Center for American Progress

“60 Minutes” Confirms that the Clean Coal Smoke Screen Continues

“60 Minutes” Confirms that the Clean Coal Smoke Screen Continues

A coalition of coal, utility, and other companies spends big bucks on clean coal advertising and little on research to move clean coal forward, write Daniel J. Weiss and Alexandra Kougentakis.

Coal is piled beside the Capitol Power Plant, a coal-burning electrical plant, in Washington, on February 25, 2009. Big coal front group ACCCE still talks clean coal but spends little on the research to advance it. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Coal is piled beside the Capitol Power Plant, a coal-burning electrical plant, in Washington, on February 25, 2009. Big coal front group ACCCE still talks clean coal but spends little on the research to advance it. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Click here to see tables of ACCCE profits and member company spending on clean-coal projects (pdf)

“It’s my judgment it [global warming] is a problem. We need to go to work on it now. And it’s critical that we start to act in this country,” warned James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy in an interview with "60 Minutes" on April 26, 2009.

On the show Rogers advocated a major program to research, develop, and deploy “carbon capture-and-storage” technology to slash greenhouse gas pollution from coal-fired power plants. “We need to rebuild our economy and transition it to a low-carbon economy… But it’s gonna take trillions of dollars to do it.”

“60 Minutes” reporter Scott Pelley confirmed CAP’s findings that big coal and utility companies have invested little in this research. He noted that “not even the industry that warns of the end of our way of life is paying for it.”

Pelley asked Rogers how much his company has invested in carbon sequestration technology. Rogers responded, “We have not invested any dollars in the technology, per say. We have spent a lot of time and money reviewing and analyzing the various technologies.” [1]

Duke Energy is not alone. It is a member of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity [2]—a front group of 48 big coal, utility, and other companies—which has already spent gobs of money on advertising, but invested little in the development of CCS technology. Like Duke, ACCCE’s other member companies are much more committed to the idea of clean coal than investing to make it a reality—as their research budgets demonstrate. An analysis of their investments found that they spent less than two cents in research on “clean coal” for every $1 of profit. And even though new legislation would fund technology to make clean coal a reality, ACCCE has yet to show any support for it.

ACCCE’s other member companies include Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, American Electric Power, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, railroads, and other coal, utility, and energy companies. Its lavish advertising campaign funded by its members has an annual budget of over $45 million. In 2008 about 40 percent of ACCCE’s spending—or $18 million—was on television ads trumpeting abundant, affordable “clean” coal. ACCCE’s ads are on television, in print, and on the web, and their aim is to convince Americans that “clean coal technology” is the solution to global warming even though it is years away from commercialization.

The communications budget for 2009 is $40 million, much higher than it was in 2008. ACCCE has blanketed the air waves with ads this year featuring then-presidential candidate Barack Obama saying, “You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work.”

President Obama—like CAP—supports investments to develop CCS technology that would enable power plants to capture 85 percent or more of their carbon dioxide emissions and permanently store them underground in geological formations. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will invest billions of dollars in such research. Unlike ACCCE, however, the president strongly urges Congress to adopt measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. In Iowa on Earth Day 2009 he reiterated the need to create jobs, cut oil use, and reduce global warming pollution.

ACCCE companies also use their money for more than advertising. Data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics found that “Political action committees and individuals employed by ACCCE member firms, including many top executives, contributed $15.6 million to federal campaigns in the 2008 election cycle—with a reach so wide that 87 percent of Congress received money.” Total federal campaign spending by the coal mining and electric utility industries in 2008 was $23.6 million.

The Center for Public Integrity released a report earlier this year on climate change lobbying that named ACCCE the top spender on the issue, devoting nearly $10 million for the purpose in 2008. This includes paying $500,000 to the well-connected, expensive lobbying firms Quinn Gillespie & Associates and Keelen Group to pressure Congress on its behalf.

So what exactly do ACCCE and its members hope to accomplish by spending millions of dollars on advertising and lobbying? ACCCE declares that it is “committed to making coal a clean energy source,” and asserts that clean coal technology is the solution to global warming pollution. The most promising “clean coal technology” that could reduce greenhouse gas pollution from coal-fired power plants is carbon capture and sequestration.

Unfortunately, CCS technology could take a decade or more to commercialize. In the meantime, ACCCE hopes to prevent adoption of any meaningful binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. “Prior to the commercial availability of carbon capture and storage technologies, policies should encourage near-term investments in conservation, enhanced energy efficiency, and terrestrial carbon sequestration.” ACCCE wants to delay binding reductions even in the face of mounting evidence of global warming impacts, including more severe forest fires, hurricanes, droughts and heat waves.

And despite its massive promotion of “clean coal” as a solution to global warming, ACCCE Vice President of Communications Joe Lucas casts doubt upon the link between burning coal and global warming. In an interview with CNN, he refused to admit that coal’s carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. Like a tobacco lobbyist dodging a question linking cigarette smoking to cancer, Lucas deflected a question on whether he believed burning coal caused carbon emissions by saying, “I’m not a scientist.”

ACCCE sends conflicting messages on its claim that coal is a very affordable source of energy. On the one hand, ACCCE argues that coal is very affordable. Lucas describes a recent ad as “reminding Americans that we all move to the beat of America’s economy.”

On the other hand, recent price spikes suggest that coal might not be so affordable. ACCCE recently released a study declaring 2008 the year of the “biggest increase in energy costs on record.” Coal prices hit an all-time high last year. Since coal-fired power plants generate nearly 50 percent of the electricity in the United States, the high coal prices last year hurt the very American families that ACCCE claims coal will protect.

Over the past eight years, U.S. electricity prices rose 16 percent—an average of $179 per household. A CAP analysis found that “The price of…home electricity grew faster than general inflation because of the lack of diversity in our energy system and spiraling global demand for fossil fuels: 1.6 times faster in the case of residential electricity.”

Thanks to these record prices, the top five U.S. coal mining companies saw their profits more than double to $1.9 billion last year. Coal prices have dropped due to the worldwide recession, but are bound to increase with an economic recovery. The Energy Information Administration predicts a 1.1-percent increase in electric-power-sector coal consumption by next year. As demand rises, so should prices.

When all the costs—financial and human health—of coal are taken into account, the ACCCE’s claims that coal is a cheap fuel fall flat. Carbon emissions from coal plants accelerate the pace and severity of global warming, resulting in significant economic losses. A recent study by California on the cost of global warming impacts concludes “that climate change will impose substantial costs to Californians in the order of tens of billions of dollars annually.”

Health harms from coal-fired power plant emissions include respiratory problems such as asthma and chronic respiratory ailments. A Clean Air Task Force study found that “Fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants cuts short the lives of nearly 24,000 people each year.”, The study further notes, “Abt Associates finds that the total monetized health costs of U.S. power plant pollution is a staggering $167.3 billion annually.”

Ash produced by burning coal in power plants is another large expense. Massive ponds and mounds of toxic ash threaten public health. The December 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee is just one recent example. It blanketed the surrounding area with over 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge, causing massive property and environmental damage, and will cost an estimated $825 million to clean it up. Nationwide, there are an estimated 600 similar coal ash storage facilities vulnerable to spills.

Clearly, the societal costs of coal combustion are quite large.

ACCCE’s lobbying against binding global warming reductions suggests that its advertising for clean coal technology is little more than a smoke screen. In fact, ACCCE member companies have demonstrated relatively little interest in the prompt development of CCS—they have invested few of their profits to research and develop it.

As of April 2009 [3], ACCCE members have committed $3.6 billion in spending on clean coal technology research in the US from 2003-2017. (Taxpayers are contributing another $2.8 billion for this research.) This sounds like a lot, but the ACCCE member companies made a combined $297 billion in profits from 2003 to 2008, dwarfing their meager research investment. Their clean coal technology investment is less than two cents for every $1 of their profit.

ACCCE officials complained that an earlier version of this analysis by CAP overstated the total ACCCE company profits because it included their members that are not utility or coal companies. These companies—such as BNSF Railway and Caterpillar Inc—would not fund CCS research. However, if these companies are willing to contribute their funds to ACCCE’s $45 million operation to promote the benefits of clean coal and lobby against global warming pollution reductions, they too ought to invest in research to bring it about. Otherwise the ads are just misleading rhetoric.

The draft American Clean Energy and Security Act authored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) presents a real test of ACCCE’s public statements about CCS and global warming. The bill would provide $10 billion for CCS research and development. It also requires a 20-percent reduction—from 2005 levels—in global warming pollution by 2020.

A new EPA economic analysis projects that this requirement would speed up the development of CCS so that it is commercially viable by 2015. “Coal with carbon capture and storage technology that allows coal-fired power generation to play an important role in a carbon-constrained world comes online in 2015 as a result of significant incentives in the bill.”

The ACESA would provide the research money and market for CCS technology. Based on its ads and rhetoric, ACCCE ought to support it—but they haven’t. ACCCE released a neutral statement that declared “ACCCE will judge all legislative proposals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we also believe that is how the American public will ultimately judge policy development in this area.”

Existing coal-fired power plants are not a clean source of energy, bearing responsibility for 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution and causing both economic and human health costs to society. Duke Energy and other ACCCE companies are spending millions both to keep it that way as well as to convince people that the coal and utility industries want change. Yet no matter how much is spent on talk, without real investments in CCS research and development—and binding greenhouse gas reductions to create future industry certainty—coal will still be dirty. Meanwhile, atmospheric greenhouse gas levels grow, ice sheets melt, and hurricanes become more ferocious.

Click here to see tables of ACCCE profits and member company spending on clean-coal projects (pdf)


[1] Duke Energy is a participant in three CCS research projects (see table). Mr. Rogers’s comments suggest that Duke’s financial contribution is minimal.

[2] Duke Energy is also a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership that has proposed a 14-percent to 20-percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, and an 83-percent reduction by 2050.

[3] Data from "The Clean Coal Smoke Screen" was updated by reviewing ACCCE member company and Department of Energy websites.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Kougentakis is a Fellow’s Assistant. For more information on the Center’s Energy policies, please go to the Energy and Environment page of our website.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow