The “coal is filthy” ad-scam

Posted: May 12, 2007 12:01 AM
The “coal is filthy” ad-scam

Even in this “era of corporate social responsibility,” brazen violations of honesty, transparency and accountability standards occur regularly. Exhibit 1: the recent “Coal is filthy” ad campaign.

Prominent advertisements in major US papers featured smudge-faced California models, whose misleading claims about emissions from coal-fired electrical generating plants were reinforced by a website. The campaign urged citizens to tell government officials, “No more filthy coal plants.”

The Coalition, it turns out, wasn’t another gaggle of environmental pressure groups, like those listed on the website. It was a cabal of natural gas companies, led by Chesapeake Energy of Oklahoma. Their goal wasn’t helping Americans get “clean skies” and “live longer,” as their smear campaign proclaimed. It was fattening corporate wallets.

The cabal hoped new laws would reduce the likelihood of more coal plants being constructed, make it harder to retrofit older plants to meet tougher air quality standards, and force massive switching to natural gas. As demand rose and supplies tightened, gas prices would surge. Consumers, especially poor families, would suffer, but Coalition partners would take wheelbarrows of cash to the bank.

Every $1 increase in gas prices forces US consumers to pay an additional $22 billion a year for heating, air-conditioning, food, consumer goods and services – many of which use natural gas for energy or raw materials, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) points out. Indeed, soaring natural gas prices forced consumers to pay $140 billion more in 2006 for gas and electricity than they did in 2000. That hit poor families especially hard, and our manufacturing sector lost 3 million jobs.

Chesapeake has some 9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven gas reserves, which it wants to sell at the highest possible price. How much the other partners have is impossible to say, because the company won’t reveal the names of its co-conspirators.

But America doesn’t have enough gas to meet demands that have exceeded domestic production since 1985, forcing us to import the difference, largely from less than friendly countries and in competition with other nations. Following the disingenuous ads’ prescription – substituting gas for coal-fired electricity – would send tsunamis through our economy.

America certainly could produce more gas. Geologists say the US Outer Continental Shelf could contain 420 Tcf – enough to meet current demand for 15 years. But over 85% of these areas are off limits to drilling; the situation is similar with onshore public lands; and congressional demagogues want to keep it that way.

Electricity provides 40% of all the energy we use, and the EIA and other analysts say the United States will need 100,000 megawatts of new electricity by 2020. Colorado alone will need another 5,000 Mw; Texas, over 25,000. Conservation and efficiency efforts could help pare that back. But growth in population and technologies that use electricity mean we will need every available source of energy: gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, biofuel, waste-to-energy – and coal.

Coal generates 50% of all the electricity we consume, and we have no viable alternatives in the near term. Burning coal does generate pollution, but nothing akin to the frightening visions conjured up by the emotional language and deceptive statistics used by environmentalists and this campaign.

Between 1970 and 2004, the US population grew 40% … its Gross Domestic Product 187% … miles traveled 171% … electricity consumption 115% … and coal burning 80 percent. And yet, during this period, our aggregate air pollution was cut in half, thanks to steady advances in efficiency and pollution control. Lead and certain other pollutants were reduced by 90% or more.

Since 1998, annual power plant SO2 emissions have declined 28% … NOx 43 percent, air pollution expert Joel Schwartz points out. New rules require large additional reductions during the next decade that will eliminate most remaining power plant emissions.

The ads say coal-fired power plants are responsible for some scary-sounding portion of total US air pollution. But they conveniently fail to mention that:

total air pollution is now so low that it poses no significant health risks, even for children;

asthma prevalence has been rising even as all types of air pollution have been falling, so air pollution can't be a factor in asthma;

even eliminating all human-caused ozone would reduce respiratory hospital visits by at most a few tenths of one percent; and

coal-generated electricity costs much less per kilowatt hour than alternatives – leaving families with more money to spend on nutrition and healthcare.

As to carbon dioxide, in 1900 the world was able to support 56 billion human life years: 1.6 billion people times a 35-year average life span, says climatologist John Christy. A century later, it supported 429 billion human life years: 6.5 billion people times a 66-year average life span – and they are living far better than anyone in history. How is this possible?

Energy – primarily fossil fuel energy. And in exchange for this incredible progress – if you believe fossil fuels cause or contribute to global warming – we have had a net increase in average global temperature, over the past 100 years, of about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.7 degrees Celsius). That’s an amazing bargain.

Under scrutiny, even the ads’ mercury Eco-Monster begins to look more like Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. Notes Schwartz: coal-fired power plants are now the primary source of US mercury emissions, not because their emissions are large, but because the really large sources of mercury (incineration of wastes and processing of ores containing mercury) have been eliminated.

The US has reduced total mercury emissions by over 80% since the early 1980s; America accounts for only 2% of global mercury emissions; two-thirds of mercury deposition in the States comes from other countries; 55% of global emissions come from volcanoes, oceans and forest fires; and Americans’ mercury exposure is a tiny fraction of levels necessary to cause brain damage. Nevertheless, new EPA rules require a further 70% reduction in mercury from power plants over the next decade. That’s tremendous bucks for the bang, but it will be done.

All in all, the Chesapeake & Collaborators ad campaign added greatly to the pervasive misinformation that drives so much US energy, health and environmental policy. It will doubtless be used to justify global warming legislation, such as the Sanders-Boxer bill (S. 309) that a new MIT study concludes would impose a tax-equivalent of $4,500 annually on every family of four by 2015 – and more thereafter.

As Congress conducts additional experiments on constituents – with mandates, cap-and-trade, tax incentives and other pork-laden “environmental” legislation – the problem will only get worse.