For over a decade the coal industry has funded campaigns designed to convince Americans that coal can be burned without adverse environmental impacts. These campaigns raise troubling ethical issues. In fact, as we shall see, these campaigns have often been misleading and deceptive in several different ways.
This deception is classic propaganda because propaganda presents facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented. Although many entities on both sides of an issue who are trying to persuade the general public to think a certain way will frequently resort to the use of propaganda, as we shall see, deceptive propaganda is particularly morally odious when it engages in lying or lying by omission. A lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. The clean coal propaganda has frequently engaged in propaganda that must be understood as lying by omission, if not outright lying. It is also lying by omission about something which is potentially very harmful, making the lies even more morally abhorrent
Given that academies of science around the world have concluded that climate change is a huge threat to millions of people around the world, that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels currently used for electricity generation in regard to climate change, that there are no commercial scale coal-fired power plants in the United States now nor likely to be in wide-spread commercial operation for decades capable of actually removing heat trapping gases, a fact not revealed in TV commercials funded by the clean coal campaign, this campaign which implies that coal is “clean” is deeply misleading about likely harmful and dangerous human activities. In other words, this is deception with huge potential adverse consequences.for life on earth and ecological systems on which life depends.
Some TV commercials funded through clean coal campaigns visually or verbally reference clean coal without acknowledgment that coal combustion could be considered clean only if new unproven technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion are widely deployed. Other commercials contain often vague references to clean coal technologies that could in theory reduce greenhouse gas emissions if commercial scale of these technologies is determined through future research to be environmentally benign and economically feasible. None of these commercials, however, reveal that there are serious open questions about whether geologic carbon sequestration or other unproven greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies for use with coal combustion will be proven to be environmentally acceptable and economically viable at commercial scale. The New York Times reported this month that there is new evidence that carbon capture and storage, the technology most frequently considered to be the best hope for reducing greenhouse gases from coal combustion, may not be economically viable because of cheaper and abundant amounts of natural gas. (Wald, 2012)
Claiming that coal is clean because it could be clean if a new technically unproven and economically dubious technology might be adopted is like someone claiming that belladonna is not poisonous because there is a new unproven safe pill under development that sometime in the future might be economically affordable and that may be taken with belladonna to neutralize belladonna’s toxic effects.
Who has been behind this campaign? According to Source Watch, these campaigns were initially created by the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) in 2000. CEED also created Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at emphasizing the importance and downplaying the environmental impacts of coal-fired power production. CEED was founded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, and DTE Energy (Source Watch, 2012a). ABEC’s members also have included mining companies, electric utilities, and railroad companies. The CEED was merged with Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to form a new coal industry front group, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on April 17, 2008 (Source Watch, 2012a).
In addition to funding misleading TV commercials, on May 25 Think Progress reported that the coal industry has also recently funded AstroTurf efforts, that is fake grass roots campaigns, to give the false impression at public hearings that ordinary citizens oppose proposed EPA regulations that would regulate CO2 from coal-fired power plants. (ThinkProgress, 2012). According to ThinkProgress:
“Apparently unable to find real activists, the coal industry paid AstroTurfers $50 to wear pro-coal t-shirts at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing focused on the agency’s first-ever carbon standards for new power plants.”
The creation of AstroTurf groups around carbon energy issues has been a known tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign that began in the 1990s and a tactic which is itself ethically problematic because an AstroTurf group’s very purpose is to hide from the general public the real parties in interest.
The practice of using AstroTurf groups is expressly prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA, 2012) This code requires that PR professionals expressly identify real sponsors of PR activities (PRSA, 2012). Because front groups and AstroTurf organizations usually are designed to hide the real parties in interest, an ethics advisory of the Public Relations Society on these practices proclaims that it is unethical for PR professionals to represent front groups and/or other deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, tactics, sponsors, or participants. (PRSA advisory, 2012) This advisory specifically includes AstroTurf groups as an unethical front group activity covered by the ethics advisory. (PRSA advisory, 2012)
Defenders of the clean coal campaign will sometimes argue that the clean coal campaign is simply an exercise of the coal industry’s right to free speech. Although free speech is to be strongly protected, speech which tells untruths about very harmful behavior is morally odious. This is the moral basis for the understanding that people are not free to yell fire in a crowded theater. In fact, the clean coal campaign is more like someone in a theater shouting that there is no fire who has no factual basis for claiming that no fire exists when smoke first appears in the theater.
And so, the clean coal campaigns cannot be understood as a responsible exercise of free speech but as deeply deceptive disinformation. It is deceptive for two reasons as we have seen.
First, the implied claim that coal combustion is environmentally clean is not true. It is also not true that new technologies capable of sequestering CO2 from coal fired power plants will likely be in widespread operation in the near future according to a recent article in the New York Times that explained that coal combustion that relies upon carbon sequestration may not be economically viable given competition from other fuel sources and additional costs of geologic carbon sequestration (Wald, 2012) .
Second, the failure to disclose who the real parties in interest are behind front groups, AstroTurf campaigns, and those who show up at public events claiming that coal is clean are tactics meant to deceive.
Given what is at stake with climate change, these are deceptions about potentially very, very harmful human activities.
There would be no problem with coal industry calls for public support for research that could make coal combustion environmentally acceptable, yet even such campaigns should reveal that there are open questions about whether these technologies if developed can economically compete with other fuel options.
From the standpoint of climate change, new technologies that would allow coal combustion without greenhouse gas emissions would be an important positive step to achieve urgently needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions. However, as we have seen, there are very open questions about whether these technologies will be technically and economically feasible at commercial scale. There are no doubt places in the world that geologic carbon sequestration that traps heat-trapping gases will work, yet there are serious questions about whether these technologies are technically feasible in many places of the world that do not have the right geology needed to seal in the CO2 and prevent if from escaping into the atmosphere nor the large spaces needed to bury the huge volumes of CO2 that are created in coal combustion. However, probably a bigger barrier to widespread deployment of this technology is whether these technologies can be deployed at acceptable cost.
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (2012) Member Code of Ethics, http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA advisory) (2012) Professional Advisory-07, Engaging in Deceptive Tactics While Representing Front Groups. http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/ProfessionalStandardsAdvisories/PSA-07.pdf
Source Watch (2012a) Clean Coal Marketing Campaign, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Clean_Coal_Marketing_Campaign,
Source Watch (2012b) CEED, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Energy_and_Economic_Development
Think Progress (2012) Coal Industry Pays Fake Activists $50 To Wear Pro-Coal Shirts At Public Hearing, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/25/490340/coal-astroturfing-epa-hearing/
Wald, M. (2012) With Natural Gas Plentiful and Cheap, Carbon Capture Projects Stumble, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/business/energy-environment/low-natural-gas-prices-threaten-carbon-capture-projects.html
Donald A. Brown