Behind the Clean Coal Technology Ads

May 16, 2009

Media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are reporting that the House Energy and Commerce Committee is on its way to approving an Energy and Climate bill that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The bill would also grant some local utility companies valuable carbon-emissions permits under a cap-and-trade plan to cushion the higher costs of producing electricity in a way that lowers its CO2 emissions.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly half of the electricity produced in the United States is generated by coal-fired power plants, which are the single biggest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions in the country. As regulation gets under way, energy companies running coal plants are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to diminish the amount of CO2 emissions produced from coal-burning without passing on any new costs onto consumers.

Here’s where the clean coal debate comes in. Coal companies say that clean coal technology – the ability to capture carbon emissions before they escape into the atmosphere and trap heat (contributing to global warming) – is within reach. The companies say they have the support of President Obama, who supported clean coal funding as a senator and throughout his presidential campaign. Environmental groups, with the support of former Vice President Al Gore, argue that there is no such thing as clean coal – that it’s a dirty fossil fuel – and say that policy makers need to focus their attention on using renewable energy sources to produce electricity. Though Gore supports clean coal research, he testified in a Senate hearing that the likelihood of effective clean coal energy happening in the near-future was doubtful. The debate has already made its way onto our television screens via dueling ads, and once the House passes its Climate bill, we’re sure to see many more.

The Reality Coalition, an organization spearheaded by Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, and backed by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Defense Group (see the full list here), produced an ad mocking the effectiveness of clean coal technology.

The spot was directed by the Coen brothers, known for creating films such as “Fargo,” “The Big Lewbowski” and “No Country for Old Men.” According to The New York Times, the ad itself was designed by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the ad agency behind the “Truth” anti-tobacco campaign. The agency also lists Burger King, Nike and Volkswagen among its past clients.

The ad’s success relies on either one of two things: convincing energy companies to quickly develop effective clean coal technology and prove environment groups wrong, or convincing Americans that improving CO2 emissions from coal is not feasible.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), backed by the major players in the coal industry, including General Electric Capital Corporation and Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company with 2008 revenues of $6.6 billion (see the full list here), has aired its own ads supporting clean coal technology.

The ads have been airing through ACCCE’s “America’s Power” campaign, created by the ad agencies, R&R Partners (they were behind the popular slogan, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”), White + Partners and Virilion. According to it’s website, R&R Partner’s motto is “We will help you win in ways you haven’t yet imagined,” and a principal at the agency is Bob Henrie, who was once the chief of staff of the House Mines and Mining Subcommittee, which involved him working “to protect vital mining legislation.” In March 2008, Henrie told The Salt Lake Tribune, “It’s our job to keep coal at the table. It’s not there now.

At this point, it’s unclear if the ads through the “America’s Power” campaign are only meant to improve the coal industry’s image, or if the industry is actually putting in a respectable effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Let’s hope they’re looking for more than simply keeping coal at the table.

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