As President Barack Obama toured an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center in Pennsylvania on Oct. 11, two television commercials made their debuts on local Pittsburgh stations.
Both criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s pending regulations on reducing mercury emissions and accused the administration of backing a job-killing new rule. Both were sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
They were among the first wave of commercials opposing the EPA aired by the coal industry in a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort that will shadow Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
Two months later, Pittsburgh residents got a look at another commercial, this one embracing the new emission limits. It was sponsored by the American Lung Association, a long-standing charitable health organization, and underwritten in part by Chesapeake Energy Corp., the most active U.S. oil and natural gas driller and a coal industry competitor.
“If the ads had listed Chesapeake as a sponsor, that would have raised obvious red flags,” said Glenn Hansen, director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma.
The lung association’s partnership with the natural gas company has evened the field in what may be a protracted fight over the new EPA regulations. The rules are to be released as soon as today and could become a matter for Congress or the courts.
Millions Already Spent
The lung association has run about 2,000 commercials this year, at a cost of about $2.6 million; the coal industry has aired about 2,500 commercials, spending an estimated $3.8 million, according to data compiled by CMAG/Kantar Media, a New York based company that tracks political spending.
Charles Connor, the lung group’s president, attended the unveiling of the mercury emissions proposal by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on March 16.
“That was the first tipoff we got that the lung association was going to be spokesman in chief for the EPA,” said Scott Segal, an attorney at Washington-based Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, which represents energy companies. “You add it all up and it stinks.”
The forthcoming regulations, which mandate a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions, is estimated by the EPA to cost power plants $11 billion in 2015, the year they take effect.
The new regulation was ordered after a federal court threw out standards issued under the Bush administration. Under the EPA proposal, plants must install pollution controls to curb mercury, arsenic and acid gases that are released when coal is burned.
The EPA says the rule would save lives and create 9,000 more jobs than would be lost, as power plants invest billions of dollars to install pollution scrubbing systems or build cleaner natural gas plants. It estimates the regulation could prevent 17,000 premature deaths from toxic emissions.
The lung association’s new ads, airing now in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and other U.S. cities, show children wheezing and coughing against a backdrop of coal ash and coal-fired plants. One features a red baby carriage in front of a smokestack and a mound of coal.
Commercials Feature Children
In another, a boy runs through what appears to be a snowfall toward a waiting school bus. He sticks his tongue out and catches a flake. It dissolves into a black spot, and he expels a gray cloud.
“Air pollution from other states is hurting our kids, especially those with asthma, and corporate polluters are trying to block EPA scientists from cleaning it up,” a female narrator says.
“We’re trying to convey what’s at stake, and our kids’ health is at stake,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the association’s Healthy Air Campaign director. “We think the image conveys that quite well. The emotional impact has stimulated people to get into the fight.”
Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake donated to the effort to enable “communications campaigns that promote clean-air initiatives,” Jim Gipson, a Chesapeake spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Financial ties between Chesapeake and the lung association date to at least 2010, when the natural gas company “generously funded” the Fighting for Air public-service campaign, according to the association’s annual report.
The association and Chesapeake wouldn’t disclose the amount of money the natural gas company invested in the public relations campaign. Chesapeake didn’t influence the content of the ads or the public-service campaign, Gipson said.
Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides and 1 percent as much sulfur oxides, according to the EPA. Mercury emissions from gas plants are “negligible,” the EPA says on its website.
“Natural gas has already achieved significant market share gains in the electrical generation market at the expense of coal; largely on the basis of price, but also because of environmental issues,” Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake’s chief executive officer, said during a Feb. 23 earnings call. “Certainly, the social and political acceptance of burning coal in the U.S. will become more challenging in the years ahead.”
This year, coal accounted for 43 percent of electricity power generation, while natural gas was 24 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents American Electric Power Co., Southern Co. and coal producers such as Arch Coal Inc., is dedicating its largest budget since the group was formed 15 years ago to blocking or mitigating EPA action, said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman.
“They’ve got coal in their sights,” Miller said. “There is a whole alphabet soup coming our way, and this is going to be a political issue going into next year.”
A coal industry ad depicts a rodeo, with a nurse, a businessman and a construction worker struggling to stay atop bucking bulls.
“Today, too many Americans are just trying to hang on to their jobs,” a male narrator says. “So why is the EPA in a rush to push regulations that would saddle Americans with higher energy costs and throw even more of us out of work? The EPA needs to slow down. Tell Congress to make sure they do.”
Unlike an EPA proposal on ozone, which Obama scrapped in September, the mercury regulations could become a political winner, said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch in Washington.
“The opposition is nowhere near as broad nor as intense” as it was to the smog rules, O’Donnell said in an interview. “And the White House would like to keep health and environmental groups on its side.”
In fact, Obama’s re-election campaign is already taking credit for the regulation, saying on its website that, under Obama, the EPA “has set the first national standards for mercury emissions” from power plants.