ROANOKE - Maybe it's a consequence of spending so much time around heavy machinery, but people in the coal industry seem incapable of bringing a light touch to their marketing efforts.
Take "The Clean Coal Carolers." Well, you could take them, if the group that came up with the idea, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, hadn't pulled down the singing lumps of coal in the face of widespread ridicule and scorn.
Before they were mothballed, you could go to a Web site and dress up the animated lumps of coal in scarves, hats, and ear muffs and pick which songs you wanted to be serenaded with: "Frosty the Coalman," "Deck the Halls (with Clean Coal!)," and other surefire soon-to-be classics.
Even before ACCCE pulled down the site, the group decided it had perhaps gone too far with the remake of "Silent Night," which changed the refrain "Christ the Savior is born" to "Plenty of coal for years to come." That song got taken down early.
The original site has been pulled down, but you can still catch the Clean Coal Carolers on YouTube: tinyurl.com/6s2z54.
This is not the only example of heavy-handed marketing efforts on behalf of the coal industry. I saw one of my favorites on the way back to visit friends in Charleston, W.Va., recently. Billboards along Interstate 77 hit drivers with this message: "Yes, coal. Clean, carbon neutral coal." Walker Machinery, which produces the heavy equipment needed to mine coal, sponsors the billboards. The company should be charged with false advertising.
Coal is not, of course, carbon neutral. In fact, coal-fired electric plants are the largest source of carbon emissions in the world.
Coal is also not, in any traditional sense of the word, "clean." Did you watch "Charlie Brown's Christmas" this year? Coal is clean like Pig-Pen is clean.
Extracting coal from the ground, especially using the increasingly popular mountaintop removal method, is an environmental disaster. And even with billions of dollars spent on pollution controls, emissions from coal-fired power plants are massive contributors to dirty air, causing widespread health problems among those unfortunate enough to live nearby and negative environmental consequences hundreds of miles away.
Coal is as cheap and plentiful as its admirers contend. Extracting it and burning it for fuel, however, carry extremely high costs--most of which are not borne by those who buy the cheap electricity generated by coal.
Most of those who contend that eventually coal can be carbon neutral are counting on carbon sequestration and storage, a technology untested at the commercial level. The idea is to separate carbon dioxide from the emissions and divert it to storage underground.
Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist chosen by President-elect Obama to be secretary of the Energy Department, has grave doubts about the technology.
He points to the potential for carbon stored underground to form huge bubbles that could seep to the surface--and potentially kill people. A cloud of carbon dioxide that escaped from a volcanic lake in Cameroon back in 1986 suffocated 1,700 people.
This could explain why utilities are interested in finding ways to avoid liability for the carbon storage facilities.
Chu, who during an April speech called coal his "worst nightmare," is an interesting choice for Obama, who seemed to buy into the whole "clean coal" campaign when he was running for president.
Chu, on the other hand, "isn't fooled by clean-coal claptrap," according to Joseph Romm, an energy expert who edits the blog Climate Progress. Clean coal sounds good. But it is, at best, a slim possibility far in the future and, at worst, a complete myth.
For the foreseeable future, extracting and burning coal will continue to involve enormous environmental and public health costs.
Singing lumps of coal, misleading billboards, and other heavy-handed marketing efforts can't change that simple and undeniable fact.