“Whoa, you’re here,” says Adam, the preteen boy who appears when you first arrive at the website www.LearnAboutCoal.org. “Ten years from now, I’m going to be in your shoes. I’m pretty stoked about the future of energy in this country, and one reason for that is that I’ve taken the time to learn more about American coal.”

As you navigate around the site, created by the nonprofit Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), an array of young people, many of whom appear to be under 10 years of age, enlighten visitors about the happy, hunky-dory world of coal. Alicia sets down her book bag to explain how coal and environmentalism go hand in hand, while young Sarah tells how we have more energy in the form of coal than the Middle East has in oil. “I’m doing my homework,” she says. “You do yours too.”

The website is part of a multimillion dollar campaign by ABEC to promote American coal interests. They estimate they’ll spend around $200,000 in S.C. during this election cycle, and they’re focusing on newspaper and television advertisements. Last week, the state’s presidential campaign headquarters received stockings full of chocolate coal with the note, “Even Santa is rethinking his position on coal.” ABEC also appears to have a dedicated staff of bloggers and public relations folks — within hours of a recent post about coal on City Paper blogs, their representatives had left comments in favor of the industry.

ABEC doesn’t deny that they’re funded by power, mining, and shipping industry interests, but they’ve drawn criticism for the grassroots appearance they give in the PR campaign.

“They fall into a category I call ‘astroturf,'” says the Coastal Conservation League’s Climate Change Project Manager Ben Moore. “They’re a kind of fake grassroots organization that purports to represent the interest of tens of thousands of individuals, but they receive all their funding from the coal industry.”

Mountaintop Chop

ABEC claims to have nearly 150,000 members, but those numbers likely include many who have signed up for their e-mails but may not support their cause, like John Ramsburgh, project director for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. He takes issue with ABEC’s insistent touting of “clean coal.”

“When they say clean coal, are they saying that clean coal technology is available now?” asks Ramsburgh. “Do they mean emissions created when it’s burned, or does clean coal incorporate pollution created when it’s mined and blown out of open mountains?”

Leah Arnold, the communications director for ABEC, says they’re referring only to the energy production part of the process when they use the word “clean.”

“We don’t get into the mining issue. Our focus is all about the electricity side of coal, so we don’t deal with production or transportation,” she says.

Conservationists who oppose the practice of blowing up mountaintops to acquire coal take issue with that oversight. In the Appalachian Mountains, over 470 mountains have already been destroyed. The website www.ILoveMountains.org uses Google Earth to document each of the ancient mountains that have been destroyed in the last three decades, as well as offering a ZIP code-searching tool for consumers to discover which mountain the power they’ve consumed came from.

“We have long since mined out the most productive coal seeds in Appalachia,” says ILoveMountains Executive Director Mary Anne Hitt. “What’s left is hard to get and requires increasing environmental damage to mine, from severe water pollution to obliterating one of the most diverse native forests on the continent, as well as choking local communities with coal and rock dust. When it’s costing peoples’ lives and the oldest mountains in the world are being destroyed, the price is too high.”

ABEC refers to mountaintop removal as “contour mining,” criticizing the “mountaintop” term as a phrase invented by environmentalists with an agenda. Their website defends the community impact of the practice by saying that mining brings well-paying, skilled-labor jobs. “Although folks near the surface mining operations experience the biggest share of the hassle, they also get a share of the biggest reward,” it reads.

According to ABEC, coal is the answer to America’s energy needs because of its abundance and low cost. Although coal prices have risen over 20 percent annually in recent years, its domestic availability keeps it cheaper than other forms of power.

“If we try to over-regulate coal, then the cost will go up,” says ABEC’s Arnold. “But if we allow technologies to be developed that can capture emissions, we can do it very economically. There’s a triangle of environment, energy security, and energy demand. You can’t conserve your way out of growth, so you’ve got to balance economics and the environment.”

ABEC has a “Flex Fuel” van that they’re driving around the state (last week it was parked outside the Oprah/Obama rally in Columbia) to share some of the progress the industry has made in cleaning up the coal burning process. A project called FutureGen is currently underway in Illinois to create a near-zero emissions coal plant that’s able to capture carbon dioxide emissions, storing them underground or using them to create hydrogen for fuel. The industry previously touted IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) plants that burn coal in a gaseous state, emitting significantly lower pollutants, but both attempted projects have thus far been unsuccessful.

The Energy of South Carolina’s Future?

The anti-coal movement in South Carolina has been fueled in recent months both by new attention to the dangerous mercury levels many coastal residents have built up in their bodies and by a new coal- burning power plant that state-owned utility Santee Cooper wants to build on the Pee Dee River south of Florence.

Although Santee Cooper has touted that plant as using the “cleanest available” technology, it will burn pulverized coal in the traditional fashion and is a “super critical” plant, a step below the “ultra critical” level that conservationists say is truly the “cleanest available.” (Company spokesperson Laura Varn calls the ultra level “fringe technology”). The new plant’s proposal includes smokestack scrubbers and the burning of coal at a higher temperature and pressure, allowing less coal to be used. However, the plant’s permit allows the release of 138 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

Santee Cooper is also currently constructing a new unit at their Cross Generating Station on Lake Moultrie, a project which Varn says generated no public opposition, despite its dirtier status as a “sub critical” plant. “It shows how much change has happened in the last couple years,” she says.

The permitting process for the Pee Dee plant has attracted hundreds of people to its public hearings, and the company has hired Charleston-based public relations firm Rawle-Murdy to help promote their “green” initiatives and boost their image. They also released an economic impact study by Francis Marion University last week that claimed the new plant would create 9,000 jobs. That number has been criticized because the study counts one person working a job for five years as five jobs, a practice that Santee Cooper says is standard. Opponents say it pads job forecasts in their favor.

“There’s only so much lipstick you can put on the pig,” says Bob Wislinski, a founder of the Carolina Climate Network, criticizing the numbers he considers to be inflated. Wislinski speculates that Santee Cooper’s insistence on a new coal plant, while Duke Power and Progress Energy move beyond coal as a primary energy source, could be attributed to a desire to remain unattractive to private buyers. Selling the state-owned utility has been a consideration under Gov. Mark Sanford, and the likelihood of a federal carbon emissions tax in the coming years would make burning coal less profitable. “They need a certain amount of debt load to keep their monopoly intact as a state agency,” says Wislinski. “They know how to build pulverized coal plants, and that’s all they know.”

Santee Cooper’s Varn says that after examining legislation on the books like emissions cap-and-trade concepts, coal still came out economically favorable. She stresses that without the plant, the state could face a serious lack of power by 2012.

The Cost of Coal

If the lights didn’t turn on one morning, it would certainly be bad news for business. Fear of brownouts may be Santee Cooper’s biggest advocate in the push to build the new plant. ABEC downplays alternative energy pursuits by claiming that more expensive energy will force people to choose between “heating and eating.”

Coal, however, is not getting cheaper. The burning of coal is responsible for around 32 percent of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. and is likely to soon face regulation through taxation. ABEC touts a 250-year supply, but that exists mostly in the western U.S., and rail lines are already being utilized at capacity. No coal is produced in S.C.

In the province of Ontario, Canada, where the government provides both power and health care, a 2005 study broke down the total costs of different power scenarios, taking into account health and environmental cost estimates. They studied the total expenditures of continuing to burn coal for power (the base line), switching to a mix of nuclear and natural gas, and imposing “stringent controls” on the existing coal plants to control emissions. Despite the high initial costs of dismantling plants and building new ones, shifting completely away from coal resulted in a total cost of less than half of the coal baseline.

Here in South Carolina, we’re facing the construction of a new coal plant in the middle of what’s been dubbed the “Mercury Triangle” for its already unsafe levels of the heavy metal. A recent headline in The Post and Courier told of walruses dying in stampedes as they struggle to find solid ice, and another read “the Arctic is screaming after major ice sheet melt.” We know that our coast could soon face destruction from rising sea levels, yet we’re building more of what we know causes the problem. 

Santee Cooper has not experienced a huge response to their “green power” offerings, so it’s hard to say if Charlestonians would pay more for responsible power even if they knew about mountains being blown up to provide what we’re burning today. Although the destruction and pollution that coal causes is a reality, groups like ABEC are spending big bucks to keep the public concerned about energy security while glossing over coal’s environmental impact, or in the case of mountaintop removal, plain ignoring it. They’re actively lobbying the presidential candidates in their quest to keep America’s energy sources “balanced” at just over half our production from coal.

Coal generates a lot of money for a few companies, something the children at www.LearnAboutCoal.org weren’t asked to elaborate on. A “bottom line” offered by ABEC founder Joe Lucas on the site’s blog provides insight into their philosophy: “There is a simple lesson that my mother taught me — in order to have an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.”

If those eggs are the health of our citizens and environment, is that an omelet South Carolina wants to eat? And wasn’t it Joseph Stalin who popularized that phrase?