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Coal PR has been promoting coal’s benefits for decades. Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr, CC BY

Recycling rules: carnival of coal is a blast from the PR past

A politician invites coal industry representatives to a celebration of their work at the New South Wales Parliament. The purpose? To push the message that coal is absolutely essential to our economy and well-being.

This is about to happen – Liberal MP Dr Peter Phelps is hosting a Carnival of Coal tomorrow “to declare support for coal and associated industries and to send a loud and clear message that action is needed now to protect a secure, inexpensive energy future”.

Such political promotion is a response to growing public criticism of an industry that is a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change and threat to agricultural land.

In response to public criticism industries often appeal to broader orders of worth to justify their actions.

The Australian coal industry has a long history of such public justification, often invoking its contribution to the civic and national good.

‘Energy for living’

For instance, a photo in the November 1993 issue of the trade journal The Miner shows then NSW Premier John Fahey at a lectern emblazoned with posters proclaiming “Coal: Energy for Living”.

In one poster a young blonde girl holds a safety helmet, complete with lamp, above her head, smiling at her equally blond father. Not a speck of the black stuff is to be seen.

Another poster in the campaign shows a coal miner cradling a baby, accompanied by the claim that “Young Harry will use a lot of energy throughout his life. His own energy… plus a lot of electricity from Australian Coal.” In school tours promoting coal The Miner reported that:

A pantomime, performed by professional actors, starred “mutant cane toads” and “prince polie” and showed how life-giving energy could be released from the black rocks. This may sound corny, but it had even the most cynical deeply impressed. Education representatives said that it brought the house down in its first day of school touring.

‘Clean coal’

Of course the past 20 years have seen significant advances in coal public relations.

In 2008, the Australian Coal Association launched its NewGen Coal campaign, trumpeting carbon capture and storage (CCS) and “clean coal” (a promise made since the 1980s) as the answer to mitigating the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2013 it emerged that the A$1 billion fund established to encourage CCS had been expanded to include promoting coal use.

In 2013, Peabody, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, hired public relations firm Burson-Marstellar, (best known for its work for Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak disaster) to help design a pro-coal campaign.

During the intense lobbying in the lead-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit negotiations, mining companies were among those asserting that only coal could free billions from energy poverty [“Business Vocal at Greenhouse Negotiations”, Australian Journal of Mining, March, p.42].

Echoing these arguments, the Peabody campaign Advanced Energy for Life, emphasises that while all forms of energy are necessary, coal is still the cheapest way to reduce energy poverty.

This is classic wedge politics, painting opposition to increased coal exports as tantamount to wanting the poor to stay poor and ill. Many have challenged this, including recently Oxfam.

In 2014 Peabody’s chief executive even tried to claim increased use of coal as a response to the spread of Ebola.

Locally, the NSW Minerals Council, headed by Stephen Galilee, former chief of staff to NSW Premier Mike Baird when he was treasurer, runs a campaign extolling mining’s contribution to, among other things, Life Education, while implying that opponents of coal are the dupes of millionaires.

‘Coal is good for humanity’

To be fair, there has been progress; in recent years the industry has sought to reflect multicultural society. Len Tong, who arrived in Australia as a three-year-old refugee, featured in an advert in the Minerals Council’s “Mining: This is our Story” campaign, launched during the 2011 campaign against the carbon tax.

The NSW Minerals Council’s “Hurt Mining, Hurt NSW” is also studiously multicultural.

As Paul Cleary’s 2012 book Mine-field makes clear, the mining industry is adept at highlighting its (relatively small levels) of indigenous employment. Cleary recounts the October 2011 launch of the government’s Indigenous Economic Development Strategy basically being hijacked by the mining industry, with the then indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin “completely blindsided by a carefully orchestrated PR campaign”.

The biggest success for the coal industry is getting their words into the mouths of elite decision-makers. Famously, when opening the Caval Ridge mine in October 2014, Tony Abbott intoned: “Coal is good for humanity.”

More simply, NSW Premier Mike Baird, on a tour of a horse stud in the coalmine-dotted Hunter Valley, proclaimed that “coal is good”.

The Australian coal industry has spent significant amounts of money and energy defending its position. It has fought a rearguard action against climate regulation and the growth of renewables with vehemence, skill and determination.

Although the coal industry’s financial position looks shakier than ever, it would be a brave person who would bet against its continued success in delaying climate action. It may, however, require some better memes.

Christopher Wright is a member of the Academy of Management

The academy is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

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