In 1955 the Tennessee Valley Authority built what was at the time the world’s largest coal plant, near Kingston, Tennessee. More than fifty years later, the Kingston Fossil Plant produces enough electricity to power 670,000 homes and emits nearly 11 million tons of carbon dioxide–the greenhouse gas most responsible for global warming–each year. On December 22 a dike broke at the plant, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic black sludge downhill into the ground, water and homes of eastern Tennessee. The infected area was some forty times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and became known as the “nightmare before Christmas.”

The spill underscored the negative images the word “coal” often conjures up–battered communities in Appalachia, underground explosions, exploited miners, brutal strikes and black lung. Yet the American coal industry, which pumps 2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year and contributes more than one-third of the nation’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, is nothing if not resilient. Despite rising public concern about global warming and a growing awareness that coal is an irrevocably dirty business, the industry is spending millions of dollars on a slick messaging campaign stressing its “commitment to clean.”

Critics argue that “clean coal” means anything the industry wants it to, pointing out that of the country’s 616 coal plants, none are carbon-free or close to it. The viability of an environmentally sustainable future for coal is questionable, and so is the industry’s commitment to cleaning itself up. The Center for American Progress recently released a report showing that the country’s biggest coal companies have spent only a fraction of their multibillion-dollar profits developing technologies to curb carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. “The ads and other public clean coal activities are merely designed to delay global warming solutions without suffering a public relations black eye,” the CAP report stated.

“Clean coal is like a healthy cigarette,” Al Gore likes to say. “It does not exist.” Gore is spearheading the Reality Campaign, a countereffort with environmental groups like the Sierra Club featuring an ad by the Coen brothers that’s known as “No Country for Coal Men.” Ted Venners, founder of Evergreen Energy–a company in Colorado that reduces CO2 emissions from coal by 8 percent compared with traditional coal–shares Gore’s skepticism. “It is an oxymoron,” Venners says. “Even after the process of cleaning coal, it’s not clean.”

In the coming months, as Congress and the Obama administration dole out billions in stimulus dollars to kick-start a green economy and draft sweeping legislation to curb climate change, the future of coal will be at the heart of the debate over energy policy. The ultimate impact of the clean coal lobby will be measured by its influence on Capitol Hill and the corresponding outcome of pending legislation. For that reason, this controversial campaign raises a number of questions that will help shape our energy future for years to come. How serious is the industry about developing clean coal, and can it happen? Does the latest message indicate a more environmentally friendly policy, or just a crafty makeover? Can the same people who told us that global warming didn’t exist–or that it was a good thing–suddenly be trusted to help solve the climate crisis?

The driving force behind coal’s rebranding effort is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a 
$40 million campaign funded by all the major components of the modern coal industry–mining companies, power plants, railroads, rural electric co-ops. ACCCE’s ad blitz features sleek piano music and high-tech images of the globe; a panoply of workers voicing their belief in new technology; and, of course, President Obama, speaking at a campaign stop in coal-rich southwestern Virginia. “This is America,” Obama tells the crowd. “We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.” The ad closes with Obama supporters chanting a familiar refrain: “Yes we can!” To promote its message, ACCCE hired a top ad firm out of Vegas and a well-connected Washington PR outfit, spending three times as much last year as the health insurance industry did on the “Harry and Louise” ads in 1993-94.

ACCCE’s office in downtown Washington is empty, but not for long. The group just hired Paul Bailey, a former operative for the oil and electric power industries, as its top lobbyist and will soon fill three more upper-level positions, bolstering a fleet of fixers who spent more money than anyone else–nearly $10 million last year–lobbying on climate change-related legislation, according to the Center for Public Integrity. For now, most of ACCCE’s staff work elsewhere, in regional offices and from a nondescript office park in Alexandria, Virginia, at 333 John Carlyle Street. That location is infamous, having housed two radical right-wing groups–the Western Fuels Association and the Greening Earth Society–that formed the backbone of the effort to disprove the science of global warming. Out of the widely discredited denialist movement, ACCCE grew.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, compares the strategy of these early groups to that of the tobacco industry, which for decades argued that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer. “Doubt is our product,” Brown & Williamson stated in an internal memo in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” In 1992 a scientific consensus was emerging around the seriousness of global warming, and President George H.W. Bush attended an international climate change conference in Brazil that laid the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol. Around that time the Western Fuels Association–a consortium of coal producers–introduced an ad campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact),” Oreskes details in a forthcoming paper. Its print and radio ads posed questions like “If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder?” and “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?” On Earth Day 1998, Western Fuels launched a front group called the Greening Earth Society to promote “positive environmental thinking,” namely, the idea that increased CO2 emissions would benefit humanity. The group called CO2 “an amazingly effective aerial fertilizer” and posited that global warming would boost agricultural productivity and create a healthier planet. Greening Earth’s founder, Fred Palmer, presented a ready-made villain for the environmental movement. “Every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO2 into the air, you’re doing the work of the Lord,” Palmer said.

Greening Earth and Western Fuels worked in partnership with the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), an industry group co-founded by railroad exec (and future Bush II treasury secretary) John Snow and Steve Miller, a top aide to former Kentucky Governor Brereton Jones. In the mid-’90s CEED lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol, which it called “wrong in its science, wrong in its approach, wrong to surrender, wrong for America.” The group employed the research of Frederick Seitz–a fixture in the tobacco industry–to argue that CO2 was “NOT A Pollutant” but rather “Earth’s Basic Building Block.” “We caution policymakers to fully examine the evidence available regarding climate change and global climate modeling,” Miller said at the time. “Indeed, many scientists maintain that [greenhouse gas] emissions from electric power plants are not contributing significantly to overall warming trends.”

CEED and its ilk found a receptive message on Capitol Hill, where the Senate unanimously opposed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, making the United States the world’s only industrialized nation to ignore the threat of climate change. Yet a message of denial and confusion got the industry only so far, so the main backers of CEED, including Western Fuels and major coal producers like Peabody and Southern Company, formed Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to promote clean coal.

Going forward, CEED and ABEC spent less time disputing the science of global warming and instead featured coal as the lifeblood of the American economy, maintaining that any regulation to reduce emissions would be disastrous. The industry had a willing booster in George W. Bush, who quickly broke his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant and appointed coal lobbyists to top positions in his administration, granting the industry a long and now familiar wish list of favors, including gutting the Clean Air Act and easing standards for mountaintop mining.

But increasing public awareness of global warming and the Democrats’ takeover of Congress in 2006 foreshadowed challenges for the industry. A September 2007 poll commissioned by ABEC showed that 51 percent of “opinion elites”–a sample of upper-income, well-educated, business-oriented Americans–believed that coal was not a fuel for America’s future. In 2007 fifty-nine new coal plants were rejected or put on hold; only a dozen have been built since 1990. “We’re walking around with a bull’s-eye on our forehead,” Jim Rogers of Duke Energy told journalist Jeff Goodell.

CEED and ABEC correctly recognized that the industry had to be for something, rather than against everything. In 2007 ABEC quadrupled its ad budget to combat what it called “outdated perceptions about coal,” and in early 2008 CEED and ABEC morphed into ACCCE, delivering the fine-tuned message that global warming is real and that clean coal can help solve it. The group used the research from its 2007 poll as the basis for its huge marketing campaign, designed a logo of an orange power cord plugged into a rock of coal and jumped into the presidential campaign.

ACCCE understood that the road to the White House frequently travels through coal country, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado. Even Iowa, a place synonymous with corn, gets four-fifths of its energy from coal. So the group showed up early and often, recruiting a “grassroots army” of staffers in bright blue T-shirts to trail the candidates, passing out promotional materials at every stop, co-sponsoring presidential debates and running ads in key swing states. The group spent $2 million at the Democratic convention alone. At a moment of soaring gas prices and deep economic insecurity, ACCCE conveyed a series of easily digestible talking points: 50 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal; coal is 77 percent cleaner (when you don’t include CO2 emissions) now compared with 1970; America is the Saudi Arabia of coal; coal is cheap, plentiful and clean.

One moment during the campaign, in particular, illustrated the enduring power of the coal industry and the emerging imprint of clean coal. At a mid-September stop in Maumee, Ohio, Joe Biden told a questioner on a rope line, “We’re not supporting ‘clean coal’…. No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they’re going to build them, over there [in China] and make ’em clean, because they’re killing you.” John McCain seized on the comment, launching the Coalition to Protect Coal Jobs, and supporters at a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio chanted, “Mine, baby, mine!” CEED co-founder Steve Miller, who had become president of ACCCE, urged Biden to “clarify” his remarks. The Obama campaign quickly responded with a Clean Coal Jobs Task Force of coal-state Democrats. “I support clean coal technology,” Obama said in the final presidential debate. “Doesn’t make me popular with environmentalists.”

On election day ACCCE released a poll showing that 69 percent of “opinion leaders” supported coal as a fuel for America’s future, a huge turnaround from the previous September, and Obama prevailed in coal-rich states such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. ACCCE even got Biden to sign a “clean coal” hat.

“There absolutely has been a change in message,” ACCCE chief spokesman Joe Lucas admits. “It’s a pro-technology message.” Lucas, an amiable Southerner who likes to mix it up with his opponents in the environmental movement, grew up in coal-rich Kentucky. He served as the spokesman for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and joined the Energy Department during the Clinton Administration, where he says he was affectionately known as Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary’s “coal hack.” He went to work for the coal industry in 1998 and has been with it ever since. Lucas is a Democrat, but his deputy, Nick Meads, ran the Republicans’ 2008 campaign in Virginia.

I met Lucas in DC on March 3, the day after 2,500 environmental advocates descended on Capitol Hill for what was billed as the country’s “largest protest against global warming.” The coal industry–and a coal-fired power plant that operates just blocks from the Capitol–were the targets. I asked Lucas about the discrepancy in message between his current group and its past associates, like the Greening Earth Society. “We never said that there was going to be a beneficial global warming phenomenon,” he told me. “Some groups did. We’re not scientists. And we never played scientists. We’ve only repeated what the scientific community has said writ large.”

When asked by CNN recently to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether burning coal contributes to global warming, Lucas responded, “I don’t know. I am not a scientist.” He gave a more Rumsfeldian answer when I posed a similar question. “Here’s what is the absolute truth about the science of climate change,” Lucas said. “There are certain things which we are certain about. There are other things that we are less certain about. And there are many things about which we are uncertain.” But, he added, “given where we’re going with technology, we don’t see that any remaining uncertainties should be an impediment for action.”

Although the message on coal has changed, many of the actors–and their actions–remain the same. For instance, Ned Leonard, a longtime Western Fuels operative, became a vice president at CEED and is now the go-to guy on clean coal technology at ACCCE. One of the group’s funders, the massive Georgia-based utility Southern Company, spent the better part of $14 million successfully lobbying against Congressional legislation that would have required the United States to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And a few weeks after the group was formed, ACCCE lobbied against a bill introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner that would have mandated a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Lieberman-Warner bill proposed hundreds of billions in subsidies to the coal industry, but nevertheless ACCCE ran print and radio ads against it, calling it a “job killer” and arguing that any regulation of CO2 should be left to the states–even though the group also opposed state-based regulation. Such shell games have become a hallmark of the industry.

The EPA is preparing to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and Congress will likely draft cap-and-trade legislation this year. As the debate heats up, major business outfits like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are sure to fight back aggressively, as are more traditional coal companies like Peabody and Southern. Lucas says ACCCE plans to spend “at least as much” on lobbying as it did last year, but he promises a less confrontational approach. “We shouldn’t focus on whether carbon dioxide will be regulated (it will), or if ACCCE could possibly support regulation (we do),” he wrote on his blog. “The conversation now should be about how we’re going to reduce CO2 emissions.” Though it opposed Lieberman-Warner, Lucas says, ACCCE supports “a timely adoption of a mandatory federal program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He points to a bill drafted last year by Representatives John Dingell of Detroit and Rick Boucher of southwestern Virginia as something ACCCE could support.

The Dingell-Boucher bill was widely criticized by environmentalists for containing too many loopholes for industry, rendering the pollution targets essentially meaningless. In the new Congress, enviros scored a major victory when California’s Henry Waxman replaced Dingell as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ed Markey of Massachusetts supplanted Boucher as chair of the subcommittee on energy and environment. Waxman and Markey are drafting global warming legislation they hope will clear the committee by Memorial Day. Still, the politics of the issue are dicey. “There won’t be enough votes to pass the bill if it forces economic disruption,” Boucher told me. “That means not forcing electric utilities to abandon the use of coal.”

The prospects for passing a cap-and-trade bill are significantly tougher in the Senate. Ten coal-state Democrats announced last year that they would oppose Lieberman-Warner unless it was substantially modified, a faction that now comprises as many as twenty-two Democrats, Lucas says. The New York Times dubbed it a “brown state-green state clash.” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a leader of that coalition, says, “I’m almost certain there’ll be climate change legislation [this year], and I’m almost certain I’ll vote for it. But the pain needs to be shared equally.” As of now, Brown says, he’s concerned that “the cost of cap-and-trade is borne overwhelmingly by coal states.”

The coal industry hopes to exploit such economic anxiety by pushing for a watered-down version of an already watered-down bill. (The latest ACCCE ad highlights the affordability of coal and its ability to sustain jobs that will help “get our economy back on its feet.”) “The analogy I like to use is that it’s like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean,” Lucas says. “If you’re going 100 knots due north and you’re on a big boat and you try and immediately go 100 knots due south, you’re going to wreck that boat.” He adds, “It’s very easy but not too practical to sit there and say, ‘Coal will go away,’ when we all know that coal is not going to go away. It’s going to grow here in America, and even if it were to go away here in America, it’s going to grow exponentially in other parts of the world.”

To capitalize on the prevalence of coal in the United States while heeding the dangers of global warming, the industry is pushing what is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, a complicated process by which CO2 emissions are stored deep underground rather than pumped into the air. Theoretically, CCS would reduce emissions by 90 percent but also decrease efficiency and increase cost compared with traditional coal production. [For much more on CCS, see Jeff Goodell’s “The Dirty Rock,” May 7, 2007.] The feasibility of instituting CCS on a large scale, at a price worth doing, is the subject of intense debate inside the coal industry and the environmental movement. Greenpeace calls the technology a “false hope,” while the Natural Resources Defense Council cautions that CCS must be quickly developed in order to export it to developing countries like China, which has been rapidly building new coal plants with few, if any, pollution controls.

It’s not at all clear that CCS will catch on anytime soon in America. In 2003 the Bush administration, with much fanfare, announced the building of the country’s first zero-emissions power plant, in downstate Illinois. FutureGen was supposed to be the centerpiece of the administration’s strategy for clean coal and a model public-private partnership. Unfortunately, costs skyrocketed, the government footed most of the bill and after five years of planning, the Energy Department killed the project in January 2008. “In retrospect, FutureGen appears to have been nothing more than a public relations ploy for Bush Administration officials to make it appear to the public and the world that the United States was doing something to address global warming,” an exhaustive House Science Committee report recently stated. The abandonment of the project, DOE staffers concluded, set back the development of CCS by at least a decade, deferring widespread deployment until 2040.

The failure of FutureGen reinforced the skepticism of even some in the industry toward the technology. “To do this on a big scale, for every coal-fired power plant, is going to be very, very difficult,” says Ted Venners of Evergreen Energy. Venners has been hearing about the promise of a pollution-free future for coal since he joined the National Coal Council in 1984. “I’m 61,” he says, “and I will not see zero-emission coal plants in my lifetime.” A friend of his in the coal business recently likened CCS to “a lot of foreplay and no satisfaction.”

In the meantime, environmental groups are urging Obama to declare a moratorium on all new coal plants until CCS is ready to go, whenever that may be. “We should not delude ourselves about the likelihood that that’s going to occur in the near term or even the midterm,” Gore told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. Yet despite doubts about its future, CCS remains a favored technology on Capitol Hill, where many members represent coal-rich states and districts. “There’s a consensus that we need to spend the money in order to prove or disprove this,” says a senior staffer on the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. “I realize that notion can sound disturbing to some people.”

The stimulus bill includes $3.4 billion for CCS research, some of which may go to revive FutureGen. (The legislation also includes $60 billion for renewable energy–a sea change in terms of funding–and the final version stripped $50 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear and coal industries from the bill.) An energy bill introduced last year by Representative Markey–chair of the select committee–included $5 billion a year for CCS research, with the provision that it expire in 2020, giving the industry more than a decade to prove that it can make the technology work.

But is it worth throwing so much money at an experiment that may very well fail? There are other, cleaner options: groups as disparate as Google and Greenpeace have drawn up detailed blueprints to wean America almost totally off fossil fuels in the coming decades. If Congress and the Obama administration are serious about treating global warming as a pressing economic and ecological threat, coal will struggle to remain relevant. If it hopes to do so, the industry must follow its ads with tangible actions. Nothing less than its survival is at stake.

Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Special thanks to DeSmogBlog for additional research support.