Posted by: ateedub | March 19, 2009

The Clean Coal Frenzy in DC

I’m watching the Daily Show right now (Comcast in Washington, DC), and I’ve already seen 4 ads about clean coal (it’s 11:20).  Within the same commercial break, I’ve seen both of these commercials:

Washington’s metro stations and train cars are plastered in yellow ads with mermaids holding black rocks and the URL US News has an interesting blog post on the “reality campaign” here.

It’s clear that this debate is gaining momentum in this time of economic downturn. It seems that the stimulus bill, with its provisions for developing green jobs and sustainable energy sources is, perhaps, having an impact on our national energy outlook. But in the spirit of “shovel ready” projects, is clean coal the answer?

The fact is, there is no clean coal right now. Clean coal requires the development of systems and technologies that are not currently available. The “clean” part of clean coal is the idea that carbon released from the combustion of coal can be kept out of the atmosphere – using carbon capture and sequestration. Time Magazine, by no means a paragon of left-leaning values, explores some of the technology hurdles in this January article.

The NY Times has an interesting piece on how the stimulus is bringing back the clean coal rhetoric that we heard during the Presidential campaign last year. This is why the metro ads are back up and the Daily Show is alternately being sponsored by the pro- and con-clean coal lobbies.

[A digression on my personal views: Don’t get me wrong – I think we should invest in research into clean coal through standard research mechanisms found in NSF, DOE, and EPA. I just think it’s premature to invest in clean coal plants when the technology is fuzzy at best and certainly completely untested.]

What I find particularly interesting about these lobbying campaign is that one is far more sophisticated than the other. The Reality Campaign is hipper. It uses irony and some of the more recently popular advertising tactics, like the serial ads that don’t mean anything until you put them together (see mermaid reference above), or an unusual and annoying sound to recapture a viewer’s attention in a TV ad. Besides this, the creative is brilliant. What better way to draw attention to the drawbacks of coal than to choose a canary as your mascot?

On the other hand, the America’s Power campaign follows the typical political ad, simply replaying parts of Obama’s campaign speeches. While this attempts to capture the energy of “the moment”, I think they’ve missed their chance. The “Yes we can” chant at the end of the ad is so January 19th. From Inauguration Day onward, Obama has taken a much more sober tone in his speeches and with the economic troubles continuing, the sense of hope many of us experienced is being beaten down by layoffs, disappearing 401Ks, and the number of nominees with tax problems. I know Obama’s popularity is still up there, but we are no longer chanting “Yes we can!” So this campaign seems to have missed the moment altogether. I think it will be far less effective than the quirkiness and irony of the Reality Campaign.



  1. Great post! Very interesting commentary on both clean coal and the marketing campaigns.

    I’ve had a problem with the greenwashing both the coal and ethanol industries. I’m curious to see where all of this ends.

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