The US coal industry has been struggling with its PR efforts in the face of some tough conditions: polls show that coal is Americans’ “least favored” energy source, scientists insist that most fossil fuels – especially coal – must stay underground, and broad majorities of Americans support carbon pollution limits on coal fired power plants. It’s those carbon pollution limits, currently being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, that seem to most fluster the coal industry’s attempts to polish the dirty reality of coal. The latest comical example was caught on video, as the head of the coal industry’s main lobby group, ACCCE, was completely unable to answer a very simple question. Lee Fang, writing for Republic Report, explains:

Does burning coal, one of the most carbon-intensive fuel sources on the planet, contribute to climate change?

That simple question stumped the industry’s most prominent advocate, Robert “Mike” Duncan, at a Colorado mining conference last week. Asked twice by Republic Report, Duncan first said that a “lot of people believe” that coal causes climate change, before replying, “I’m not answering your question.”

Beyond Duncan’s refusal to answer such a simple question, his initial non-answer is also interesting. In his attempt at avoiding the question he says:

“Assuming that we’re going to cut back on carbon, whether we cut back on particulates and these types of things, we believe that, assuming that’s a policy, how do you best get there? We get there through technology. How do you invent the technology? You do it one step at a time. You don’t go from having a bag phone to a smartphone in a decade.”

By “bag phone,” Duncan is referring to the clunky old car phones from the 1990s, and arguing that technological advancements needed to cut carbon pollution must proceed slowly – and he apparently thinks that the evolution of mobile phone technology is good evidence for this point.

coal phoneOutdated technology. phone image from Trent021

It’s surprising that Duncan would use such an analogy – the rapid advancement of mobile phone technology and corresponding collapse of the old land line telephone monopolies’ business model is more often cited as a warning that the utility industry is facing similar threats as distributed renewable energy like solar advances and becomes more affordable. A report about disruptive potential of solar energy put out by the utility industry trade group Edison Electric Institute (some of whose members are also ACCCE members, like Southern Company, American Electric Power, and DTE Energy) includes a whole section on “Telephone Industry Parallels,” while Amory Lovins notes “Disruptive technologies are meant to upset the status quo to bring worthwhile change. Should we have rejected mobile phones because they threatened to displace landline phones?”

Unfortunately, many utilities are responding to the disruptive potential of solar power by attacking clean energy policies, aided by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, as a front page Washington Post article detailed this week, A battle is looming over renewable energy, and fossil fuel interests are losing.

Duncan’s argument that technological advances to cut carbon pollution will be slow is likely based on his narrow focus on the coal industry, which has fought policies to reduce pollution at every step. Perhaps those utilities that are still paying Duncan’s salary to promote coal should seek other advice about the lessons for the energy sector of mobile phone technology advances. They could start with Apple, a company that knows a thing or two about smartphones.

An Apple ad touts the company's solar powered data centers
An Apple ad touts the company’s solar powered data centers