December 26, 2007

Here is an article from SC in the Charleston City Paper about the push by Big Coal to snooker people into thinking coal is a good and clean choice for energy policy. It is a fake grassroots campaign. Kind of clever, actually.

As you navigate around the site, created by the nonprofit Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), an array of young people, many of whom appear to be under 10 years of age, enlighten visitors about the happy, hunky-dory world of coal. Alicia sets down her book bag to explain how coal and environmentalism go hand in hand, while young Sarah tells how we have more energy in the form of coal than the Middle East has in oil. "I'm doing my homework," she says. "You do yours too."

The website is part of a multimillion dollar campaign by ABEC to promote American coal interests. They estimate they'll spend around $200,000 in S.C. during this election cycle, and they're focusing on newspaper and television advertisements. Last week, the state's presidential campaign headquarters received stockings full of chocolate coal with the note, "Even Santa is rethinking his position on coal." ABEC also appears to have a dedicated staff of bloggers and public relations folks — within hours of a recent post about coal on City Paper blogs, their representatives had left comments in favor of the industry.

ABEC doesn't deny that they're funded by power, mining, and shipping industry interests, but they've drawn criticism for the grassroots appearance they give in the PR campaign.

"They fall into a category I call 'astroturf,'" says the Coastal Conservation League's Climate Change Project Manager Ben Moore. "They're a kind of fake grassroots organization that purports to represent the interest of tens of thousands of individuals, but they receive all their funding from the coal industry."


The Cost of Coal

If the lights didn't turn on one morning, it would certainly be bad news for business. Fear of brownouts may be Santee Cooper's biggest advocate in the push to build the new plant. ABEC downplays alternative energy pursuits by claiming that more expensive energy will force people to choose between "heating and eating."

Coal, however, is not getting cheaper. The burning of coal is responsible for around 32 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. and is likely to soon face regulation through taxation. ABEC touts a 250-year supply, but that exists mostly in the western U.S., and rail lines are already being utilized at capacity. No coal is produced in S.C.

In the province of Ontario, Canada, where the government provides both power and health care, a 2005 study broke down the total costs of different power scenarios, taking into account health and environmental cost estimates. They studied the total expenditures of continuing to burn coal for power (the base line), switching to a mix of nuclear and natural gas, and imposing "stringent controls" on the existing coal plants to control emissions. Despite the high initial costs of dismantling plants and building new ones, shifting completely away from coal resulted in a total cost of less than half of the coal baseline.

Here in South Carolina, we're facing the construction of a new coal plant in the middle of what's been dubbed the "Mercury Triangle" for its already unsafe levels of the heavy metal. A recent headline in The Post and Courier told of walruses dying in stampedes as they struggle to find solid ice, and another read "the Arctic is screaming after major ice sheet melt." We know that our coast could soon face destruction from rising sea levels, yet we're building more of what we know causes the problem.

Santee Cooper has not experienced a huge response to their "green power" offerings, so it's hard to say if Charlestonians would pay more for responsible power even if they knew about mountains being blown up to provide what we're burning today. Although the destruction and pollution that coal causes is a reality, groups like ABEC are spending big bucks to keep the public concerned about energy security while glossing over coal's environmental impact, or in the case of mountaintop removal, plain ignoring it. They're actively lobbying the presidential candidates in their quest to keep America's energy sources "balanced" at just over half our production from coal.

Coal generates a lot of money for a few companies, something the children at weren't asked to elaborate on. A "bottom line" offered by ABEC founder Joe Lucas on the site's blog provides insight into their philosophy: "There is a simple lesson that my mother taught me — in order to have an omelet, you have to break a few eggs."

If those eggs are the health of our citizens and environment, is that an omelet South Carolina wants to eat? And wasn't it Joseph Stalin who popularized that phrase?

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