Peabody Coal 'Campaign' Hopefully Won't Fool Congress

This August a select number of Congressional offices working on international issues received an email from Advanced Energy for Life, a new PR entity extolling energy from coal. The main message of the email was that without coal, "basic needs such as hygiene, public health and life expectancy are left unmet."

We, along with the Congressional staffers who told us about the mailing, gulped in amazement. After all, coal is arguably the deadliest form of electrical generation, a big contributor to cardiovascular and respiratory disease, among other health problems. Coal plants in China are estimated to have been responsible for a quarter of a million premature deaths in 2011, and as many as 115,000 premature deaths are estimated to be caused by coal power plants in India.

Conspicuously missing from the email to Hill staff is the fact that Advanced Energy for Life is a project of the world's largest coal company, Peabody Energy. Just last month, the UK Advertising Standards Authority found Peabody's Advanced Energy for Life guilty of misleading advertising and false environmental claims.

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post's environment and energy editor, Kate Sheppard, revealed that Peabody hired the world's largest PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, to help execute the Advanced Energy for Life "campaign." Sheppard reports that Burson-Marsteller's previous clients include tobacco companies seeking to discount the health risks of smoking, as well as Union Carbide, hired in the aftermath of the chemical company's poison gas disaster that killed at least 3,800 people in Bhopal, India.

Peabody's timing is no accident. The coal industry and their Congressional cronies are going all-out to gut policies aimed at reducing the harmful impacts of coal. For example, earlier this year, House Appropriations Committee Chair, Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) included a provision in the pending fiscal year 2015 spending bill that would slash enforcement of environmental policies at development finance and trade agencies, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank). Friends of the Earth and our allies sounded the alarm, and, fortunately, the Senate spending bill didn't replicate that provision.

But this summer, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tried to include a similar anti-environment and health provision in a proposed bill to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank. Senator Barbara Boxer, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Manchin's proposal "just throws out practically everything that would lead to cleaner air." Manchin's proposal was dropped. But with Peabody on the move, we can expect Manchin's and Rogers' proposals will rise again before the current spending bill expires September 30, and later this year.

Congress should prevent OPIC and Ex-Im Bank from repeating their past fossil fuel financing mistakes. This includes over $7 billion in Ex-Im Bank financing for coal-related projects abroad, including two massive plants in India and South Africa, each eight to nine times the size of a typical coal plant in the U.S. These huge climate polluters will contribute to severe environmental, human health and human rights impacts, while failing to address the energy needs of the poor.

And it's not just coal. In 2009 Ex-Im Bank approved $3 billion in financing for Exxon's Papua New Guinea Liquid Natural Gas project, which is linked to the PNG government's use of notorious mobile police squads to repress villagers who live in the vicinity of the project pipeline. This was followed by the provision of nearly $5 billion between 2012 and 2013 for two massive LNG projects being built inside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, damaging this world-class marine park. And the list goes on.

Last year President Obama's 2013 Climate Action Plan restricted most coal plant financing by OPIC and Ex-Im Bank (although financing for other fossil fuel projects, as well as for coal mining and export, is still allowed). Other countries followed suit, and today international negotiations are afoot to expand the number of countries restricting coal financing.

As the world turns away from the dirty and destructive impacts of coal, and towards cleaner and safer non-fossil alternatives, it is little wonder that Peabody created a front organization to promote coal as "advanced" and coal pollution as good "for life." Congress should reject Peabody's cynical public relations ploys and shadowy legislative tactics, and prevent OPIC's and Ex-Im Bank's corporate welfare for environmentally and developmentally harmful projects.