The "clean coal" PR people are running a scam. Thing is, it’s an obvious scam — easily exposed, easily debunked. Just because it’s obvious, though, doesn’t mean the media won’t fall for it. Indeed, the entire "clean coal" propaganda push is premised on the media’s gullibility.

Here’s the scam: They leave the definition of "clean coal" deliberately ambiguous. As ACCCE spokesman Joe Lucas said on NPR the other day, "’clean coal’ is an evolutionary term. "By "evolutionary," of course, he means, "whatever we need it to mean at the moment." If one meaning is attacked, they subtly shift to another meaning.

To begin with, remember the reason the "clean coal" PR was needed at all: climate change. Coal is the world’s principal contributor to climate change, as James Hansen (among others) keeps saying. Conversely, efforts to fight climate change are the biggest threat to coal’s future. (Read this new Greenpeace rundown [PDF] of all the coal plants blocked or shut down in 2008, and the battles to come in 2009.)

As a response to climate change, "clean coal" refers to coal power plants that sequester their greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, that definition of "clean" collides with two awkward facts:

  1. There are no commercial coal power plants in the U.S. that actually sequester their emissions.
  2. According to a new report out from the Center for American Progress, the companies funding "clean coal" PR aren’t spending much on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) research.

Despite its slogan that ACCCE companies made "a commitment to clean," a review of its member companies’ research programs found that they are making relatively insignificant investments in CCS compared with their profits. CAP’s analysis found that the 48 ACCCE companies made a combined profit of $57 billion in 2007 (See chart 2) while investing over several years only $3.5 billion in CCS research (See chart 1). That means the companies combined made $17 in 2007 profits for every $1 invested in CCS research over several years. This is a very generous estimate, because the analysis includes several projects that haven’t yet begun. Nonetheless, the research funding over a number of years is dwarfed by the profits for a single year.

In other words: When it comes to climate change, there is no such thing as "clean coal," and coal companies aren’t getting much closer to it — or even trying particularly hard to do so.

When "clean coal" shills are pressed on this point, they revert to the other definition of "clean" — the notion that coal plants have reduced their emissions of traditional air pollutants like particulates and mercury (as opposed to greenhouse gases). This is a bit like low-tar cigarettes — they still kill plenty of people — but nonetheless, it’s defensibly true. Coal plants have measurably reduced the emission of these pollutants over the past few decades.

But that’s beside the point. The point is climate change.

To see how this flimflam works on a gullible media, let’s turn to 2008’s presumptive frontrunner for Most Gullible Journalist: Politico’s Erica Lovley. Kudos to Lovley for covering the CAP report — see "CAP report: Where’s the (coal) money?" — but have a look at the response she lets Lucas get away with:

The coal industry sharply disputes Weiss’s figures. The group says it has invested more than $50 billion in emission-reducing technology over the past 30 years and currently has more than 80 projects on clean coal technology underway.

Note the essential wiggle: "emission-reducing technology." Not GHG-reducing technology. So Lucas is trying to use Big Coal’s investments in traditional air pollutant scrubbers (investments which, incidentally, have been mandated by law against great resistance) as defense against an accusation about its lack of investment in GHG reducing technology.

It’s a transparent scam, tantamount to saying: "the coal industry acknowledges Weiss’s figures, but desperately wants to change the subject."

But does Lovley point this obvious fact out? Does she expose the dodge at the core of the "clean coal" campaign?

No, no, that would be "editorializing." Or exercising a modicum of "judgment." Or displaying evidence of minimal "critical faculties." Instead it’s all bland he-said she-said, Weiss’s claims vs. coal’s claims … even though coal is not actually disputing Weiss’s figures.

This is why propaganda works.