Coal. It's a four-letter curse word according to environmentalists and much of the news media. According to them, it is the "dirtiest fuel on earth" and is a bad choice even when more power is a necessity. It’s also the source of half the country's electricity.
The New York Times on April 23 favored alarmism about the climate in a front-page story about Italy's return to coal power. The article called the coal plant "dangerous" and warned that "critics say that 'clean coal' is a pipe dream."
"They [environmentalists] are aghast at the renaissance of coal, a fuel more commonly associated with the sooty factories of Dickens's novels and one that was on its way out just a decade ago."
In that story, readers had to trudge through 29 paragraphs before learning that the Italian utility Enel’s coal plant "is a model of efficiency and recycling."
When it comes to global warming, much of the media advocate the idea that human-caused carbon dioxide is the problem and something must be done. So it is no surprise that the coal industry didn’t stand a chance in getting balanced coverage against the climate change alarmist camp.
Reports included calls for a “moratorium” on coal from left-wing global warming alarmists Dr. James E. Hansen and former vice president Al Gore.
The April 6 Washington Post focused on Hansen, labeled him “perhaps the best-known scientific advocate for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions” and quoted him saying: “We simply cannot burn the coal and put the CO2 in the atmosphere and avoid having serious changes in the atmosphere.”
The same story quoted Gore who said, “I think we ought to have a moratorium on any coal-fired power plant that doesn’t have the capacity to capture carbon.”
At least that story included a comment from Duke Energy's James E. Rogers because he met with Hansen. Rogers said, "My requirement is to balance reliability, affordability and clean energy."
“Critics say emissions are exactly the issue, because coal-fired power is the nation’s biggest producer of CO2 emissions,” said Thompson. But even Thompson admitted that the plant would bring 150 jobs and millions in tax dollars for Ely, Nev.
The positive effects a new coal power plant would have on Ely weren’t enough to sway Thompson in its favor. Instead, she featured another global warming alarmist to decry coal power: Hansen, calling for a moratorium on coal.
Another anti-industry story in the April 5 New York Times went along with Robert Redford and other left-wingers’ David-versus-Goliath comparison.
“David had only a slingshot,” wrote the Times. “Texans fighting big coal have Robert Redford.” The Times article focused on Redford’s “documentary” about the “unlikely coalition of ranchers, big-city mayors and environmentalists” that forced a takeover of TXU, the largest electricity company in Texas.
The Times story didn't include a single coal company or association representative. The only person who spoke up for coal power was actually a spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, a Washington Post columnist even tried to cheer up readers on April 22 by slamming the energy industry – including coal: “To everyone feeling glum about $3.50-a-gallon gasoline, here's some good news: The fat-and-happy energy industry is fighting with itself.”
For the Climate, No Coal
Global warming is the cause du jour, so the media have heavily criticized coal for not being environmentally friendly, usually by quoting left-wing sources. Stories in The New York Times and Washington Post included left-wing groups like the Center for American Progress, Public Citizen and the Sierra Club.
One Los Angeles Times story portrayed those environmentalists as heroes in the legal battle against coal.
“You could argue that power plants harm everyone all over the country,” said Nick Persampieri, a Denver-based attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, in the April 14 LA Times. According to that April 14 LA Times story, exclusively about the Sierra Club’s war on coal, Persampieri is representing the organization in its fight against a coal plant in Kansas.
But Persampieri’s remark completely ignored the benefit coal brings to Americans every day by providing half the nation’s electricity in a safe, reliable manner. The LA Times didn't provide any rebuttal to his dramatic claim.
Tom Smith of Public Citizen was as extremist as Persampieri in the April 6 New York Times. Smith, director of the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen, said, “We hope that the fight we had here in Texas [against TXU] represented in this grouping inspires people in other states and other countries to stand up and say, ‘Not in our backyard, not in our community, not in our state, not in our time.’”
Another story in the January 18 Washington Post bashed the group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) for promoting “clean coal.” “New power plants are cleaner than they used to be because they must meet more stringent federal regulations limiting such pollutants as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide,” according to the Post.
But the Post followed that explanation with the underlying media assumption linking coal to global warming: “climate change is linked to carbon dioxide emissions, which are not yet regulated; those emissions have dropped more modestly as plants have become more efficient.”
The Post featured multiple anti-industry statements in its report, including Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress. Weiss attacked “Big coal,” which he said “may launch a ‘Harry and Louise’-style disinformation campaign to sink global warming solutions in Congress.” “Harry and Louise” referred to a series of commercials featuring a couple criticizing government-run health care that helped sink the Clinton plan in the 1990s.
Because reports took for granted the perils of greenhouse gas emissions, journalists criticized a “return to coal.” “But the return now to coal, even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible,” warned The New York Times on April 23.
Industry spokesman Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association said the European return to coal shows a huge need.
“Doesn’t it show that there’s an energy need, not just an environmental need?” Popovich asked in an interview with the Business & Media Institute.
Headline writers at the Times also seemed to side with environmentalists. “Europe Turns to Coal Again, Raising Alarms on Climate Change,” said one front-page headline on April 23. An April 5 headline read “Texans Beat Big Coal, And a Film Shows How.”
Many others groups including the World Wildlife Fund, National Environmental Education Foundation, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council have been mentioned or quoted by major newspapers in recent months. Industry spokesmen were more difficult to find among stories.
The Need for More Power
Coal plants provide about 50 percent of the electricity for the United States and supply mining jobs to more than 80,000 people, according to The Wall Street Journal April 14. The U.S. has even been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia” of coal because of its vast resources, according to Time magazine and other publications.
Despite the need for power and the abundance of coal, the media have focused on environmentalists who push for “renewables.” That ignores the reality of a society that constantly demands electricity, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
According to the January 18 Washington Post, “Many environmentalists argue that until that time [carbon capture is available], the United States should focus on renewable energy such as solar and wind. Coal advocates say those energy sources cannot be relied on 24 hours a day and, so far, the energy they produce cannot be easily stored.”
Duke Energy’s spokesman Tom Shiel mentioned the same disadvantages of solar and wind power (inability to store the power, inconsistent source) in an interview with the Business & Media Institute. According to Shiel, coal fits the day-to-day needs of electricity because “We have an abundant supply, it is relatively inexpensive and we don’t have the technology to replace it with something else.”
Coal, according to Shiel, has several benefits over other forms of energy: “Relative cost, availability and the potential technologies to mitigate its carbon footprint. It is also safe and efficient.”
That makes Hansen’s goal of a complete phase-out of coal power by 2030 [unless the CO2 is captured] a little out of reach. In fact, more than half the 2030 electricity demand is projected to be met by coal power, according to the Energy Information Administration. Nearly 19 percent will come from nuclear power and 16 percent will come from petroleum and natural gas, the EIA estimates. A little more than 13 percent is estimated to come from renewable sources of energy.
The EIA projects demand for electricity will rise by more than 26 percent in the next 22 years – from 3.934 trillion kilowatt hours in 2008 to 4.973 trillion kilowatt hours in 2030.
The New York Times even admitted February 5 that “electricity shortages are a distinct possibility in coming years,” because utilities have been “stymied in their plans to build coal-burning power plants” and are turning to more expensive energy options. That didn’t stop the paper from promoting anti-coal activism in other reports.
But it’s not just the U.S. that has increasing energy needs. Many countries need more power and see coal as an answer. Take the fragile, impoverished country of Kosovo for example.
“Many here are pinning their hopes on Kosovo’s untapped mineral wealth, including 14 billion tons of lignite coal reserves that will be tapped to fuel a new power plant by 2012, if all goes as planned,” reported the March 5 New York Times.
The mining industry has faced fierce opposition from Western environmental activists and with an estimated 14 billion tons of coal to be mined in Kosovo, it is likely the country could fall prey to the same hostility.
For developing countries that are in great need of energy, “the only option is coal from an affordability standpoint,” Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association told the Business & Media Institute.
Exploring the “dark side of environmentalism,”  Irish filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney made the 2007 documentary “Mine Your Own Business,” focusing on the effects of opposition to mining in impoverished towns.
Not long ago, Canadian gold mining company Gabriel Resources purchased the rights to mine the Rosia Montana hills in Romania, planning a $3.7-billion project that would have pumped more than $2 billion back into Romania. At least that was the plan until environmental journalist Stephanie Roth found out and moved to Romania to work to stall and defeat the project. (Incidentally, The New York Times favorably spotlighted Roth’s work in January 2007. )
Environmental activists featured in McAleer’s documentary, such as Roth and Mark Fenn of the Madagascar-based Worldwide Fund for Nature, have stalled mining interests in Romania, Madagascar and Chile. McAleer traveled to Africa and South America and exposed the true destruction of these activists’ work.
These are the same sort of environmentalists often decrying coal and other “dirty” energy sources in the American news media.
The bottom line, according to the coal industry, is that you can’t deal with global warming “by creating an energy crisis,” said Popovich.
According to James Hansen, environmentalists and some politicians, carbon capture is a necessity in order to continue using coal.
Hansen has called for a complete phase-out of coal by 2030 unless the carbon dioxide emissions are trapped and held somewhere. Sen. Hillary Clinton agreed in the January 18 Washington Post.
“I have said we should not be siting any more coal-powered plants unless they can have the most modern, clean technology. And I want big demonstration projects to figure out how we would capture and sequester carbon,” said Clinton.
But the media have not always made it clear that carbon capture is not a fully developed technology; also, it is expensive and cannot work in all locations.
The New York Times Magazine’s "Green Issue" said on April 20, “The [carbon capture] flagship project was known as FutureGen, a near-zero-emission coal plant in Illinois. But the Department of Energy canceled its support for the project in January, citing excessive costs, and it is now unclear if it will ever be built.”
Others have said the technology isn't ready. Duke Energy’s spokesman Tom Shiel told the Business & Media Institute that the company “believes it is a technology that needs to be pursued. We do see that as having potential in the future, but the technology needs to be further developed.”
Shiel also explained that “It can’t be done in all areas – the geology must be right for it.”
As for Hansen’s call for a coal phase-out, Shiel said it begs the question “What is going to replace it?”
“I don’t think people are willing to go without electricity or only have it for 3 hours a day,” said Shiel.
Industry Tried to Respond to Unbalanced Coverage
When it comes to coal, the media tend to side with environmentalism over industry – an industry that provides jobs as well as electricity to millions of homes and offices every day.
Luke Popovich, vice president for external communications with the National Mining Association, told the Business & Media Institute that the industry is often attacked on the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
“We have written [letters to the editor] probably to The New York Times I’d say four or five letters, and to The Washington Post probably an equal number, pointing out errors in their coverage.” None were published, Popovich said.