Gas companies are big spenders on anti-coal ads

Gas companies are big spenders on anti-coal ads

Masquerading as activists battling coal plants, Big Gas is squaring off against Big Coal in a polished campaign run by a Hollywood ad agency.

Natural gas companies, calling themselves the Texas Clean Sky Coalition, have been fighting coal plant proposals with full-page advertisements in the state’s major daily newspapers.

Utilities have proposed at least 17 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, and environmentalists worried about the emissions have protested, usually with grass-roots tactics.

The new ad campaign features stony-eyed men and women with smudged faces juxtaposed with facts about coal plant emissions. A Web site, www.cleanskycoalition .com, includes these rhetorical questions: “Would you bathe your child in coal? Sprinkle arsenic, mercury and lead on your husband’s cereal? Treat your friends to a big dose of radiation?”

The campaign has cost “north of a million dollars,” according to Fred Davis III, the head of Hollywood agency Strategic Perception, which put the campaign together. The photos were shot in a Southern California studio, he said.

The sum is vastly more than other groups that have opposed the plants have spent. Environmental Defense said it expects to spend at least $400,000 for advertising.

“We were trying to make it a simple message and get people riled up about it,” Davis said. “It’s very nervy.”

Lead and arsenic are found only in trace amounts in coal and are not major concerns, mercury emissions and the damage they cause are difficult to track, and naturally occurring radiation is more likely to be found in petroleum deposits, according to Dave Allen, a professor of chemical engineering and an air quality specialist at the University of Texas.

Jackson Williams, the executive director of the Texas Clean Sky Coalition, refused to reveal the source of money for his group.

“We’ve got car washes, real estate developers, restaurateurs, energy companies, retailers and individuals that have signed on to this effort,” he said. “They’re united on one thing: Nothing is worse than coal.”

The Web site’s domain name was registered to a company called Domains by Proxy, whose motto is “Your identity is nobody’s business but ours.”

On Monday, a spokesman for Chesapeake Energy Corp. acknowledged that it was at least partly responsible for funding the Texas Clean Sky Coalition. He said other natural gas companies were involved, too.

“We are primarily natural gas producers, and we think it’s the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon,” spokesman Tom Price Jr. said. “It’s simply that we think reduced emissions is a good thing.” He would not name the other companies and would not say how much Chesapeake had spent.

The coal plant proposals jeopardize some natural gas plans, said Greg Platt, an executive at Cobisa, a small Houston company that develops natural gas plants.

“From our perspective, it’s difficult to justify a gas plant if all of these coal plants get built,” Platt said. “It’s difficult for (financiers) to take the leap to open spigots on the money if they see these coal plants hanging out there.”

With natural gas prices high, the operator of the state’s electrical grid will run cheaper fuels such as nuclear and coal power before gas, Platt said.

The Clean Sky Coalition Web site includes newspaper stories about coal-fired power plants, informs readers about a rally against the coal plants on Sunday at the Capitol and points readers in the direction of Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club.

Neither group said it receives money from the Clean Sky Coalition or even knew what it is.

“Whether the money is coming from environmentalists, businessmen or competitors, we’re glad they’re fighting,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “Without help from everyone in the state, we won’t be able to stop the coal plants.”

The advertisements do not require disclosure because they don’t talk about a specific piece of legislation, according to Craig MacDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. “Ethically, we believe that advertisers like this should be straightforward and put a disclaimer about who paid for the ad.”

TXU Corp., which has proposed 11 coal-fired plants, has a “monsters” campaign that will run through April in Dallas, Austin, Houston and Waco, emphasizing the good power can do (including light keeping monsters away from children), said Lisa Singleton, a spokeswoman.

She would not say how much the company, which has one of the largest lobbying rosters in the state, is spending.

“We’re ready to be on the offensive and keep moving ahead with the path we laid out,” she said.


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