How Big Coal Keeps America Stupid

Bruce Forster/Getty
Industrial chimneys emitting clouds of smoke.
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The New York Times has a good piece today about the $153 million ad blitz the fossil fuel industry is running to oust President Obama.  The Times points out that this is a big change from the last election when green ads greatly outnumbered those for fossil fuels and global warming was openly discussed.  And it's certainly true -- you can't turn on the TV right now without seeing ads touting the wonders of coal, gas, and oil.

But Big Oil and Big Coal have always been as skilled at propaganda as they are at mining and drilling.  Like the tobacco industry before them, their success depends on keeping Americans stupid.  Over the years, they have become masters at distorting science, dodging innovation, and predicting economic mayhem if anyone or anything gets in the way of their divine right to mine, burn, and profit off America's natural resources.

Coincidentally, Greenpeace has just unearthed a bunch of old coal industry ads, and the results are pretty amusing for anyone who tracks the propaganda campaign waged by America's biggest energy thug.  Take the phrase "clean coal," for example, which sounds like it emerged from a focus-group session on Madison Avenue in the late 1990s.  In fact, the industry has been using the phrase in advertising copy since at least 1921, when a New York coal company pitched clean coal as if it were a forerunner of Viagra, promising that "clean coal will develop more heat and make for mutual satisfaction."  

There are a number of ads from the 1970s, just after the Clean Air Act was passed, hitting on another favorite theme of Big Coal: that measures to reduce the amount of deadly pollution emitted from power plants stacks are either unreliable or too expensive.  One ad from 1974 refers to smokestack scrubbers designed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions as "monstrous contraptions"; another talks about the environmental dangers of the "oozy gook" that the scrubbers produce; yet another predicts blackouts if utilities are forced to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

There are vintage ads from the early days of the fight over global warming, including a 1991 one from a now-defunct coal industry front group with the delightful name of "Informed Citizens for the Environment" that unabashedly proclaims, "there is no hard evidence [global warming] is occurring" and "proof that carbon dioxide is the primary cause is non-existent."  

My favorite is from 1976.  American Electric Power, one of the biggest coal-burning utilities in the country, ran an ad in the New York Times to hype the idea that America has more coal than it knows what to do with.  In the ad, there's a big picture of a little boy's face, and he's in tears.  Below is the headline: "By the time he's out of 8th grade, America will be out of oil and gas."  The ad claims that America has only 12 years of oil and gas left -- but, lucky for us, we have 500 years worth of coal.

What makes this particular ad so damning (and so amusing) is not just that it turned out to be so wrong, but that it makes clear that the industry will say more or less anything, no matter how outlandish, to keep America hooked on coal. "These ads show a long history of lies and deception by the coal industry," says Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace.  "So why should we believe anything they say now?"

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