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Coal on the offensive

In the wake of setbacks to new coal powerplant construction in the face of likely carbon legislation, the coal industry has mounted a serious PR blitz.

In the wake of setbacks to new coal powerplant construction in the face of likely carbon legislation, the coal industry has mounted a serious PR blitz, led by a group called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC).

ABEC is a national non-profit organization with a claimed membership of 150,000, whose acknowledged primary funding source is "America's coal-based electricity providers" -- including such big-boys as American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP), Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), First Energy (NYSE: FE) and Southern Company (NYSE: SO). Not to mention large coal companies such as Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI) and CONSOL (NYSE: CNX), and railroads such as Burlington Northern Sante Fe (NYSE: BNI) and CSX (NYSE: CSX).

Quite aptly, Sourcewatch refers to ABEC amusingly as an "astroturf" support organization: "apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms." Given the corporate interests listed on the ABEC website, it is hard to call ABEC a true grassroots organization.

Here in Ohio, ABEC has launched a series of billboards and newspaper advertisements promoting coal, implicitly at the expense of other energy alternatives. Particularly objectionable to me is the ad that illustrates (as if algebraically) "Coal = Ohio Jobs", suggesting not-so-subtly that a shift to other non-coal forms of energy will cause a loss of jobs. I was compelled to write a counter-response, which appeared last week as an editorial in The Plain-Dealer.

In tandem with the Ohio media program, ABEC released a white paper written by "energy economist" Eugene Trisko -- identified on the white paper as "Attorney at Law" but otherwise silent on his representation of the United Mine Workers of America (did someone say "coal"?) for over 20 years -- entitled "The Rising Burden of Energy Costs on Ohio Families". Mr. Trisko points out correctly that Ohio's manufacturing-based economy has suffered mightily in recent years, and argues that "developing an energy supply strategy that maximizes the use of Ohio's local [low-cost coal] resource could help to reduce the impact of future energy supply and price shocks." In other words, Mr. Trisko stresses that Ohio should use more coal, because it's so cheap -- that is, as long as carbon emissions aren't taxed or stringent carbon controls aren't required.

Further, Mr. Trisko neglects to mention that almost 90% of Ohio's electricity generation comes from coal -- and yet that hasn't prevented dramatic economic deterioration in the state. Is it possible that the same mentality that led Ohio to put virtually all its energy eggs in the coal basket is the same type of thinking that has led to the pervasive economic stagnation in Ohio? Is more of the same -- stay the course, keep betting on coal -- the way to go for Ohio's economic future? Hmmmmmm.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.