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Analyzing the Framing Battle Over Coal As an Energy Source

One of the major strategic communication battles that took place during the debate over cap and trade legislation was the advertising war between the Clean Coal Coalition and Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. As I document in the recent Climate Shift report, the Clean Coal Coalition spent $31 million on ads in 2009 and the Alliance $34 million.  In a guest post today, Elizabeth D’Angel examines the framing strategies employed by each side. D’Angelo is a student in this semester’s course on “Science, the Environment and the Media” — MCN.

The debate over “Clean Coal” technology and the future of America’s electricity sources rests in the framing of the issue from both sides of the argument.  Each side has centered their arguments on issues close to the American public’s emotions, feelings, and personal attitudes to ignite a desirable reaction towards the issue of “clean coal”.  However, before I discuss the communication techniques and strategies of each side, it is important to briefly explain the arguments around the debate of coal.

Is There Such a Thing as “Clean Coal”?

The issue of burning coal, a fossil fuel, for electricity and the debate over the environmental impacts of that on climate change has many groups arguing each other.  The term “clean coal” came to be from coal companies and politicians after the Clean Air Act was created and the Environmental Protection Agency began monitoring CO emissions from power plants and businesses.

The term and concept of carbon capture and storage (CCS) came about as a hopeful solution to the detrimental impacts burning coal has on our environment. CCS is the technique of trapping CO as it is released from coal burning before it gets into the atmosphere and storing it somewhere else (the ocean or underground) to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. This is usually what coal companies and politicians are referring to when they speak of “clean coal” technologies. For more detailed information on CCS, click here

While CCS is a starting point and would be extremely beneficial to cutting back on environmental degradation, it is still in the primary stages of development and no clean coal plant is currently in existence.  Many environmental groups and scientists argue that “clean coal” does not and could never exist.  They argue that America should invest its time and money into alternative electricity sources and technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal instead of CCS.

On the other hand, coal companies, some politicians, and some science journalists, such as James Fallows, argue that coal has and will be America’s source of electricity and so we must invest in coal technology to work towards a cleaner and more environmentally friendly future.

How the Coal Debate Has Been Framed

Coal companies and environmental groups are in this debate over “clean coal” and each use communication strategies in their advertisement campaigns to frame their argument in ways that relate to the American public.  Framing is a useful and influential tool to centralize an issue for audiences around a common idea and try to encourage discussion and understanding. As social scientists and scholars Matthew Nisbet and Dominique Brossard state, “The concept of a frame refers to a central organizing idea of a story line to a controversy that provides meaning to an unfolding of a series of events, suggesting what the controversy is about and the essence of an issue” (Nisbet et al. 2003)

Similarly, “framing suggests a linkage between two concepts or things such as after exposure to a message, audiences now accept that they are connected” (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009) Framing is used by both sides of the “clean coal” debate as communication strategies, to argue either for the use of coal and furthering technologies in coal or to argue against the idea of “clean coal.”

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) is an alliance of coal companies that “supports policies that will ensure affordable, reliable, domestically produced energy, while supporting the development and deployment of advanced technologies to further reduce the environmental footprint of coal…” A full list of the coal companies in partnership with ACCE can be found here.  ACCCE uses a variety of media techniques to propose the idea that coal is a clean form of electricity, an American concept, and the best and most affordable option.

ACCCE ran a television advertisement campaign between 2008-2009 in which it used coal miners and their families to showcase the importance and affordability of coal. By using real American families and those who make their living off of coal, ACCCE put a narrative on its argument and personalized their message.  One of their TV ads, “Coal Powers This Nation” uses the frames of social progress and patriotism to show coal as beneficial to Americans. 

The ad frames coal in a way that expresses it as a cheap form of energy that takes a burden off Americans. Cheryl, the Production Trainer at a coal power plant, says that in a poor economy, many Americans need affordable and efficient energy sources and coal is cheap and is a way of solving many Americans problems of finding reasonably priced electricity sources.  By working at ACCCE and supporting coal, Cheryl feels like she is improving the lives of many Americans.  Therefore, the message is that if you use coal and support coal companies, you are helping to improve the lives of many Americans!

This ad also uses the frame of patriotism to showcase the importance and power of coal.  ACCCE, and many other proponents of coal, often discuss coal in the context of how “American” it is.  ACCCE’s tag line, “Coal powers this nation,”implies a sense of pride in coal as being America’s energy source and other forms of energy (i.e. solar, wind, geothermal, etc) are somehow not.  

Coal companies have used framing techniques to imply that opposing coal or proposing researching into other forms of electricity is anti-American.  In a blog post titled, “The Coal Industry Understands Framing” Matthew Nisbet, associate professor in the School of Communication at American University, discusses a situation in 2007 in which a coal company accused a governor of Kansas of being “anti-American” because he turned down a proposal for two power plants.   

Another ACCCE advertisement that uses dramatic frames to gain public support for coal and its companies is titled “Rodeo”.  This ad uses a frame of conflict/strategy to pin the government or “elites” against the American public.  The ad depicts average Americans– a nurse, construction worker, businessman– being thrown off bulls at a rodeo, signifying how many Americans are losing their jobs because of government action, seemingly against coal companies and electricity. 

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While this ad is specifically referring to opposition of cap and trade legislation, it is in general support of coal companies and uses classic frames to get public support.  The ad pins the “elites” in government against the American public and frames the government as “job killers” who are out of touch with what strife Americans are in.  In many environmental debates- clean coal, climate change, cap and trade, etc.- those against legislation or action to combat CO2 emissions or change our energy sources in any way, use the threats to capitalism, the American way of life, and our economy to counter any positive/progressive action. 

The Clean Coal Campaign and the Cap and Trade Debate

Assessing the cap and trade debate and the arguments that opponents of legislation use can see an example of this.  Anti-cap and trade politicians and corporations framed the legislation as crushing our country’s economy, which is a frame that coal companies are using now to counter the argument of investing in alternative energy sources and working to end our dependence on coal. 

As Eric Pooley states in his book The Climate War:

Framing the [climate] issue as a choice between the earth and the economy, and making clear that the economy comes first…the notion that fixing the climate necessarily means destroying the economy was to become the big lie of the climate debate and the signature achievement of the opponents of action…climate campaigners find themselves arguing in vain that the costs, ‘wouldn’t be as bad’ as the opponents claim. Not that bad is not that good a strategy, and it [loses] every time” (Pooley: 2010 91).

The word choice that ACCCE uses to describe coal as “clean coal” and the repetition of its usage is a frame in itself.   The repetition of the word clean associated with coal can resonate in audiences’ minds; therefore they continue to associate coal with being clean and environmentally friendly. 

Similar tactics are used when describing other environmental or science issues such as “climate crisis”, “FrankenFood” and “partial birth abortion” in order to resonate a certain emotion or feeling for the public to remember the situation by.  By framing coal technology as “clean coal,” there is a positive connotation of cleanliness and environmentally friendliness with using coal, a connotation that many environmental organizations, politicians, scientists would argue against. 

Countering the Clean Coal Campaign

The largest and most impactful counter-campaign against the coal movement and ACCCE would have to be Reality Coalition, an alliance of environmental nonprofits. Reality Coalition works to discredit the claims of “clean coal” technology and the notion that investing in coal technologies is American. Reality Coalition is made up of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. The movement tries to explain the environmental impacts of coal and respond to the myth that clean coal technology exists and instead promotes alternative forms of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal.

While Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is the most involved in the ad campaign, it seems as though the group realized the polarizing effect Al Gore’s face can have on the public.  The Coalition strategically decided to shy away from using Gore in the ads and focusing on him as the face of the campaigns.  The problem Alliance for Climate Protection was twofold, as Pooley states:  “First, Al Gore is the face of global warming alarmism in this country.  Second, polls show he is the most polarizing figure in the country. The elites on both coasts like him, but the people in between don’t.” (Pooley: 2010 122)

Reality Coalition uses humor and sarcasm to discredit ACCCE’s claims of “clean coal” technology.  Its most popular TV ad, “ Clean Coal: This Is Real” shows a man going into a “clean coal” power plant- except there is no power plant and he is just walking through an empty and quiet field.  Reality Coalition uses this ad to show that there is no such thing as a clean coal facility yet. 

A similar ad, “ Clean Coal Air Freshener” (directed by the Cohen brothers) pokes fun at the ACCCE’s usage of “clean” when describing dirty coal technologies.  The ad shows a family using a “clean coal air freshener” that emits dirty air into their home, with the voiceover stating, “clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word clean to make it sound like the cleanest clean there is!”

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A final advertisement that uses sarcasm and humor to discredit coal companies claims of “clean coal” technologies existing currently is titled “ COALergy: Smudge“.  This ad has the CEO of a fake coal company, COALergy, explaining that he thinks coal is clean, as he holds a piece of it up to face, leaving a dirty smudge on his nose, making him look like an idiot.  The ad is a direct attack on ACCCE and its ad campaign, with the CEO stating: “ We have spent a large sum of money on an advertising effort to help bring out and complicate the truth about coal”. 

The CEO explains that coal companies are handling clean coal technology and the environmental issues of coal so there is no need for government involvement.  While this is a sarcastic advertisement and attack on coal companies, many energy companies and proponents of coal use this frame of corporate responsibility to discredit government and political efforts to intervene in their actions. 

According to The Washington Post, ACCCE spent over $15M on its advertisement campaign and it reached mostly viewers in the Northeast and Southeast. Reality Coalition, on the other hand, has not come out and said how much its ad campaign cost, but it’s safe to say it was probably very competitive to the ACCCE’s $15M.

Outlook and Other Strategies

It is difficult to assess how the ads impacted the public’s perception on coal, but by looking at how the media has covered both campaigns, we can look at how the media is reacting to both.   In 2008, CBS ran a piece on ACCCE’s ads for their segment “Eye On Energy.”  The piece states: “Coal is by far the dirtiest way America makes electric power but you wouldn’t know that by this ad campaign funded by industry. A campaign promising a future of clean coal…”

CBS discusses the ideas of CCS and coal gasification, ways to potentially have clean coal technology, but explains that to date no such technology exists and most of the power plants and proposals to create clean coal technology have been pulled.  Therefore, the ads promoting coal as “clean” are misleading.

The Seattle Times and The Huffington Post have discussed Reality Coalition’s ads and many environmental blogs have praised the group’s efforts to debunk the coal companies’ claims.  However, it seems that most of the public still sees coal as America’s major source of energy and would rather invest in “clean” coal technologies than spend money and time looking into alternative sources.

 Perhaps, instead of focusing on debunking ACCCE’s claims of “clean coal”, Reality Coalition should explain more of the detrimental impacts coal has- just how much CO2 emissions it creates, the large-scale environmental impacts, and focus on discussing more alternatives such as solar and wind sources.  By giving the public clear alternatives instead of just discrediting coal companies, Reality Coalition and other environmental groups and progressive politicians could change public opinion towards a more environmentally friendly and optimistic tone.  

— Guest post by Elizabeth D’Angel a student at American University in Washington, D.C.  This post is part of the course “Science, Environment, and the Media” taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on energy policy and members of her project team.


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