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Are Eco-Regulations Really At The Core Of Coal’s Demise?

Environmental lawmaking to address global warming continues to confront hurdles, especially in conservative media, as money drives polarization over measures to tackle the climate crisis.

Like many others in the US, a coal-fired power plant in eastern Texas will cease operations earlier than had been originally targeted. But that closure has resulted in an uproar from Fox News, which claims that members of the local community “fear severe economic consequences.” The media outlet says that “the decision to close the Hallsville plant has sent reverberations through the tiny town.” What’s to blame? Eco-regulations, Fox says.

Customer costs resulting from such eco-regulations, as Fox calls them, were factored into the company’s decision to close the plant. “Among the many state and federal regulations coal-fired power plants are faced with is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) coal combustion residuals (CCR) rule, which is designed to protect the environment from excess coal ash contamination,” the article states. “The costs associated with complying with the CCR rule was a main driver leading to the Pirkey plant’s planned shutdown.”

What’s left unsaid is that the shift away from coal to renewable energy for electricity generation is producing environmental benefits during the climate crisis but also poses uncertainty for coal producers and others along the coal supply chain. Media representations of the coal debate shape how citizens understand and respond to it, and articles like this one from Fox Business do no good in helping energy consumers to a envision a healthy future via a renewable-based grid.

We know that every media outlet frames its messages in a particular manner for a specific audience and purpose. What’s behind this pattern of Fox News discourse that situates coal communities as victims and environmentalists who fight to uphold federal protections as villains? What’s in it for Fox to portray coal in heroic terms?

The November 22 Fox Business article examines how the H.W. Pirkey Power Plant, a large 721-megawatt Texas coal plant, came to be on the verge of closure. Two environmental groups, the Environmental Integrity Project and Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against the EPA last month for failure to enforce federal emissions standards at the plant due to “eco-regulations.”

Fox commiserates over how the plant’s owners have surrendered to these fatal forces. It denigrates Pirkey’s legacy of longtime coal prosperity for the region and cites AEP, the owner of the Pirkey Power Plant, as having haphazardly committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2045. That goal of 80% reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030 could have factored into the decision to shut the facility, Fox implies, thus placing renewables in direct opposition to a community’s fiscal health.

Fox casts arrows at the company’s CEO, Nick Akins, because he visited the White House earlier this year, publicly asking for more tax incentives to build green energy projects. The quote Fox chose from that occasion positions Akins as someone looking out strictly for his company’s bottom line due to focus on “tax provisions, ITCs — investment tax credits — and so forth.”

The local newspaper — amidst articles about a turkey trot and high school basketball scores — is Fox‘ source for the following stats:

  • The plant shutdown is projected to lead to a loss of $22 million in sales and economic output in the region.
  • It will also spark a $2 million to 3 million loss for local school districts that rely on tax revenue from the plant for funding.
  • The lost revenue could lead to dozens of job losses at local schools.

Coal, Community, and Maintaining the Status Quo: A Fox News Perspective

The language that Fox uses to describe the community and the coal plant closure as a result of eco-regulations is fascinating.

Particular words and phrases are incorporated into the article to create a planned effect: “blue-collar workers, it’s going to devastate them;” “I’m on a fixed income;” “I just can’t fathom that they’d even think about closing it;” “mainstay in our community;” “lost jobs;” “worry about the reliability of the replacement power;” “asked to remain anonymous fearing repercussions;” “may have to pay higher bills due to the plant shutdown;” and, “the government coming in and putting their thumb on the scale.”

The article showcases Fox News‘ expertise in discursive strategizing.

  • We see few instances in which people in the community are described as subjects who perform an action; instead, they’re objects of the Biden administration’s federal rulings.
  • President Joe Biden is depicted as Enemy #1. The article includes a video in which the President utters, “We’re going to be shutting these [coal] plants down all across America.”
  • The mine’s operator, a subsidiary of the North American Coal Corporation (NACCO), claims it supported keeping the plant open, “adding that the closure would have an adverse effect.” The effect is described in vague, imprecise terms, allowing the reader to fill in gaps supplied by Fox innuendo.
  • There is no background information offered about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) coal combustion residuals (CCR) rule, which is designed to protect the environment from excess coal ash contamination.

Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island, points out to CleanTechnica how it’s ironic that the big coal industry emphasizes their workforce as the “little guy” — victims of the big bad environmentalists whose regulations are taking away their jobs. Hobbs notes that these kinds of stories “disrupt and even erase narratives that have long centered on the power of the coal industries to control the lives of people who work in small rural communities.”

As the granddaughter of a coal miner, Hobbs thinks it’s important to look at the longer history of how workers in the coal industry have been exploited by the industry. That’s the historical “reality check,” she says, that the coal industry would like people to forget. “For these reasons, it makes a lot of sense that the coal industry would invest PR dollars in humanizing the ‘little guy’ and erasing its own culpability by positioning its workforce as the victims of government regulation.”

Buried in the Fox article is a quote from plant owner AEP. “One of the factors considered was impact on customer rates for the cost of completing this work. Customers will benefit from this decision,” describes Scott Blake, a spokesperson for AEP. “When the announcement was made, we immediately began working with the community to do everything possible to lessen the impacts of the plant’s closure.”

A promise to provide severance, educational, and retraining resources and other potential job opportunities to the hundreds of workers at the plant is juxtaposed with a statement that the closure will directly impact workers at the nearby mine, which provides the plant with its coal resources. “The mine’s sole customer is the Pirkey Power Plant,” Fox eulogizes, “and is slated to close due to the shutdown.”

Politics shaped eco-regulations over the course of the 20th century in ways that affect us now in the 21st century. Controversy, gridlock, and the demise of bipartisanship were hallmarks of environmental lawmaking in the 1990s. What became evident in the decades to follow, however, is that eco-regulations are necessary. They can prevent the worst excesses, and the existence of eco-regulations and enforcement is itself an important deterrent. While sometimes imposing what can be perceived as excessive costs on economies, eco-regulations have resulted in substantial environmental improvements.

Fox News: A Master of Conservative Discourse

Discourse reflects different ways that individuals perceive social life. In the world of Fox News, “wokeness is not just a political ideology — it’s a state religion.” The Heritage Foundation’s $1 million ad campaign against the Senate’s gay marriage bill during NFL games is headline news. An interview decrying Dr. Anthony Fauci’s tenure as “the biggest failure in public health history” gets top billing.

“As media literacy scholars and practitioners, we always look at the funding of the media network to identify the agenda and ideology behind the reporting,” explains Yonty Friesem, associate professor of civic media at Columbia College Chicago, told CleanTechnica. “We should pay attention and examine how the coal industry pushes its agenda through mainstream media for deregulation and positioning coal communities as victims of government environmental regulation.”

A Pew Research Center survey found that Fox News is viewed as the most ideological of all networks. It engages in cognitive dissonance — variously stating one position at a convenient moment in time, then contradicting itself later when the situation suits it.

For example, in 2015, Fox News outlined the devastating consequences of coal and its role in climate change. Yet a 2018 study found that, even when an opportunity is presented in which there are discussions in the press about the climate, there was no mention of climate change on Fox News.

Now, in 2022, it describes President Biden as “hell-bent on waging war on fossil fuels, especially coal.” Converting from coal plants will save money and shift the US to wind power. Fox News, though, reroutes those conversations and, instead, contacts and highlights tribal leaders and energy experts who criticize efforts to restrict oil, gas, and coal production through eco-regulations. The news outlet supports the West Virginia coal industry when it “slams Manchin for supporting the climate bill.”

Why is such cognitive dissonance evident at Fox News? Jennifer Rubin calls it a “schism at Fox News between real reporting and deplorable propaganda programming.” Phillip Bump argues that it is a “uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape.”

How did Fox News get its shtick?

In an iconic article in Cinema World, Jeffrey Jones gives us some hints. The creation of the Fox News Channel in 1996 gave Roger Ailes the platform he needed to “feature overtly conservative ideological programming to attract conservative audiences.” With Fox, he found the 3 necessary ingredients for success:

  1. Star power
  2. Conservative ideology
  3. The right platform for attracting conservative audiences: the news genre

How do we know that Fox News uses its platform to prop up the coal industry? British professor of linguistics Norman Fairclough helps us out. He states, “Seeking hegemony is a matter of seeking to universalize particular meanings in the service of achieving and maintaining dominance, and this is ideological work.”

The environmentalists in the article who seek eco-justice are anti-heroes who will reduce a vibrant community to ruin — but they never get the chance in the article to explain their rationale. Instead, it is their actions that have a material result in eco-regulations that allegedly harm innocent victims. In contrast, the community members are described via mental processes — they’re passive individuals who engage in a battle against federal government forces as embodied by eco-warriors.

Final Thoughts

Individuals in a digital information society need to be selective, as not all energy information available is factually correct nor is free from ideology. Media consumers need to develop a critical mindset and evaluate eco-information. We all need to better understand the kind of content that is given, to be aware of the language selected to impart the message, to identify whose perspective a message is delivered, and to avoid becoming a cog in a communication channel that perpetuates arbitrary discourses.

We live in a pluralistic society. Values are a community standard. We constantly debate issues of justice versus caring and reconcile the two by creating communities that are safe, meaningful, and consistent with most long-standing traditions. Eco-regulations are mechanisms to rein in corporate malfeasance that would otherwise suffocate the citizenry and support cultural standards.

For Fox to perpetuate the power and place of coal as a viable energy source is to harm the audience it serves and the US as a whole.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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