The coal industry’s re-branding campaign reminds me of an old Mad Magazine illustration.

It was the early 1970s. Esso had just changed its name to Exxon, and Richard Nixon was president. So Mad ran a photo of the White House, with a huge Exxon-esque sign sticking out of it. Except the sign said “Nixxon.”

The punchline? “But it’s still the same old gas.”

Coal is still the same old coal. But the industry has been spending a lot of money to change its image. It’s even enlisted imagery of the White House’s current occupant: a clip of Barack Obama endorsing during last year’s presidential campaign that mythic material known as “Clean Coal.”

Last year, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spent $38 million on TV ads alone -- an amount that’s certain to be exceeded this year -- to convince people that the world’s dirtiest energy source is just a small step away from being “clean.” The campaign was slick enough for the ad agency that came up with it to toot its own horn over how creatively it spent all that money.

That’s why I was heartened by anti-coal activists who made their own attempt at using celebrity images to grab headlines. Actress Daryl Hannah, NASA climatologist James Hansen and a 94-year-old former congressman from West Virginia named Ken Hechler were among those arrested recently for blocking the entrance to a coal-processing facility.

Civil disobedience in an out-of-the-way place by a scientist, a second-tier Hollywood star and a long-forgotten politician may not carry the PR weight of an inspirational appeal for votes and campaign money by the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. And a rag-tag group of climate activists doesn’t have the money to play its own propaganda during commercial breaks for every network news show.

But the battle for hearts and minds between the special interest of the rock that fueled the industrial revolution and the public interest of a clean energy revolution amounts to what the Pentagon calls asymmetric warfare. The insurgents’ best strategy may be to turn the fight into a crusade that taps high-profile people, wit and moral suasion to make coal as uncool as PETA made fur coats.

Saying that’s a difficult task is like saying a miner with black-lung disease has a bit of cough. First, you have to consider how deeply coal is lodged in America.

From the time it’s blown out of the Earth to the time its ash is dumped into massive disposal sites, coal relies on the work of fewer than 200,000 miners, railroad workers and power plant employees. But most of the nation’s business leaders still view the relatively cheap electricity derived from coal, which is abundant in the United States, as fundamental to America’s economic well-being.

They tend to ignore staggering costs that can’t be priced in dollars. The most obvious of those is coal’s contribution to climate change. Burning coal generates around one-and-a-half times the carbon per BTU as petroleum and about twice that of natural gas.

The real risk is that coal remains the fuel for growth in China, which will rely on it for its increasing energy needs unless someone develops a less costly alternative.

If the impact on climate change isn’t enough, there’s a whole series of environmental problems that crop up all the way from coal’s cradle to its burial place. The mountaintop removal mines that companies resorted to starting in the 1980s have drastically altered an area larger than Delaware.

In the process, the mining companies clear-cut forests, obliterate mountains and smother streams. Then, they have to dump huge volumes of toxic waste somewhere. Hannah, Hansen and company were arrested near the Massey Energy Co.’s massive mining sludge disposal site, which looms over a West Virginia town that may as well be renamed Damocles.

Rural communities also bear the brunt of the coal’s costs once the fuel is used up. That became clear in December, when a retaining wall for a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash dump collapsed, sending 5.4 million cubic yards of the toxic material into the Emory River.

Given all the environmental problems with burning coal, it’s difficult to imagine how the dirtiest fossil fuel could be transformed into a “clean” solution to our energy problems. In the South, we call that polishing a turd.

No wonder then that even power companies don’t seem to be putting their investment dollars where their advertising dollars are. After the Obama administration pledged to use stimulus money to pay for nearly half of a $2.4 billion “clean coal” carbon-storing project, two of the largest electric utilities pulled out.

But Big Coal, along with the coal-dependent power companies that are their allies, make up a powerful enough special-interest complex to have an amazing say in the political process. The Obama administration, which pledged to run the most open White House in American history, has run into two of its biggest secrecy controversies over coal. One involved dragging its feet on revealing where 44 coal ash disposal sties are around the country.

Eventually, the EPA came to the conclusion that Americans who live near those sites have a right to know if they stand the risk of becoming the next Pompeii. But the administration still is refusing requests to release a list of coal executives who visited the White House to discuss energy policy.

No one was surprised that the coal industry extracted some of the best goodies out of the climate bill working its way through Congress. The legislation dedicates the bulk of its free carbon emission allowances to coal-fired plants, and it actually weakens some existing coal plant regulations.

Environmental groups joined together in December to form the Reality Coalition, a campaign dedicated to fighting the PR about clean coal with its own slick communications. The coalition got a nice boost when the Coen Brothers agreed to produce its own ad about clean coal.

But the political system’s failure to address the threats posed by coal has been enough to drive Hansen out of the lab and into the streets -- literally. NASA’s top climate scientist, Hansen was the first prominent climate modeler to sound the alarm against global warming in the 1980s. Now, he calls coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet,” and he argues that it’s time for ordinary citizens to take direct action to block more coal plants.

“Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose,” he was quoted as telling a crowd in West Virginia before his arrest. “But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient.”

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. He blogs about media, pop culture and the environment at

(MNN homepage photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Media Mayhem: Coal's silver lining
Environmentalists may have to resort to civil disobedience to fight the source of country’s biggest greenhouse gas.