When I think of coal used for energy, I think of China, filthy air, dire situations, under-developed nations, the iron-grip of Communism. Coal is the fuel of Tolstoy and World War I and the Eastern Block, a phantom from the early 20th century, a black spot on our environmental history. Coal is up there with nuclear energy and reliance on oil; something shameful that we’re trying to give up.
So imagine my surprise and horror at seeing an advertisement on CNN.com for “clean coal.” I did a double-take, paused to read the ad, and even clicked through to America’s Power. I couldn’t believe that I was really seeing a pro-coal ad in the time of bona fide climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, and an increasing awareness of carbon emissions. It turns out that in other states coal is still the largest source of energy. Who knew?
But what I really couldn’t believe was how the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity had created such a nicely designed, seemingly informative and truthful site about clean coal. It’s slick, professional, employs high-quality photography, interactive elements, and delicately framed arguments that have the air of sincerity and the ring of truth.
And that’s when my disingenuity senses started tingling. I recognized these tactics. Create an air of legitimacy, add lifestyle images, use a personable tone, appeal to your target audience. It’s Marketing 101, the same stuff that creates your Coke ads, MTV videos, and Wal-Mart commercials. But rather than sell us products, a band, or a store, they’re trying to sell a back-handed idea: coal is clean, coal is cheap, coal is plentiful. We deserve coal!
I had to get The Facts, so I checked out the interactive map to see how Oregon’s coal use stacked up to other states. Oregon has “below average coal use” at only 6%. We’re not the best coal market, that’s for sure, and neither is most of the West Coast. The map notes that Idaho’s “reliance on hydropower makes state unusual.” Now think about that. “Unusual” is a pretty loaded term: not only is Idaho different, but its reliance on hydropower is a little weird and not within norms — most states don’t even have a hydropower option. Compare that with Ohio; “The Buckeye State gets nearly all its energy from coal.” This is true of the Prairie State, the Bluegrass State, the Hawkeye State, the Cornhusker State, and nearly every other state in the Union east of the Rockies. Sensing a trend here? Normal states, addressed by their nicknames, use coal with pride. Normal states support coal miners. Normal states have cheaper energy. Real Americans use coal.
Cheap energy and use of coal, synonymous terms. Don’t Americans deserve a cheap and plentiful energy source? According to the Factoids, “America has more than 200 years of available coal reserves.” Sounds like a lot, right? And if coal is now “70% cleaner” than before, that’s pretty good, right? That means we can probably use even more of it and not have to worry, right? Plus, our energy bills would be lower, and we’re all in favor of lower bills. What’s more, there are jobs in coal, and people need jobs. Sounds pretty win-win-win! Finally, middle America has a friend in the energy industry.
This is just another case of designers that should be ashamed of what they’ve created. Rather than encourage people to use less energy and live more sustainably, they’re sending a message of unlimited consumption and cheaper fuel. What’s more, they’re greenwashing an industry by claiming that coal is “green” now. Now, whether or not you believe that clean coal is for real, the message that we have the right to consume energy at current rates is clearly at odds with current scientific and environmental realities. The coal lobby should be calling for replacement of old coal plants with newer ones and educating people about ways to use less energy in general. Instead, they’re the tobacco lobby of the 21st century, selling the idea that there’s no harm in their product.
Yet again, the rhetoric of disingenuity is aimed at those who can least afford it: middle and low income families. By acting like a pal, claiming to save them a buck or give them a job, and advocating for the status quo, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is really lobbying for an energy and economic crisis for the next generation by trying to let the current generation off the hook. I can only hope that people are wise enough to take notice and reject this blatant pandering.