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US fossil fuels target global energy poverty, climate change in new PR push

Charlottesville, VA — A new campaign from a group of US fossil fuel industry representatives will aim to sell coal, gas and oil as a technology-friendly solution to global energy poverty that is already entrenched in the day-to-day lives of much of the developed world.

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Two videos from Life:Powered, a not-yet-public campaign, were screened Tuesday at the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies conference in New Mexico and demonstrate the coal industry's push to revamp its public image. The videos, funded by oil, coal and gas interests, will aim to educate an "extremely under-informed" public on fossil fuels, said Michael Nasi, who is leading the effort.

"We have failed as both a coal industry, a power industry and obviously other fossil industries and the nuclear industry because we have failed to get together to message together," said Nasi, also an environmental lawyer and partner with Jackson Walker.

The videos are expected to be released in the coming weeks and will focus on promoting new technologies for fossil fuels, he said.

The campaign, which will use multiple messaging approaches to promote fossil fuels, is part of a broad effort by the coal industry to remake its image as the fuel has fallen out of favor in the US and begins to lose ground in places like China.

Luke Popovich, the former spokesman for the National Mining Association, told conference attendees the concept that coal is important has already lost a lot of value in the public marketplace of ideas. Salvaging its image, he said, will require a new approach that includes accepting climate change as an issue that needs to be addressed.

"Coal's single biggest liability is the perception that it is a bygone industry, not a future one," Popovich said. "The picturesque miner with a dented lunchbox and blackened face may glorify the industry's industrial past, but it reinforces the perception that coal is dangerous and dirty and that it has no role to play in a digital age, driving a clean knowledge-based economy."

States that have enacted policies favorable to renewables are unlikely to roll them back, power demand is unlikely to grow meaningfully and natural gas prices probably will not rise much anytime soon, he said.

Denying environmental problems created by the coal sector, Popovich said, is a non-starter from a communications perspective, so the industry must accept and not deny its environmental obligations if it wants to continue to play a role in power generation.

"It's too late for denial when your customers, the ratepayers, the banks, and regulators already believe climate change is real," Popovich said. "Accepting that climate change is real merely opens the discussion with the public."

Global energy poverty, and the idea fossil fuels could be a humanitarian tool to provide access to electricity, is a message prominently featured in the Life:Powered campaign videos.

"Over 1 billion people do not have any electricity," retired Penn State University Professor Frank Clemente says in one of the videos. "That's only the tip of the iceberg. About 2.5 billion people only have limited access to electric power. You're closing on almost half of the population of the world are living in energy poverty and that's why I say it is the leading problem facing mankind today."

Popovich said most public opinion is based on the perception that there is a problem and that it should go away. What the coal sector can do, he said, is change the face it shows the world and present technologies such as carbon capture and storage as solutions to concerns about climate change.

"Tell the public what it wants to hear for God's sake, not what you want to say," Popovich told the crowd. "Too often, coal hearkens to past accomplishments, not future aspirations. This inadvertently sends the message that coal is not listening."

--Taylor Kuykendall, S&P Global Market Intelligence, newsdesk@spglobal.com

--Edited by Gail Roberts, gail.roberts@spglobal.com