Coal’s last stand? It doesn’t intend to go quietly, or truthfully

Can burning help the poor?
Can burning coal help the poor?

Big Coal is looking to make a comeback and all they need to do is to put a little lipstick on the pig. Or so they think.

Coal is a dirty fuel, it’s hard on the lungs and the emissions are deadly for an overheated planet. Obviously with all that stacked up against it there is only one solution – an over-the-top PR campaign.

Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest privately owned coal miner with a diving stock price, launched a campaign earlier this year to win friends back over to the coal side.

Peabody said the global campaign was “aimed at building awareness and support to eliminate energy poverty, increase access to low-cost electricity and improve emissions through advanced clean coal technologies.” That is a mouthful of highly debateable points and the campaign further promised to “educate and mobilize” world leaders on the issue.

Will it work? Coal demand is falling worldwide but the fuel will likely remain a substantial, if fading, part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. And the sector clearly has not lost all its influence, which complicates climate talks at the international level.

The coal industry is looking to get its message before leaders at the G20 meeting in Australia in mid-November. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a friend and he wants to keep the issue of climate change off the agenda, while embracing fossil fuels such as coal.

“Coal is good for humanity,” he said while opening a new coal mine in Queensland in October.

Abbott wants to talk about the economy at the G20, as if it is separate from the needs of the broader environment. This could frustrate US President Obama who is looking at the climate file as a major legacy for his presidency. But it all plays into the hands of coal companies as they want to focus on the idea that high priced energy is holding back developing countries. But aid workers and other analysts believe renewable energy is affordable and the better choice for these countries for a slew of reasons that go beyond just climate issues.

“The coal industry seems to have convinced itself that coal is the solution to energy poverty,” Clark Williams-Derry, deputy director of the US think tank,, said by email. “And they may be able to drag along some politicians. But folks who work on actual poverty issues seem unimpressed with their arguments.”

Renewable energy costs are actually dropping, thanks to advances in technology for both solar panels and wind turbines.  Another think tank, the US Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which advocates for clean tech solutions, recently studied India’s coal development plans and concluded that importing coal from Australia’s Galilee basin was too costly.

“Renewables are a lower cost, cleaner solution, particularly when the deflationary impact of wind and solar is incorporated,” the report found.

In fact how the world works to lift the people from energy poverty is complex and subject to much debate.

David Roberts of Grist argued in a recent post that centralized grids are not the answer for the poor. Grids powered by fossil fuels are expensive and when built there is no guarantee the poor will gain access. Nigeria is a prime example of a country with vast energy resources and where energy poverty abounds. Roberts believes renewable energy at the local level will be key.

“My preference — my hope and faith — is to put the tools of energy access directly into the hands of the poor and unleash innovation among those most sensitive to local culture and practice. Give the poor the power to shape their own future,” he wrote.

Last gasp?

Signs abound that the coal industry is in trouble and its best to start with what was once the industry’s most reliable market – China. For the first time in a century China’s coal demand is on the decline, falling by 1-2 percent in the first nine months of this year, according to a Greenpeace report.

“The data suggests the world’s largest economy is finally starting to radically slow down its emission growth, and it comes ahead of key talks next year on a new global climate and energy deal,” according to Greenpeace.

Peabody Energy, itself is struggling, reporting that its loss soared to $150.6 million in its September quarter, due largely to falling demand from China. The company’s stock price is in the pits too, slumping  by half over the past year to about $10 per share now.

Coal clearly faces an uphill battle to win back converts to a 19th century fuel. “But one thing that will limit the campaign’s impact is that it’s such transparent PR,” said Williams-Derry of Sightline.

“Worse, it’s PR from a struggling industry facing some of the worst market conditions it’s faced in years. Those financial struggles could easily translate into waning political power, sagging relevance—and less traction with policy leaders.”

So that is what’s wrong with the coal PR campaign: it’s simplistic and wrongheaded. In reality it’s a desperate move of an industry under pressure peddling a fuel we need far less of.

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