his attacks by claiming that it’s really “a war on the poor.” Congressman Hal Rogers from Kentucky tried this line: “A war on coal is a war on middle class Americans. It’s a war on jobs, all kinds of jobs.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee outlined how their attacks would evolve in an email to the National Journal: “the Democrats’ ‘War on Coal’ and ‘War on Oil’ is really a ‘War on Modernity.’” (Check out the National Journal article for the full wacky quote: Why the ‘War on Coal’ Campaign Will Likely Fall Flat—Again.) Of course, plenty of others seem not to have gotten the memo, and carry on with the same old “war on coal” message, despite its ineffectiveness – perhaps not surprising for an industry unaccustomed to innovation.
Meanwhile, the coal industry’s main front group, the “American Coalition of Clean Coal Electricity” (ACCCE) says that it is planning “a new public-relations and lobbying blitz aimed at resetting its message,” and E&E reports:
ACCCE, with the help of powerhouse Washington, D.C., public affairs firms JDA Frontline Inc. and DCI Group, is moving forward with its revamped public relations and outreach strategy, which will rely less on paid ads and more on showcasing how the industry is working to become cleaner.
In reality, touting the industry’s efforts to make coal “clean” isn’t new at all – it goes back at least as far as 1921, when this ad in the New York Times touted “clean coal” – the industry’s original make believe slogan.
Back then “clean coal” meant washing off the dirt, while today the industry uses the term to hype carbon capture and sequestration technology. In reality, CCS is unproven, too expensive, and unlikely to be deployed at any meaningful scale. The Wall Street Journal reported today that despite billions more in loan guarantees to subsidize CCS, the technology is unlikely to create a lifeline for coal. And that’s just because of its costs, not even considering a wide array of environmental, regulatory, and infrastructure challenges.
In its more honest moments, coal and utility insiders will admit this; here’s how a spokesman for Ohio based coal company Murray Energy put it:
“The government has already spent substantially on carbon capture and storage (“CCS”) technology, and we have not made progress,” Broadbent wrote. “The promise of CCS technology is used by politicians to pretend that they are doing something for the coal industry, when they are not.”
Carbon capture and sequestration is just the latest manifestation of the industry’s decades-long public relations campaign to claim that coal is clean. Just like the rest of its PR strategy, it is destined to fail.