Do "Clean Coal" Ads Violate FTC/FCC Standards?

As viewers of PBS and the major network and cable channels know too well, the onslaught of "clean coal" advertisements over the past year has reached a tipping point. In the face of the actual news headlines, the relentless barrage of television daydreams about coal's zero carbon dioxide emissions and the coal industry's fanciful role in environmental protection and job security, seem more like bad reruns from the era of "Father Knows Best" than any hope for a clean energy future.


"Clean" coal? How about a little truth in advertising? Perhaps it's time for the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission to hold the coal industry's public relations campaign to acceptable standards.

Don't they watch the news?

In the last month alone, viewers have had to juggle the reality of news reports on toxic coal ash spills in Tennessee and Alabama, coal waste-polluted watersheds in West Virginia and Illinois, mining accidents and coal dust explosions in Kentucky and Wisconsin, mountaintop removal and devastated communities throughout Appalachia, tragic strip mining on Native lands in Arizona, and several state initiatives to halt the construction of carbon dioxide and mercury emission-spewing coal-fired plants. And the state of Montana, like the US Air Force, just shot down proposals for the coal-to-liquid boondoggle.

The news ain't over.

Viewers have also witnessed reports on spikes in black lung disease among coal miners in West Virginia, and cuts in coal-related employment in already depressed communities due to increased mechanization and volatile coal prices and demands on the world market.

On the tail end of the Clinton era in the spring of 2000, former commissioner Sheila F. Anthony addressed some general FTC-FCC concepts of advertising laws at a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington, D.C. While she dealt with regulating advertising for phone services and electricity markets, her remarks, when placed in the context of the extraction industries, raise some important questions about the "clean coal" ads.

According to Anthony's statement, "If an ad omits material information, an ad can be deceptive even if everything else in the ad is truthful. This is called deception by omission."

While coal-fired plants may burn coal "cleaner" than in the 1940s, when the snow in my family's town of southern Illinois would be black with soot on Christmas Day, or in the acid-rain days of the 1960s, when sulfur dioxide emissions were not controlled, are the "clean coal" ads engaged in acts of deception by omission when they fail to note that there is not one single coal-fired plant in the United States that has successfully proven to capture and sequester carbon dioxide and mercury emissions?

Or when they fail to mention that 24,000 Americans suffered from fatal lung diseases, due to coal-fired plant pollution?

Or when they overlook the massive human and environmental costs in the extraction of coal?

In addressing regulations for advertisements in the energy industry, Anthony also called for some aspect of independent verification: "Advertising claims must be truthful and they must be substantiated."

The single substantiated fact remains that more than 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions still erupt from coal-fired plants. According to the latest scientific reports, our nation is untold years away from any hint of a feasible, secure and (prohibitively expensive) implementation of carbon capture and storage technology on a national scale.

In the meantime, should we still allow those two words, "clean coal," which were used back in Chicago as early as the 1880s, to be broadcast as if true and substantiated?

The latest "clean coal" ad might have an element of reality on its side, but it goes the farthest in supplanting truth with deception. Using footage from a campaign appearance by President Barack Obama in Virginia from last September, the ad replays a line from Obama's speech that "clean coal technology is something that can make American energy independent." The ad then runs the text, "Clean Coal—Creating Jobs," as it splices another clip from the President: "And by the way, we can create five million new jobs, in clean energy technologies."

The inference: "Clean coal" will create five million news jobs. Is that what our President said?

Of course not.

If anything, the tricky ad just made coal seem dirtier.

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