I received a creepy email yesterday from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. It’s the Astroturf group funded by the coal industry that landed in hot water earlier this year for sending Congresspeople phony letters opposing the Climate Bill. Well, this group is the chief PR maven supporting “clean coal,” as well.
“Clean coal” is an experimental technology that promises to cut coal’s climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero (although the Coalition does what it can to expand the concept to include any coal plant that happens to be in compliance with the US Clean Air Act. Decades after passage of that law, you might think that would be all US power plants, in which case you would be wrong! But that’s fodder for another post.)
Anyway, most people refer to the new technology, also known as Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, when they utter the words “clean coal.” CCS is already chugging away at a few small, experimental power plants but don’t expect it to save the planet anytime soon. Experts say it would take decades and trillions of dollars to convert the country’s coal-burning power industry, which provides about half of the country’s electricity today. That would be decades longer than we have to reduce carbon emissions. This reality hasn’t daunted the Obama Administration, which revived funding to a “clean coal” demonstration project in Illinois. The previous administration had pulled the plug on the same undertaking a few years ago, after cost overruns and questions about its commercial viability.
Also unfazed by clean coal’s apparent limitations is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which continues to cheer boisterously, despite the group’s own embarrassing PR setbacks this year. Now, it has offended again; this time pissing off a group called Operation Free for apparently trying to piggyback on the Veterans Day buzz surrounding the organization, which represents men and women in the US armed forces who believe addressing climate change is central to the country’s national security.
“Yesterday, we sent an email to you which some folks felt implied that the group Operation Free supports clean coal technology, an issue which they have not taken a position on. That was not our intention,” wrote Joe Lucas, Senior Vice President – Communications for America’s Power, a web portal that’s part of the Coalition’s online empire. The apologetic missive continued:
“This event did give me a chance to talk to the folks at Operation Free. I owed them the call because it should be common courtesy to check with an organization before you mention them in an e-mail – and we didn’t do that. I also committed to making an attempt to remove any confusion from the previous e-mail, and I hope this does that. But moreover, it gave us an opportunity to understand more clearly that we share the common goal of promoting greater energy independence,” Lucas wrote, wrapping up by expressing “profound respect, on this Veterans Day,” for the country’s soldiers.
Despite all that sucking up, Coalition efforts to clean up coal’s image – but not its smokestacks – appear to be failing. What do you think?
In Appalachia – not too far a drive from the District – mining companies are blasting off the tops of mountains to dig out the coal underneath. The companies call it mountaintop mining but it’s mountaintop removal to opponents, who have distributed Internet petitions, sitting in treetops, chaining themselves to mining equipment, and getting arrested in various other acts of civil disobedience.
The mining companies have supporters too. Their most vocal (and sometimes violent) backers are mine workers and their families. It’s not hard to see their point of view. For them, it’s a living and a lot safer than descending into an underground mine to extract the stuff the old-fashioned way, which still goes on, incidentally, in Appalachia and beyond.
In the places being blasted, the coal seams were too skimpy to justify tunneling underground and only became economically viable a few decades ago with the advent of enormous earth moving technology. While this new type of mining has revived the coal industry, it hasn’t done much for employment. It doesn’t require nearly as many miners and has done little to restore the steady decline of this storied profession.
Today, the country’s wind farm industry employs more people than coal mines, a fact that seems to suggest that critics may be right when they say coal is quickly becoming passé. There are even calls for a wind farm at Coal River Mountain, W.V., where activists are trying to stop Massey Energy’s plans to level parts of the mountain.
A reasonable question, though, is which will go first – mountaintop removal or Appalachia’s iconic mountain vistas – and its rural communities? No matter what you call it, this form of strip mining permanently changes the landscape. And, it’s already erased hundreds of mountaintops. The rubble that’s left after the blasting is trucked into valleys and dumped, burying lakes and streams, according to the EPA.
That’s just one of the downsides. There is avalanche of information about the negative aspects of mountaintop removal. Here’s a link to an USA Today editorial, here’s a blog written by a West Virginia reporter who has followed the debate for years, and here’s the Internet outpost of the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, which held a June hearing on the impacts of mountaintop removal.
There is also a new documentary, Coal Country, telling the activist’s side of the story.
The film has just been released and comes as the blasting reaches a critical juncture at Coal River Mountain. The emails alerts started last week, navigating supporters networks that snake around the country. Petitions drives, letter and email writing campaigns are now in full tilt to try to get President Obama to call a halt to the blasting. So far, however, the Obama administration has sent mixed signals on mountaintop removal.