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How Successful Are Coal Front Groups?

Amanda Terkel points out that CNN's Democratic debate on Monday was sponsored by Americans for Balanced Energy (ABEC), a coal-industry front group. And, surprise, not a single question about global warming was asked. Very curious. Of course, TV networks asked candidates about climate change only three times all of last year—out of nearly 3,000 debate questions—so it's not like this was some wild aberration. Then again, two of those earlier debates were also sponsored by ABEC, so the plot thickens...

Actually, I've been wondering how significant it is that coal astroturf groups are planning to spend $35 million in early primary states to convince people that coal is "clean." It hasn't, after all, bogged down the rate at which conventional coal-fired plants are getting canceled or delayed by states worried about climate change. More likely, ABEC's main aim here is to drill into people's heads that a) we can't live without coal, and b) Congress needs to spend billions subsidizing carbon-capture technology (after all, "clean coal" probably can't compete with other energy sources on cost). And both of those—debatable—points really are becoming the conventional wisdom.

Meanwhile, in a recent ABEC-sponsored Nevada debate, Obama and Clinton both shied away from calling for a moratorium on coal plants until carbon capture becomes viable (which, as scientists like NASA's James Hansen have pointed out, is an unavoidable step to getting emissions under control). So that's one victory for Big Coal. On the other hand, the group was supposedly sponsoring the Florida debate in order to put pressure on Republican governor and anti-coal crusader Charlie Crist. But when Crist was recently asked about the ABEC campaign, he said: "I have no idea. That's the first time I've heard that, to be perfectly candid with you, so it apparently hasn't affected me very much."

--Bradford Plumer