On May 13, the date of West Virginia’s presidential primary, CNN launched what the progressive group, Think Progress, called a “coal fest”.

“ISSUE #1: MAKING GAS FROM COAL: REDUCING DEPENDENCE ON OIL” flashed across the television screen as senior business correspondent Ali Velshi expounded on the prospect of converting coal into liquid fuel.

“The advantage of doing this is that it reduces the reliance on crude oil that we have” Velshi said. “And the fuel that actually burns once you’ve made it into gasoline is cleaner than regular gasoline that you buy. It’s very, very clean in fact. The disadvantage, of course, is getting it to become that clean … there are a lot of people who think anything you do with coal is very dirty, so the process to make the clean oil can be very dirty.”

Dirty indeed, as The New York Times‘ Andy Revkin made clear in a posting this spring on his Dotearth blog: “The energy required to convert coal to liquid fuel doubles the amount of carbon dioxide released compared to fuels refined from oil,” he wrote. Coal to liquid fuel nonetheless has become a hot topic.

Today, as debates over offshore oil drilling reach a crescendo and talk about expanding domestic energy supplies pervades the presidential campaigns, it’s easy to see how the fossil fuel industries – chiefly coal and oil – view this election season as a tremendous opportunity to promote their interests.

Steve Gates, senior communications director for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, ACCCE, said his organization’s message is simple:

“Our current campaign is out to educate people that with a domestic resource as abundant as coal is in this country, and the predominant role it plays in our energy mix … we’re better off finding ways to do it more cleanly than do something like get rid of base load generating power in this country,” Gates said in a recent telephone interview.

Coal is hugely important to electricity generation in the United States – responsible for about half of all the electricity produced. And at current usage rates, the nation has enough coal to last about 250 years. But these facts are lost on many Americans, Gates said.

How much each state relies on coal varies greatly. California gets only about 1 percent of its electricity from coal, West Virginia nearly 98 percent, according to ACCCE.

Gates’ group, which he said has an operating budget of about $50 million – $20 million of which is reserved for advertising in 2008 – is behind both the “I Believe” campaign and the iconic image of a power cord plugged into a lump of coal.

It also moved aggressively during the primary elections, and lobbied successfully against federal legislation to cut CO2 emissions.

One of ACCCE’s core messages is that coal production has become dramatically cleaner over the past three and a half decades. “Today’s coal-based electricity generating fleet is 70 percent cleaner than it was in 1970 (based upon emissions per unit of energy produced),” ACCCE proclaims on its website under the heading “commitment to clean.”

It goes on to say: “Some people might say that a 70 percent improvement is a job well-done. We say it is a great start. The industry has committed itself to even further emissions reductions to eliminate virtually all emissions of pollutants regulated under federal and state clean air laws.”

That caveat, of course, avoids the group’s having to address carbon dioxide. Yet coal was responsible for more than 2.1 billion metric tons of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2007 – about 36 percent of total emissions attributable to oil, coal and natural gas, according (pdf) to the federal Energy Information Administration. (The 2007 total was just under six-billion metric tons from those three sources.)

Dan Weiss, a senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said in a recent telephone interview that the coal industry will “often say things like we comply with all federal laws on global warming … because there aren’t any.”

Gates counters: The industry doesn’t address CO2 emissions when it talks about reducing emissions by 70 percent because “until the federal government comes in and classifies CO2 as something that needs to be captured and stored … it’s tough to put a quantifying number next to it.”

Fearing State-by-State CO2 Patchwork Quilt

But change is in the air and that day is coming, Gates acknowledges. “I think everyone within the industry knows and understands that at some point in 2009, maybe 2010, there will be a federal standard for CO2,” he said.

In the meantime, the industry is fighting against state legislation that would create a patchwork approach to CO2 regulation. It also was successful in June in stalling America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 proposed by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and John Warner (R-Va) – legislation that Gates argued would have placed an unreasonable time frame on the implementation of new technologies.

It will probably take 15 years or more before carbon sequestration technologies are widely used so they cut carbon dioxide emissions dramatically, Gates said. He argues that mandating significant cuts before those technologies are applied nationwide will create a shift in energy production that the nation can’t afford.

“If utilities are forced to meet an artificial time frame, it’s going to force fuel switching, which ultimately … is going to be natural gas,” Gates said. “With foreign energy source prices what they are and the desire to become more energy independent, that just didn’t seem like a good approach.”

The coal industry expects the federal government to pay for many of the up-front costs of developing carbon sequestration technologies – whether that means resurrecting the stalled FutureGen project in Illinois, or breaking the effort into smaller projects, Gates said.

ACCCE is expected to release a report soon that quantifies, in its view, how much money will be needed from the federal government and the coal industry over the next two decades to make carbon sequestration a routine part of electricity production – while keeping the cost of electricity unchanged.

“The government needs to be involved early with research … and then let industry take over from there,” Gates said.

For the time being, ACCCE – in its former incarnation as Americans For Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) – has become a mainstay on CNN.

“We’re very concerned that some of the debates on CNN were sponsored by (ABEC),” Weiss said.

Weiss claims that because of ACCCE’s sponsorship, CNN generally steered clear of asking the candidates questions about climate issues. “It’s as if the tobacco industry sponsored the debates and then there were no questions about smoking,” Weiss said.

Asked to comment, a CNN spokesperson said “Questions for debates are never included nor excluded because of the advertisers sponsoring the debate.”

Gates said claims of influence overstate ACCCE’s power. “While it was flattering to think that a small organization like us has such far reaching powers in presidential politics, we simply were sponsoring the debate like Pepsi is a sponsor of the [CNN] Morning Express show with Robin Meade – and they’re not talking about (Pepsi) any more or less,” Gates said.

ACCCE’s goal in sponsoring national debates was to speak directly to its target audience – people who will vote in the presidential election – and remind them that 50 percent of the nation’s electricity is fueled by coal.

The oil industry’s goals to influence policy, meanwhile, are significantly different from those of the coal industry, Weiss said.

The oil industry has historically played defense when it comes to public relations, that is, maintaining the status quo and resisting new regulations. The coal industry is now engaged in this kind of PR campaign, Weiss said. But the drive to open up offshore drilling in currently protected areas, ostensibly as a way to bolster domestic energy supplies, is a new offensive effort by the oil industry, Weiss said.

The “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” petition drive, a project of Newt Gingrich’s organization American Solutions for Winning the Future, embodies much of the oil industry’s push for new exploration.

With the presidential candidates now advocating new offshore oil drilling, the rhetoric surrounding the domestic energy question is here to stay.

The oil industry, meanwhile, is joining its cousins in coal in a new advertising campaign to improve its image. NPR profiled its efforts in a report on “All Things Considered”. During the first quarter of this year, the oil industry spent $53 million in radio, television, and print ads – more than 17 percent more than the same period last year, NPR reported.

In its latest campaign, the American Petroleum Institute points to its kinship with the American people – citing a study that shows that 41 percent of oil company stocks are held by investors in mutual funds, pensions and “other investments.”

In Washington, the oil industry is spending millions of dollars to lobby lawmakers on a variety of issues, from promoting offshore oil drilling to fighting new taxes.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks how money influences politics and policy in Washington, the industry is on pace this year to surpass record spending for lobbying in 2007.

Advocacy by both the coal and oil industries, in the media and on the Internet, at campaign rallies and on Capitol Hill, will continue to play out in the run-up to the presidential election.

The stakes are high – for the American consumer, the environment, industry, and the economy.

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...