What's Inside The Coal Industry's Rhetorical Playbook

Inside The Coal Industry's Rhetorical Playbook
Photo Credit: Takver. No coal export rally 10 Dec 2013. (CC 2.0)

If citizens have heard anything about the upheaval in the U.S. coal industry, it is probably the insistence that President Obama and the EPA have waged a “war on coal.” This phrase is written into President-elect Donald Trump’s energy platform, which promises to “end the war on coal.”

The often repeated slogan indexes a set of attitudes and assumptions about government regulation and environmentalism. The foremost if the belief that the (liberal, overreaching) federal government has it out for coal and the American way of life that coal supports.

If only the coal industry could get government and its regulations off their backs, the argument goes, thousands of jobs and our economy would come roaring back, a pledge Trump made during his campaign while touring Appalachian coal country. After the election, Trump doubled down on this rhetoric, saying that, “On energy, I will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy – including shale energy and clean coal – creating many millions of high-paying jobs.”

Yet most analysts agree that the major front in the “war on coal” lies within the market itself. Natural gas production, experiencing explosive growth thanks to the rapid expansion of hydrofracturing, has dealt the biggest blow to King Coal and explains coal’s loss of market share for power generation.

Still, the “war on coal” rhetoric persists. But why? We investigated the public communication strategies used by the industry and found some consistent patterns.

Looking for a lifeline

From the coal industry’s perspective, the war metaphor does capture the situation of an industry under siege and under pressure:

  • Coal production in 2016 fell to historic lows, with a 26 percent drop just in the first half of the year.
  • Six publicly listed U.S. coal companies, including the iconic Peabody Energy, have declared bankruptcy since April 2015.
  • Advocacy group Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign claims 243 coal plants have been shut down and continues to target the remaining 280.
  • Although Trump has vowed to scrap the Clean Power Plan, the regulations would, if implemented, have outsize effect on coal-fired electricity generation.

Casting the coal industry as one under siege provides important cover for industry advocates. This framing allows it to shore up government support for big technological projects such as “clean coal” pilot plants and coal export terminals, while at the same time, it justifies the call to get “big government” out of the way by fighting environmental regulations.

Importantly, the coal industry’s rhetorical playbook isn’t limited to so-called “climate change denial” – although there is clear evidence that the industry has financed several organizations that question the fundamentals of climate science.

Instead, industry campaigns reveal several other rhetorical moves that Big Coal uses to garner support from the public and, perhaps more importantly, from government agencies that could provide a lifeline to an industry in upheaval. We outline five of their most powerful moves below.

1. Industrial apocalpytic

Remember how, following the global financial collapse in the late 2000s, big banks claimed they needed government bailouts because they were “too big to fail”? Big coal makes a similar move when it claims the “war on coal” will lead to an economy in ruins and the collapse of the American way of life.

A quintessential example is “If I Wanted America to Fail,” a five-minute video produced by Free Market America, an organization whose mission is “to defend economic freedom against environmental extremism.” The video circulated on websites of coal-friendly groups during the 2012 presidential primaries, and it equates environmental regulations on energy production with America’s economic failure.

Industrial apocalyptic arguments close off critique, shore up status quo approaches to energy policy and build the specter of environmental regulation as catastrophic.

2. Corporate ventriloquism

Coal also enlists a wide array of voices to speak in ways that advance its interests. We call this corporate ventriloquism. It creates the appearance of broad public support for coal and conflates support for “America” with support for coal through the use of voices ranging from local “grassroots” organizations to national campaigns. Campaigns and organizations such as Friends of Coal, a West Virginia-based advocacy group, and America’s Power, a coal industry trade association, emphasize the monolithic support the coal industry claims to enjoy among everyday Americans.

Corporate ventriloquism also allows the industry to position itself as a grassroots citizen voice, blurring the line between corporation and citizen to seize a rhetorical advantage. In conjunction with conservative foundations, think tanks and sympathetic public officials, the coal industry can use its financial resources to circulate a neoliberal, industry-friendly message and make it appear to be a popular, “common sense” position.

3. The technological shell game

The industry also plays what we call a technological shell game. It misdirects audiences to prior pollution abatement efforts, such as reducing dust and acid rain, to suggest the industry is proactively addressing carbon emissions. But this story conveniently ignores both the problems with carbon capture and sequestration technologies, as well as the history of government regulation and financing needed to make environmental and public health gains.

For example, according to the industry-supported group America’s Power website, the coal industry is “ensuring [America’s] future is cleaner than ever before.” The website then points to two “clean coal” plants – the Kemper plant in Mississippi and John W. Turk plant in Arkansas – as technological solutions to the problem of climate change. Yet Kemper has been beset by cost overruns and engineering challenges. Turk’s technologies make it somewhat more efficient than other coal-fired power plants in the U.S. – leading to slightly lower emission levels – but even these levels are well above the emission rates articulated in the now-threatened Clean Power Plan.

When the industry consistently characterizes these two plants as technological fixes to coal’s massive carbon emissions, both of which are heavily subsidized by federal investment and which perform unevenly at best, this is an example of the technological shell game.

4. The hypocrite’s trap

The hypocrite’s trap is a move that gets used with startling frequency against environmental activists, and especially against students advocating for fossil fuel divestment. It silences voices critical of fossil fuel use by pointing to the activist’s own fossil fuel consumption.

We can see this at a celebrity scale when pundits snark about actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s transcontinental flights as a climate activist or former Vice President Al Gore’s electricity bills. At a smaller scale, it’s used to make activists seem naïve about their own complicity in an energy system built on fossil fuels. If you can’t make it without coal and oil, the argument goes, then you can’t say we should divest from those industries.

The counterargument, of course, is that we can critique conditions as they are, even if we also benefit from them. But the hypocrite’s trap is effective because it builds on common conceptions of environmental activists as idealistic dreamers, fossil fuel advocates as hard-eyed realists, and a system that can’t be changed, so why try? The trap turns activists back toward their market role as consumers and silences political dissent.

5. Energy poverty/energy utopia

Given the downturn in domestic markets and environmentalists’ success in branding coal as a “dirty” source of energy, the industry and its allies have attempted to build a “moral” case for expanding the use of coal: its ability to create a utopic future for the world’s poor.

Peabody fashions an entire campaign around this strategy, with images and videos that consistently positions coal as a solution to energy poverty and the key to providing a Westernized version of the good life. Doubling down on the rhetoric of clean coal and the hypocrite’s trap, Peabody’s campaign deflects complicated questions about energy justice and climate change that will be necessary to address in an era of energy transition.

We don’t see these moves as limited to the coal industry – once you understand them, you’ll see them all over the place. They’re used by big industries (oil, gas, nuclear, agribusiness) that see themselves “under pressure” thanks to declining markets or proposed environmental regulations. By naming these rhetorical tools, both academics and activists will be able to do the important work of responding effectively to industry’s standard moves.

About The Authors

Steve Schwarze, Professor, The University of Montana; Jennifer Peeples, Professor of Communication Studies, Utah State University; Jen Schneider, Associate Professor in Public Policy and Administration, Boise State University, and Pete Bsumek, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, James Madison University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related Books:

InnerSelf Market




follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration


The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
The Great Climate Migration Has Begun
by Super User
The climate crisis is forcing thousands around the world to flee as their homes become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
Earth Has Stayed Habitable For Billions Of Years – Exactly How Lucky Did We Get?
by Toby Tyrrell
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that…
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
How Mapping The Weather 12,000 Years Ago Can Help Predict Future Climate Change
by Brice Rea
The end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, was characterised by a final cold phase called the Younger Dryas.…
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
The Caspian Sea Is Set To Fall By 9 Metres Or More This Century
by Frank Wesselingh and Matteo Lattuada
Imagine you are on the coast, looking out to sea. In front of you lies 100 metres of barren sand that looks like a…
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
Venus Was Once More Earth-like, But Climate Change Made It Uninhabitable
by Richard Ernst
We can learn a lot about climate change from Venus, our sister planet. Venus currently has a surface temperature of…
Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
The Five Climate Disbeliefs: A Crash Course In Climate Misinformation
by John Cook
This video is a crash course in climate misinformation, summarizing the key arguments used to cast doubt on the reality…
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
The Arctic Hasn't Been This Warm For 3 Million Years and That Means Big Changes For The Planet
by Julie Brigham-Grette and Steve Petsch
Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44…


bright light from under small building light terraced rice fields under starry sky
Hot nights mess up rice’s internal clock
by Matt Shipman-NC State
New research clarifies how hot nights are curbing crop yields for rice.
A polar bear on a large mound of ice and snow
Climate change threatens the Arctic’s Last Ice Area
by Hannah Hickey-U. Washington
Parts of an Arctic region called the Last Ice Area are already showing a decline in summer sea ice, researchers report.
corn cob and leaves on ground
To sequester carbon, leave crop leftovers to rot?
by Ida Eriksen-U. Copenhagen
Plant materials that lie to rot in soil makes good compost and play a key role in sequestering carbon, research finds.
Trees are dying of thirst in the Western drought – here’s what’s going on inside their veins
by Daniel Johnson, Assistant Professor of Tree Physiology and Forest Ecology, University of Georgia
Like humans, trees need water to survive on hot, dry days, and they can survive for only short times under extreme heat…
Climate explained: how the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change
by Rebecca Harris, Senior Lecturer in Climatology, Director, Climate Futures Program, University of Tasmania
When we say there’s a scientific consensus that human-produced greenhouse gases are causing climate change, what does…
Climate heat is changing Earth’s water cycle
by Tim Radford
Humans have begun to alter Earth’s water cycle, and not in a good way: expect later monsoon rains and thirstier…
Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable
Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable
by Simon Cook, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Change, University of Dundee
Around 27 million cubic metres of rock and glacier ice collapsed from Ronti Peak in the northern Indian Himalayas on…
Nuclear legacy is a costly headache for the future
by Paul Brown
How do you safely store spent nuclear waste? No-one knows. It’ll be a costly headache for our descendants.

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.