An Investigation Into the History of Coal Industry Advertisements

Coal is clean! Environmental regulations will cripple the economy! Scientific evidence about coal pollution and the environment is inadequate and uncertain! Sound familiar? Big Coal relies on these arguments today in order to block environmental and public health protections.

Searching through newspaper archives, Greenpeace investigated the history of Big Coal's advertising to assess how the industry's arguments have changed over the years. The answer? Not much.

For at least five decades, the coal industry deployed deceptive advertising campaigns to scrub its image and delay important clean air standards. An intriguing pattern surfaces of increased rhetoric and advertising whenever rumors of environmental protections circulate.  Once government agencies pass air quality regulations, the coal industry then spins their required cleanup using technologies they once opposed as a big achievement. 

It's time for Big Coal to stop crying wolf. Check out our slideshow highlighting a handful of Big Coal advertisements.

Or view the full archive.

Coal Ads

Can coal be cleaned before it’s burned? (1979 – WSJ)

The coal industry has been working to convince the public that coal is clean for decades. This 1979 advertisement from AEP describes a coal “bath [in which] the lighter cleaned coal floats to the top.” The tagline states: “Cleaner coal. It will help make the America we see ahead a better America.”

Generate galloping unemployment! (1974—NYT)

“Coal – reliable coal – is the solution” to the 1970s oil and gas shortage, claims this 1974 AEP advertisement. AEP argues that Congress should modify the Clean Air Act in order to burn more coal or else the country would experience “galloping unemployment until America is eventually reduced to the hard life.”

What time is the electricity on today? (1974—NYT)

This AEP advertisement from 1974 claims power plants will be shut down due to clean air laws, leading to planned blackouts. AEP lobbied for pollution monitoring at ground-level, instead of on top of smokestacks where readings are more accurate. Take note that the U.S. has been monitoring pollution at the top of smokestacks for decades, without rolling blackouts.

U.S. proven energy reserves: Oil 12 years (1976-NYT)

This 1976 AEP ad states that “coal is, today, our only energy alternative…The problems generally associated with mining and burning of coal have been solved.” AEP believes that coal could “free us from dependence on foreign oil” except for “fanatical environmentalists [who] employ stalling tactics, court actions, legal technicalities.” Take note that the U.S. did not run out of oil reserves or gas reserves in 1988.

Maybe we should buy American coal fields (1974—WaPo)

In order to free us from the “economic grip of the oil-rich Arab nations,” AEP states in this 1974 advertisement that we should “dig and put all our coal to work as quickly, cleanly, and efficiently as possible.” AEP claims that “Middle East oil countries” will buy out American coal reserves because Federal agencies are obstructing U.S. coal mining and burning.



Tall stacks: Amen! (1974 NYT)

The industry favored tall smokestacks as a cheaper alternative to scrubbers, as illustrated in this 1974 AEP advertisement. Unfortunately, the industry built hundreds of tall stacks, leading to acid rain and pollution increasing to downwind states. AEP characterizes the EPA as “blinded by their distorted and narrow vision of righteousness” for considering pollution monitoring at the top of smokestacks.

Acid Rain: The real issue is whether you have all the facts (1982—WaPo)

This 1982 ad from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) states “[acid rain] has become an issue clouded by confusion, misguided blame, misplaced hope.” The information booklet offered in this ad was written by Alan Katzenstein, a future tobacco industry PR specialist. EEI claims that conclusions about acid rain and coal pollution are based on “circumstantial evidence” and more facts are necessary before taking action.

Who told you the earth was warming…Chicken Little? (1991)

This 1991 ad from a coal front group called Information Council on the Environment (ICE) claims that “proof that carbon dioxide has been the primary cause [of global warming] is non-existent.” This ad campaign was abandoned after a leaked memo exposed the group’s ad strategy to “reposition global warming as theory” rather than fact.

Don’t risk our economic future (1997 – NYT)

The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a front group for fossil fuel corporations, ran this 1997 ad saying China, India, Mexico, and Brazil are behind an agreement to “force American families to restrict our use of oil, gasoline, and electricity” without curbing their own emissions. This industry talking point is still obstructing international climate agreements.

Why are these men smiling? (2007 – Kansas City Star)

In this 2007 ad, the coal front group Kansans for Affordable Energy claims “without new coal-fueled plants, Kansans will be captive to high-priced natural gas, allowing hostile foreign countries to control the energy policy of Kansas and America.” The ad was responding to the Kansas state government’s decision to deny air quality permits for two coal plants.

Requiem for Scrubbers (1974 -- New York Times)

This AEP ad from 1974 declares scrubbers to be "unreliable and unacceptable for electric utility use." AEP criticize scrubbers as "monstrous contraptions" that will "fan the fires of inflation." Take note that the industry now widely embraces and celebrates  scrubber technology for U.S. coal plants for effectively reducing air pollution.

Clean coal. Cool. (2009 -- Washington Post)

This 2009 ad from Peabody Coal states that “the more we use [coal], the less we need to rely on foreign energy.” Peabody claims that “eventually, carbon capture and storage will allow plants to recycle the CO2 back underground.” Take note that “recycling” in this instance refers to the injection of CO2 as a waste product into geologic formations.