Coal, the "alternative fuel"

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I cannot imagine a single person outside the coal industry who is enthusiastic about coal. Never mind enthusiastic — I cannot imagine any thinking person with a direct financial interest having any toleration for doing anything whatsoever with coal other than leaving it in the ground, undisturbed, forever.

I know that the president refers to our country as the Saudi Arabia of coal, but a) he's completely co-opted on any traditional-energy topic, and b) he's ... well, I'll just leave it at a).

So I was a little surprised to see one of the cover teasers for the March 2008 issue of Alternative Energy Retailer, "Coal Stove Sales, Page 12." Coal? As an alternative energy? Wow, that's quite a perspective.

The story, written by AER editor Phil Hall, is straightforward enough. OK, it concedes, coal stoves aren't ever going to dominate the hearth-products market, but gee, they keep plugging. What might the industry do to perk things up?

Rodger Castleberry, president of U.S. Stove Co. of Tennessee, wonders aloud if enough is being done to educate customers. "There is no PR for the coal industry," he has the audacity to say, for attribution, in print.

He is unaware, presumably, of the coal industry front group Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, which has been sponsoring many of the presidential debates — you know, those debates in which no candidate is asked any questions about the environment. Or the ads using the kids, American's future, who spout verbiage such as from “Daniella” who says, “I may be a kid, but we’re a lot alike. We both want affordable, reliable energy and a clean environment! Well, luckily, we can have our cake — and eat it too.”

Anyway, back to AER and its coal stove story. Quite fairly, it allows that "there is still a lingering problem of coal being a pollutant instead of a solution." John Flink, owner of Rings Coal of Yarmouth, Maine, says that "Many people look at coal as dirty," which may indeed be closer to why the coal stove industry is small and not growing.

The solution to that sticky little problem, says Jack Stauffenberg, superintendent of Blaschak Coal Corp in Pennsylvania, is to go patriotic: "It's an American fuel produced by American workers," he envisions as the tag-line that will turn it around. That's not unlike the president's Saudi Arabia line, or, indeed, the coal industry's number one line: "Fifty percent of America's electricity comes from coal," which is a fact, but hardly a justification for itself. Just 'cause it is, doesn't mean it should be.

You could say that AER is just doing a good job of covering its territory, and certainly, that must have entered into their decision to write and run the story. But leafing through the 24-page issue, you find a few more reasons: the Reading Coal Stove half-page color ad on page 5, the Alaska Stove Co. ad on page 9, the Hitzer Co. ad touting its E-Z Flo Coal stove on page 11, and Red Barn's coal stove ad on page 13 (where the story concludes). Altogether, that's four of the first five ads, and, as a category, number one by far.

You could conclude that the mag just proves my opening lines, that you have to have a vested financial interest to have reason to say anything good about coal.

Asked to comment, Hall said, "The article in question is not about utility-scale operations, presidential posturing or phony baloney front groups trying to skewer national perceptions. It was simply an overview of the depth and scope of today's coal stove sales. The emphasis is on the appliance, not the fuel source (although in some cases, misperceptions on the source are being cited for keeping sales down).

"Contrary to your comments, I genuinely thought the article painted a rather troubling view of the coal stove industry: consumers like the thermal and financial benefits of burning clean coal, but the hearth appliance manufacturers don't seem to be listening to them.

"As for the advertising in our magazine, that is not part of my bailiwick and I would defer inquiries to our sales team."

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