Deconstructing Coal Industry Misinformation Campaign

A good friend sent me a link to an article by Brian Dockstader titled The Coal Industry Wants You In The Dark that does a reasonably good job of deconstructing the messages in the following 30 second television ad, which was paid for by a coal industry lobby group called “American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity”.

The deconstruction logic, however, did not hold together very well as the author made it clear that he like natural gas a lot better than coal and that he thought that wind and solar energy were adequate replacements for reliable, controllable sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear.

..Yet they end with “Clean Coal. Now is the time.”

If you are thinking that it sounds like they are blatantly contradicting themselves, in the span of 30 seconds, it’s because they are. They want you to think they are already producing this unicorn called “clean coal”, when in reality they know it’s a fantasy and just spent 30 seconds trying to convince you to tell the EPA to let them keep it dirty. The reality is that the falling prices of clean energy sources like solar and wind, and the availability of cheap natural gas, has not only doomed coal, it has made more expensive “clean coal” unrealistic. The coal industry wants you to believe they are clean now, but it’ll never happen:

(Emphasis added.)

The author ignores one of the basic rules of economics – prices for commodities like energy are set by the balance between supply and demand. Natural gas might be cheap – in North America – today, because there is more domestic supply than demand. However, as more gas gets burned to supply demand that is currently being fed by coal, the price will inevitably rise. So will the price of energy from all other sources; does anyone believe that energy producers will happily sell their product at prices BELOW the prices that the market driven supply-demand balance produces?

By my way of thinking, Brian’s logic failed completely because he failed to mention nuclear energy as a viable replacement for coal plants that could not meet EPA emission rules. His op-ed was certainly long enough to have fit in a mention or two of the already proven ability of nuclear power plants to meet any air pollution regulation that the EPA could possibly derive – and to produce electricity without any greenhouse gases at the power plant.

Here is a copy of the comment that I left on Brian’s article:

We agree about coal – the industry has been getting a free ride by using our common atmosphere as its waste storage area for several centuries.

Like the author, I live in the path of the recent derecho and experienced a lengthy power outage (4 days) in the midst of a brutal heat wave. I’m kind of a wimp and lover of modern living, so my wife and I evacuated to a place where the A/C was pumping, the Internet worked, the refrigerators was full of cold, preserved food, and a big screen television was available.

In other words, I like reliable electricity very much. I read today about rolling blackouts in Alberta, Canada where there is a large amount of wind “capacity” that failed to produce any power at all during a heat wave caused by a high pressure zone. I am pretty sure that there would have been no wind turbines working within 500 miles of my Virginia home during the past week of 100 F days with no breeze to speak of.

Natural gas scares me; I know quite a bit about the San Bruno pipeline explosion, the Middletown CT power plant explosion, the methane (natural gas) explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine, and the Carlsbad, NM explosion in 2000 that destroyed 1/3 of the natural gas capacity feeding California and contributed to the energy crisis in early 2001 that led to Arnold being elected Governator.

For me, all of the above means that we really need to develop the emission free, reliable source that we have known about since 1955, when the USS Nautilus reported that it was underway on nuclear power.

The trouble is that the fossil fuel industry has spent the past 50 years producing pro fossil fuel ads that make them a lot of friends in the media. After all, the real customers in media are the advertisers; they are the people in the transaction who have the checkbooks. Us viewers are simply part of the product that the media companies are selling.

The natural gas branch of the oil and gas industry – that is really almost a single word oil&gas because companies like Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil extract just about 50% of their energy in the form of oil and 50% in the form of gas – has done a great job of co-opting the environmental movement through such tactics as direct contributions (look for Chesapeake Energy’s $26 million contribution to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign) and by placing natural gas advocates into key leadership roles – check the Wikipedia entry for Denise Bode, the head of the American Wind Energy Association.

If you like clean, reliable, safe energy – you should learn more about nuclear energy. In your searches, please remember just how much motive the fossil fuel industry – and its friends in transportation, finance, media and politics – have for teaching everyone to have fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear energy.

Moving away from the coal ad deconstruction, I’d like to talk a little more about the rolling blackouts in Alberta that were reported by the Vancouver Sun. The article blames the situation on unexpectedly high demand, low wind output and an almost simultaneous outage at three fossil fuel plants which was followed shortly with one more fossil fuel plant outage. There is speculation about whether or not there was any gaming of the competitive market system involved in the power plant outages. However, the following quote really caught my eye:

Energy Minister Ken Hughes said rolling backouts were instituted with no warning across much of the province Monday because of an unusually bad set of circumstances, including extreme power demand, unexpected shutdowns of several generating stations and calm weather that kept wind turbines still.

“That’s the nature of electricity services, that capacity comes on and goes off the system without much notice, so one will seldom get notice of a shortage of capacity,” he said.

“You can anticipate scheduled outages, you can anticipate high demand on a hot day, but what we couldn’t anticipate was there would be a combination of a number of facilities going down and the wind not blowing all at the same time.”

Who could have possibly predicted that the wind would be unavailable on the hottest (and coldest) days? End irony.

About Rod Adams

4 Responses to “Deconstructing Coal Industry Misinformation Campaign”

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  1. I noticed the ads this last weekend (a week ago). I watch a lot of TV and have become used to the red-eyed spokesperson (she does look stoned, BTW, I’m not making this up) tout natural gas. When I saw the coal ad, I sat up and took note.

    I’ve seen the oxymoronic “Clean Coal” ads for years, usually just a touting of “America’s energy source”. Fairly innocuous. But this new one had bite. It was an attack on current, yet unspecified “regulations” that somehow hinder the more massive use of dirty coal. It was above all a direct political advertisement attacking the few gains over dirty coal for the past 40 years!.

    The coal industry is feeling it’s inner Milton Friedman and attempting to piggey-back onto the Tea Party and general conservative “No Big Government” sentiment it believes can help them cut down the regulations that have prevented the grossest of pollutions from coal burning.


  2. Andrew Jaremko says:

    Rod – thanks for the post and the link to the Vancouver Sun article. I live in Calgary, Alberta and hadn’t been hit with a blackout, so I didn’t realize this was going on. I may be on a grid area that has a hospital in it and thus avoided getting blacked out.

    The article goes on to say

    (Opposition MLAs) demanded a full investigation into what went wrong, calling the simultaneous failure of four major generators “really suspicious.”

    Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin noted there has been reports in the past of power companies allegedly gaming the system by deliberately causing “unexpected” shutdowns. As the theory goes, the reduction of supply causes prices to spike, thereby allowing a company’s other generating plants to take in more profit.

    Last fall, TransAlta Corp. was hit with a recommended $370,000 fine after admitting it manipulated electricity prices by blocking cheaper hydroelectric imports from B.C. over a 31-hour period in November 2010. The scheme created an artificial shortage of power, causing consumers to pay an estimated $5.5 million extra in inflated costs.

    “Gaming the system” – I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But my “justice” antenna has put my back up and I want to punish the managers who “gamed the system”. Not jail – maybe by making them linemen in our Alberta winters. A “punishment to fit the crime”, as the Mikado put it.

  3. Aaron Rizzio says:

    Latest news from the EIA is that natural gas is displacing coal, its electric generation share estimated to drop below 40% for 2012 and natural gas to surpass 30% for the first time ever:

    “Recently published electric power data show that, for the first time since EIA began collecting the data, generation from natural gas-fired plants is virtually equal to generation from coal-fired plants, with each fuel providing 32% of total generation.”
    –EIA Today in Energy

    Apart from the economic desire of the oil & gas majors to keep the two separate and keep us pumping $80-100 oil into our cars, I do not understand why there is not a greater public relations effort besides Boone Pickens — on the part of the present administration, for example — to promote natural gas in the transportation sector and transition away from petroleum in transport. The amount of natural gas that is now burned (increasingly as baseload) for electricity generation in the US would now completely displace all petroleum imports (making the Keystone pipeline obsolete, along with Canadian oil sands btw) if used directly as CNG in automobiles. CNG vehicles are the cleanest on the road, cleaner than the vaunted Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf or Tesla. Dual fuel autos can have the same 16 gallon gasoline tank in addition to the typical 8 GGE CNG capacity affording 150% of the range of gasoline-only vehicles at prices for natural gas of <$1 therm/GGE at most competitive early adopter filling stations. CAFE standards (2015's, 35.5 MPG) could be waved for models in exchange for OEM installation of dual-fuel tanks, esp in SUVs.

  4. Great post, Rod. Nobody ever remembers the natgas pipeline explosions or the stalling of wind turbines during every major heat wave. This happened in CA several years ago, for instance.

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