Who shouted, who didn’t: 10 observations on the carbon regulations media landscape so far

July 7, 2014

With a month now passed since EPA’s announcement of carbon pollution standards for power plants, we took a look back at the news coverage in June to get a sense of the media landscape on the issue so far. To make the scan manageable, we concentrated on print and radio, news rather than opinion, and we read more from some states — including Wisconsin, Ohio, Wyoming, West Virginia, Indiana and Georgia — than from others. In our observations below, we also cite coverage from Tennessee, Louisiana, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, Iowa, Texas and a couple national outlets. Here are our top 10 takeaways from our read of the clips:

1. Most use of the thesaurus for sound bites: Republican members of Congress

Many Republican members of congress, including some congressional candidates, came out swinging as soon as the carbon pollution standards were announced. They were quoted on claims around jobs, energy bills, economic competitiveness, and supposed lack of impact on global climate change. Some, like Congressman Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) in the Highland County Press in Hillsboro, Ohio, tied all of these together at once. But there was also another set of commentary from congressional Republicans — from Tennessee to Texas to Utah — who spiced their sound bites with more heated descriptors and metaphors: “pure fantasy,” “radical policy,” “the big wet blanket of burdensome regulations,” “intrusive,” “punitive,” “a disaster,” “a procedure that kills the patient,” “a backdoor energy tax,” “extreme,” and “stifling.” It all caught our eye not for being unexpected, but as we‘ll see below, for the marked contrast to the more measured tone of others’ reactions.

2. Most telling power company quote: “Our initial reaction is we don’t have too far to go” — First Energy, Ohio

Of course reporters turned to utilities for reaction to EPA’s proposed standards. With the exception of Southern Company, virtually every other utility we saw quoted refrained from criticism. Instead, utilities most commonly said they were studying the proposed regulations or appreciated the flexibility in them. Many also went on to talk about the progress they’ve already been making in producing power more cleanly. When we saw this from First Energy in Ohio, it was telling — First Energy had just fought to kill Ohio’s clean energy standards. There were many other examples. “We have been a leader in reducing emissions,” said Wisconsin Energy Corp. We’ve been “reducing carbon emissions in anticipation of such a rule,” said Arizona Public Service. “We should have a good start on this,” said the president of Tennessee Valley Authority. “We’re already doing a lot to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Portland Gas and Electric.

Of course, many utilities are practiced at portraying themselves publicly as greener than they are in reality; First Energy gets 57 percent of its generation from coal and only 11 percent renewables. But the move by so many utilities in June to talk to reporters about their emissions-cutting progress — whether green-washing or not — went a long way to fostering an overall perception of the carbon standards as expected, feasible, and part of a path we’re already on. Many a headline included phrasing about a state being “on path” or “on pace” or “ready” or “poised” or “positioned” or “on track” to meeting their carbon-cutting targets. It all combined to make claims of extremism and radicalism by GOP members of congress feel out-of-step.

3. Biggest media darlings beyond pols and power companies: analysts & academics

We saw a number of reporters turning to academics and other analysts and experts for reaction to the carbon regulations in June. Typically these sources put the policy into a broader context of ongoing energy transition. “We’re going in a new world and this is part of the change,” said University of Wyoming economics and finance professor Robert Godby in a state that gets 90 percent of its power from coal and over a billion dollars a year in coal revenues. Now “it’s up to regulators to take a fresh look and assess what is in the public interest… there are benefits of using cleaner energy,“ said utility finance expert Steve Kihm in Wisconsin. “It’s not Obama’s war on coal,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, a consulting firm. “It’s reality’s war on coal.”

4. Biggest punch packed by an anti-EPA standards messenger: commercial power customers

Among the sources quoted by reporters for negative reaction to the carbon pollution standards, it was probably big commercial customers that delivered the greatest sting. Where politicians were rhetorical, we noticed manufacturers bringing more specifics to the table. The president of Georgia’s association of manufacturers provided concrete figures on the state’s recent uptick in manufacturing and named specific companies as examples while making the connection to energy prices. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce was similarly concrete, discussing possible impacts for pulp, paper, and foundries that are ”very much global marketplaces” where it’s “difficult to pass those costs along.” Aside from the manufacturers and a few individual companies which also opposed to the regulations, we didn’t find other consumer perspectives quoted in the coverage in June.

5. Most colloquial quote by an environmental group: “There’s gonna be a lot of job growth, and a lot of people are gonna be healthier and happier” — Brennan Howell, Ohio Environmental Council

Quotes by environmental groups tended to center on one or more of the following: discrediting opposition claims; public health and climate; progress underway and feasibility; and economic opportunities in cost-effective energy efficiency and clean energy. We noticed a lot of tailoring to local contexts. In Indiana, a heavy coal-consuming state where politicians were lock step in opposition to the standards, the Hoosier Environmental Council emphasized economics and feasibility. “This will not only allow Indiana companies to cost-effectively comply with this policy, but will allow Indiana to become a major market for innovation in low-carbon technologies,” said Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. On the Gulf coast, on the other hand, Louisiana Bucket Brigade Founding Director Anne Rolfes geared her quotes in the Times-Picayune toward climate: “Here in Louisiana we should celebrate these new rules, for our state is the most vulnerable to climate change,” she said, noting loss of the state’s coastline and increased vulnerability to hurricane surges from rising sea levels.

6. Biggest addition to the energy media landscape: clean energy and energy efficiency businesses talking about coal and carbon pollution

We watch coverage on coal and clean energy a lot for our Energy Trend Tracker, and we’ve seen clean energy businesses speak out publicly on coal and carbon pollution from time to time before — but in June it rose to a whole new level. “Solar will create more jobs than coal ever thought about doing,” said Georgia solar installer Julian Smith. “Energy efficiency represents one of the largest opportunities to reduce carbon emissions while creating jobs, reducing costs and increasing energy security,” said Dave Myers, president of Johnson Controls Building Efficiency in Wisconsin. In Wyoming, renewable energy company owner Deb Theriault urged Governor Mead to consider renewables “instead of just sort of putting the blinders on and saying ‘we’re going to go with the way we’ve always done it.'” And in Ohio, green building designer Steve Melink said “the good news is that reducing carbon emissions is not difficult if we’re smart about it. Energy efficiency and renewable energy are cost-effective solutions.” We’ll be looking to see if this positive trend continues.

7. Most interesting (well, nearly the only) worker quote we saw: “If you care about your little ones then that’s what you need to think about, and not so much the here and now.” — Kathy Little in Louisville, KY, who lost her job last year at a company that sells heavy equipment to coal mines 

Associated Press reporters interviewed workers for their story on the power plant carbon standards that ran in central Iowa’s Times-Republic, U.S. News & World Report and elsewhere, but we didn’t see much other reporting that included reaction by workers, energy bill-payers or other ‘woman or man on the street’ perspectives. It struck us as a realm that’s up for grabs in the weeks and months ahead, as such views can be compelling. “Why keep chopping the legs out of your own economy to try to fight a world problem? You are going to destroy your country trying to set an example,” said Gary Whitt, a 29-year-old railroad worker in Prestonsburg, Kentucky in the same AP story. He went on to say that more than 50 of his co-workers have been laid off, and he’s worried he could be next.

8. Most notable quote by a governor: “Make green by going green” – Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin

On June 2, Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, said that if flexibility in the carbon regulation is real then “it’s encouraging to him and there’s a potential upside to the state if Wisconsin can ‘make green, by going green’ — not a thumb’s up but a cautious optimism.” Governor Walker’s reaction set him apart from GOP governors in states like Indiana, Kansas, Texas, and Louisiana who issued strongly worded opposition. It was also telling of Republican gubernatorial reaction that was not universal in tone and in some places provided yet another layer to the media landscape that made rhetoric from members of congress sound shrill. In West Virginia, for example, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin opposed the regulations but mentioned appreciating “giving our state some flexibility to design an implementation plan.” In Georgia, the state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, said the emissions targets were within reach.

9. Best photo that wasn’t coal plant smokestacks (nearly all were): view it here

We pay a lot of attention to visuals in communications. Images draw eyes first before words, and our eyes were no exception — we noticed the photos with the clips we scanned right away. While we spotted an image or two of a mine or a coal train, it was coal-fired power plants that stole the show by far. There was the spewing plant up close, smokestacks at sunset, and just about everything in between. For those who don’t see coal plants in their day to day lives, these images can serve as a visual reminder of how energy is produced and perhaps the pollution impacts. Seeing all the coal plant photos made us wonder what the next visual salvo on this issue might be, perhaps around the four public hearings that EPA is holding in late July. In the meantime, we note here a photo accompanying Ted Sickenger’s Oregonian article that caught our eye for revealing a glimpse of coal generation not often seen.

10. Best wrap-up: “If the rule goes into effect, doing it the way it’s always been done won’t be an option, but Wyoming will get to choose whether it’s seen as an opportunity or a burden” — Wyoming Public Radio

We thought it fitting to wrap up our list with a nod to a news story wrap — and this one struck us as a neat sum-up of the battle for perception around the proposed carbon pollution standards: opportunity or burden?


Overall, this first round of media on EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards for power plants was favorable. But of course it is just round one. Here are some of the things we’ll be looking for in coverage to come in the months ahead:

  • Power companies can drive attention and the shape of coverage if they want. While many were measured in their tone in June or didn’t make statements, some have already sent mailers in opposition to the carbon limits along with electricity bills. How will different utilities play their hands in the weeks and months ahead? Will we see vocal opposition, or will it stay behind-the-scenes? Will others be recruited to carry power company opposition messages? Will utilities continue to discuss progress being made and compliance feasibility, or not? Will more supportive utilities speak up or stay quiet?
  • Reactions from electricity bill-payers and energy sector workers were largely absent from the June media landscape. Will these perspectives be brought into the coverage? Which side will be more successful in bringing them in?  For example, will clean energy workers speak at the hearings EPA is holding in late July or at events surrounding those public input sessions? Will more folks speak up from a consumer perspective in favor of producing power more cleanly?
  • EPA and President Obama got the bully pulpit in early June, then came several hard news hooks created by reports, lawsuits and legislative activity by opponents. In late July, we’ll see attention around the public hearings. Who and what will create the next rounds of news that either boost or undercut the carbon pollution standards after that? To what extent can supporters of the regulations drive hooks that can steer the coverage? Quotes in June revealed the broad spectrum of connections to the issue — from climate to energy efficiency to renewables to costs to jobs. That breadth raises many possible avenues for continued story generation.
  • Coal plant exteriors starred visually in June, with many outlets reaching for file photos to accompany their coverage. Some of those photos — particularly the ones showing obvious smokestack pollution — are helpful visual reminders of the need for pollution safeguards such as the carbon limits. Going forward it will also be helpful to add in visual reminders of the benefits of producing energy more cleanly, including consumer benefit and job and economic growth driven by energy efficiency and renewables. In particular, images that are local to the audience — rather than generic — are effective; also up-close photos of workers and consumers who support and are benefitting from ongoing energy transition.

Jeff Cappella