"Clean Coal Carolers" get 'Bah Humbug!'

The site, launched earlier this week by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), allows visitors to dress up a choir of blinking, grinning lumps of anthracite in festive scarves and hats and then pick the carol for them to sing.

But good 'ol Frosty is a "coal man" and instead of "O Christmas Tree," the group sings "Technology, technology, you make the coal burn cleanly." "Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells" and "Adeste Fidelis" are also part of the carolers' altered repertoire. Changing "Silent Night" to "Clean Coal Night" was too much for holiday purists and the group removed it from the menu of songs Thursday after a storm of critical remarks from bloggers and environmentalists.

(Note: The section of the site featuring the carolers appears to have been taken down by Friday afternoon.)

Cynicism or Strategy?

The industry's latest public relations campaign did not seem to inspire good will toward anyone.

The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement that said, "When you can't refute the sobering facts about the product you're pedaling, just dress it up, have it sing Christmas carols and sit back and wait for the public to come rushing to your side. Ah, if only fun outerwear and corny songs could erase coal's dirty statistics."

The statement included the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming and sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid raid.

Rob Perks, the campaign director for environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, also took the campaign to task in a blog post titled "Can Industry Get Any More Cynical Than Coal Carolers?"

'Worse Than Joe Camel'

"This is the most cynical ploy that I've ever seen from the industry. It's worse than Joe Camel selling cigarettes," Perks told ABCNews.com.

Along with several other environmental groups, Perks' organization last week launched The Reality Coalition, a grass-roots public awareness effort to dispel the myth of clean coal.

The coalition's primary message is that coal cannot be considered clean until its carbon dioxide emissions, which are contributing to global warming, are captured and stored. That process mitigates global warming by capturing and storing underground carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants.

Despite test projects in the United States, no coal plant in the country has fully integrated the process. The first power plant in the world to do so opened in Germany this fall.

"I think people have to realize that there is no such thing as clean coal," Perks said. "You might as well believe in unicorns if you believe in clean coal."

But coal industry representatives argue their strategy was intended to raise public awareness about the benefits of coal-generated technology in a different and more light-hearted way.

"This is obviously a very serious subject," said Joe Lucas, vice president of ACCCE. "There has been a lot of engagement this year in the policy dialogue with the presidential campaign. This was an opportunity to sit back and not be so serious for once."

He said the campaign was "a little tongue in cheek," but was intended to drive home the message that coal is affordable as an energy option, abundant in resources and generates jobs.

"Let's face it, coal has not been the gift of choice for Christmases past," said Lucas. But, as energy costs go up, "this is the year that people are probably happy to get coal in their stocking."

He wasn't surprised that environmental groups had expressed dismay at the campaign, but said the groups were "moving the goal post of what is clean coal technology."

So… What Is Clean Coal Technology?

Lucas said the industry disagrees with the environmentalists' definition of clean coal technology as only that which involves the capture and storage (or sequestration) of the global warming pollutant carbon dioxide. He argued that clean coal "is so much bigger than that."

Up until now, he said, the focus has been on reducing the emissions of sulphur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants. And, he emphasized, the industry has been successful in that, citing emissions reductions that have measurably improved public health.

The next challenge is to bring to market carbon capture and storage, he said. In 2009, the industry will see the first commercial deployment of carbon capture technology at a plant in West Virginia, he said. A full-scale deployment is slated for a different plant in 2010, Lucas continued.

Describing clean coal technology as only carbon capture and storage, Lucas said, "is like describing medical technology as only MRI machines."

Many industry watchers, however, warn that the coal coalition's term "clean coal" is a term of art.

"It's essentially meaningless and it's extremely misleading," said Brad Johnson, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded by John Podesta, a former official in the Clinton administration and currently an adviser to President-elect Obama's transition team.

While it's true that, decades ago, the clean coal targets were indeed sulphur dioxide and similar pollutants highlighted in the Clean Air acts, the focus has shifted to carbon dioxide and its effects on the climate.

"Now we're no longer talking about particulate matter so much, we're not talking about acid rain so much. What we're worried about now is climate change and carbon dioxide, which is much harder to pull out of the smoke coming out of the smokestack," said John Anderson, a visiting scholar at nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future. "The current issue is CO2."

As the country considers an energy mix that will mitigate climate change, Johnson said a distinction needs to be drawn between policy discussions about how we use coal and propaganda campaigns.

Obama Uses the Term Clean Coal

The coal industry's campaign may call its resource affordable, abundant and job-generating. But, Johnson said, it's affordable only if you ignore the public health, environmental and community costs associated with it. It's abundant, only if you accept outdated statistics, he argues. And, while we're in a situation in which every job matters, he said, it's no more job-creating than other renewable resources. With the same kind of investment, he said, other energy sources can create more jobs.

Johnson acknowledged that the coal industry's campaigns had been successful in getting influential people to integrate the words "clean coal" into their conversations.

Obama, for example, used the phrase on the campaign trail and still features it on his energy policy Web site. But energy experts say it's not entirely clear what his use of the term means for energy policy decisions under his administration.

Some say Obama's appointment of people like renewable energy advocate Steven Chu to his Cabinet indicates that he is interested in advancing low-carbon solutions. But, they also concede that his position on the issue has been vague.

His leadership will be necessary to develop and implement clean coal technology that substantially reduces global warming. But, given an economy that continues to slide, this path may be more difficult to take.

"The problem is that clean coal means more expensive energy and this is really going to be the choice for the next administration. If you want cleaner energy, it's going to mean more pennies per kilowatt hour depending on how far you go," Anderson said. "So the choice for Obama really isn't just if you want to be clean or not, it's how clean at what price."

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