South Carolina flag

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On the eve of the South Carolina Democratic primary, some battles are being fought on stage, and others in the parking lot.

This primary season, leading up to arguably the most important presidential election in recent history, has been a circus. Even outside the candidate events, voters waiting in line to cheer Huckabee or Obama might see confederate-flag-jacket-donning Ron Paul supporters espouse southern pride, orange-shirted volunteers collect petitions about Darfur, and PETA organizers dressed up as pigs holding puzzling signs that say “Stop Global Warming, Tax Meat.” And while all the presidential campaigns try to capture the media’s attention by printing more and bigger signs, and turning out louder supporters, they can’t quite keep the menagerie at bay.

In a way, this is all good for democracy — it shows that volunteers and organizations are pressuring candidates on specific issues, many of which the candidates have not sufficiently addressed on the stump or in debates. Politicians have a knack for beating around the bush. But, when a corporate-funded group joins the cast, as the euphemistic Americans for Balanced Energy Choices has, the parking lot battles really begin.

Clean Coal in SC The Washington Post reported in an article on January 18 that ABEC — which is funded by companies including Arch Coal Inc., Peabody Energy Corp., Duke Energy, and Southern Co. — is waging a $35 million “astroturf” campaign to convince the public and candidates that “clean coal” is a viable alternative energy. The group is running TV and radio ads in primary and caucus states and has hired organizers to disseminate its materials at candidate events and outside debates.

Just yesterday, in the shadow of the famous Myrtle Beach sand castle — a Mt. Rushmore-like mound, in which are carved the faces of all the candidates — our coalition of committed clean energy advocates encountered more than a few ABEC operatives. They passed out literature to media and to the crowds who came to ogle the sand sculpture. We decided to combat their corporate-sponsored campaign on behalf of the dirtiest of fossil fuels by telling the truth. We have the facts on our side, right?

After a great media event sponsored by South Carolina’s Coastal Conservation League, complete with music from a local songstress and speeches by concerned youth, we declared (sticker) war, and sicced Frosty the Snowman, a polar bear, and two dozen green, hard-hatted volunteers on the clean-coal reps. We collected hundreds of signatures on a petition to stop a proposed coal-fired power plant from being built in nearby Pee Dee, talked about green jobs and clean energy, and made sure to let the crowds know what ABEC’s interests are.

As the day wore on, the phalanx of paid ABEC representatives multiplied; they called for reinforcements and were joined by a trio of recent public relations majors, flown in from Los Angeles, wearing backpack billboards extolling the virtues of “America’s most abundant energy source,” and giving out countless T-shirts and stickers.

Despite the coal industry’s efforts to convince the American people and candidates that coal is a clean fuel, most South Carolinians can withstand the spin — and armed with the facts, will not vote to put future generations in danger and poison our air and water. In an exit poll conducted during the South Carolina Republican primary just a few days ago, more than 90 percent of those polled supported energy efficiency measures and renewables, and a majority were against building new coal plants in the state unless they are able to prevent pollution.

The fact that the coal industry is spending millions of dollars to convince the country that they’re not putting our future at risk is testament to the hard work many national, regional, and local organizations have put into the coal battle. Though there are roughly 100 coal-fired power plants slated to be built in this country, let’s not forget the 59 that have been scrapped because of public pressure. The industry is running scared, because they know that no matter which candidate wins the general election, their dollars will not be welcome in the White House. Frosty and dozens of green hard hats will battle ABEC on the ground, but let’s all make sure our candidates and the public know the truth: that there’s no such thing as “clean coal.”