The “coal is filthy” ad-scam Gas company ad campaign could impact US energy policies and consumers
A recent advertising campaign by a cabal of natural gas companies underscores the kind of self-serving and misleading "information" that often drives US and global energy policies -- and drives consumer energy prices higher and higher -- for little or no environmental gain. This informative and thought-provoking article provides vital facts that readers are unlikely to get from politicians, the news media, environmental groups or corporate lobbyists. A cynic might say that, where votes, sales, fund raising or tax subsidies are on the line, citizens and consumers can expect that honesty, accuracy and social responsibility will often be among the first casualties.
Even in this “era of corporate social responsibility,” brazen violations of honesty, transparency and accountability standards occur regularly. Exhibit 1: the recent “Coal is filthy” ad campaign.
Prominent advertisements in major US papers featured an ethnic spectrum of smudge-faced California models, whose misleading claims about emissions from coal-fired electrical generating plants were reinforced by a CleanSkyCoalition.com website. The campaign urged citizens to tell government officials, “No more filthy coal plants.”
But the Coalition wasn’t another gaggle of environmental pressure groups, like those listed on the website. It was a cabal of natural gas companies, led by Chesapeake Energy of Oklahoma. Their goal wasn’t really helping Americans get “clean skies” and “live longer,” as their ads proclaimed. It was fattening corporate wallets.
The cabal hoped new laws would make it harder to build more coal-fired plants or retrofit old plants to meet tougher air quality standards, and force massive switching to natural gas. As demand rose and supplies tightened, gas prices would surge. Consumers, especially poor families, would suffer, but Coalition partners would haul wheelbarrows of cash to the bank.
Every $1 increase in gas prices costs US consumers an additional $22 billion a year for heating, air-conditioning, food, consumer goods and services – many of which use natural gas for energy or raw materials – says the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Indeed, consumers paid $140 billion more in 2006 for gas and electricity than they did in 2000 – an extra $1900 a year for every family of four.
That hit poor families especially hard, and the US manufacturing sector lost 3 million jobs.
Chesapeake has 9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven gas reserves, which it wants to sell at the highest possible price. How much the other partners have is impossible to say, because the company won’t reveal the names of its co-conspirators.
But America doesn’t have enough gas to supply needs that energy demand and legislative air quality mandates have helped stoke. Demand has outstripped domestic production since 1985, forcing us to import the difference, largely from less than friendly countries, and in competition with other nations. Following the disingenuous ads’ prescription – substituting gas for coal-fired electricity – would send tsunamis rippling through our economy.
America certainly could produce more gas. Geologists say the US Outer Continental Shelf could contain 420 Tcf – enough to meet current demand for 15 years. But over 85% of these areas are off limits to drilling; the situation is similar with onshore public lands; and eco purists want to keep it that way.
Electricity provides 40% of all the energy we use, and the EIA and other analysts say the United States will need 100,000 megawatts of new electricity by 2020. Colorado alone will need another 5,000 Mw; Texas, over 25,000. Conservation and efficiency efforts could pare that back somewhat. But growth in population and technologies that use electricity mean we will need every available source of energy: gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, biofuel, waste-to-energy – and coal. Right now, coal generates 50% of all the electricity we consume, and we have no viable alternatives in the near term.
The ads and environmental group websites say coal-fired power plants are responsible for scary-sounding portions of total US air pollution. While burning coal obviously does generate pollution, some inconvenient truths make their Pollution Monsters look more like Sesame Street Cookie Monsters.
Between 1970 and 2004, the US population grew by 40% … its Gross Domestic Product by 187% … miles traveled by 171% … electricity consumption by 115% … and coal burning by 80 percent. And yet, during this period, our aggregate air pollution was cut in half, thanks to steady advances in efficiency and pollution control, air quality expert Joel Schwartz points out. Lead and certain other pollutants were reduced by 90% or more.
Since 1998, annual power plant SO2 emissions have declined 28% and NOx 43 percent, he notes. New rules require large additional reductions during the next decade that will eliminate most remaining power plant emissions. The ads also fail to mention that:
total air pollution is now so low that it poses no significant health risks, even for children;
asthma prevalence has been rising even as all types of air pollution have been falling, so air pollution cannot be a factor;
even eliminating all human-caused ozone would reduce respiratory hospital visits by at most a few tenths of one percent; and
coal-generated electricity costs much less per kilowatt hour than alternatives – leaving families with more money to spend on nutrition and healthcare.
Coal-fired power plants are now the primary source of US mercury emissions, not because their emissions are large or increasing, but because the real sources of mercury (incinerating wastes and processing ores containing mercury) have been eliminated. The US reduced total mercury emissions by over 80% since the early 1980s; America accounts for only 2% of global mercury emissions; two-thirds of mercury deposition in the States comes from other countries; 55% of global emissions come from volcanoes, oceans and forest fires; and Americans’ mercury exposure is a tiny fraction of levels necessary to cause brain damage.
Nevertheless, new EPA rules require a further 70% reduction in mercury from power plants over the next decade. That’s tremendous bucks for the bang, but it will be done.
Climatologist John Christy points to another consideration. In 1900, the world supported 56 billion human life years: 1.6 billion people times a 35-year average life span. Today it supports 429 billion life years: 6.5 billion people times a 66-year average life span – and they are living far better than anyone in history.
For that we can thank energy, primarily fossil fuels. And in exchange for this incredible progress – if fossil fuels are a primary cause of global warming – we have had a net increase in average global temperature, over the past 100 years, of about 1 degree Fahrenheit, or 0.7 degrees Celsius. (As a percentage of Earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide emissions from US coal-fired power plants equal the thickness of a single human hair on a football field.)
All in all, the Chesapeake & Collaborators ad campaign added greatly to the pervasive misinformation that drives so much US energy, health and environmental policy. It will doubtless be used to justify global warming legislation, such as the Sanders-Boxer bill (S. 309) that a new MIT study concludes would impose a tax-equivalent of $4,500 annually on every family of four by 2015 – and more thereafter.
As Congress conducts additional experiments on constituents – with mandates, cap-and-trade, tax incentives and other pork-laden “environmental” legislation – the problem will only get worse. Unless citizens demand a change in business-as-usual.