Poor taste. That’s what I call the energy industry’s decision to run TV ads about “clean coal” during a nature documentary about Emporer penguins of Madagascar.
During the November 6 screening of “March of the Penguins,” on The Weather Channel, were several advocacy TV spots paid for by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).
The movie, which grossed $77 million, is a spectacular tribute to the animal species and the challenges it faces to survive on its own. It was the 2005 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The offending ad features Venita McCellon Allen, a public affairs employee for American Electric Power (AEP). You should know AEP has gone on record for supporting climate change regulations.
You should also know my business partner and I met Venita at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference last spring. She is just as nice in person as she appears in the ad. We talked with her and her colleague about why we felt the words “clean coal” were misleading.
The ad starts with visuals showing an AEP Wind Farm in Trent, Texas. Below is a transcript, along with my comments in parenthesis.
Venita: “Wind is a great option for the future.” ((Agree. And it’s pollution free, and clearly working today.))
“But it is not the 24/7 resource that we require. We have to be able to meet our customer’s needs in the middle of the night or on the hottest summer day. Coal will help us do that regardless of what Mother Nature is doing.” ((This section is an attack on the reliability of wind power. For the moment, they’re right about the 24/7 thing. But with better battery storage and transmission lines, it will be.))
Venita: “The coal plants we’re building are light years ahead of the ones built 30 years ago.”((Agreed.))
“They’re cleaner, they’re more efficient, and they’re much better for the environment.” ((Is this line referring to new coal plants or coal power in general?))
Coal is plentiful, dependable and it’s affordable.” ((True.))
These ads are meant to seed doubt about renewable energy, and to deal with political fights related to permitting new coal plants that would run another 30-50 years. As the largest coal-burning electric utility in the Western Hemisphere, they certainly want to ensure their existing coal fired power plants are maximized for profitability. That’s understandable.
As we wrote in 2007 from the UN Climate conference in Bali, Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Secretary General, told the crowd at Bali Global Business Day, “If you’re thinking about building a power plant right now, and you think the predictions for climate change by 2050 are science fiction, you are predicting your own company’s extinction.” He also added that coal and oil will make up 80 percent of world’s fuel for decades to come, so there’s plenty of money out there for fossil and renewable fuels.
Another ad that ran during the penguin documentary features a woman who is a small business owner in the Midwest. She says that she’ll have to layoff employees if her electricity bill increases. Hearing this on a day when the US unemployment rate reached 10 percent, it certainly resonates. The implicit message is that if coal is regulated, her electric bill will go up, and employees immediately go on the chopping block. There is no substantiation behind the percentage cost of electricity for her overhead. The if : then statement is similar to statements used in the healthcare debate. The viewer has no idea if the owner has attempted to, or willing to use, energy efficiency technology to operate her small machines using less energy.
I’m most surprised that the featured speakers in the ads don’t say the words, “clean coal.” But those words appear in the visuals at the end of the spot. Could industry be scaling back the use of this questionable catch-phrase?
As we approach the second anniversary of the EnviroMedia Greenwashing Index, it’s worth repeating the criteria for evaluating green claims, developed by Professors Morrison and Sheehan of the University of Oregon School of Journalism Communications:
• Does the ad mislead with words?
• Does the ad mislead with visuals and/or graphics?
• Is there a seemingly vague or unprovable green claim?
• Is there exaggeration of environmental benefits?
• Does the ad leave out or mask important information to make the green claim sound better than it is?
Give the ACCCE credit for good media placement for their advocacy message. They broke no laws, and they have a first amendment right to run the ad. This just had a yuk factor, and it felt like watching a beer ad for during a documentary on DWI deaths. The Repower America campaign could have also bought ad space, but had better sense.