WASHINGTON: As energy issues loom ever larger in the nation's capital, America's coal producers are coming together for the first time to wage a "massive," $5 million public education campaign localized entirely in the state of West Virginia.
As the largest single coal-producing state in the country, West Virginia is seen by the industry as a proving ground for innovation. "This campaign will have ramifications nationally, because the country looks to West Virginians on this issue" said Charles Ryan, president of Charles Ryan Associates, the firm running the campaign for the Coal Association.
The primary objective of the initiative, which insiders say is slated to last up to five years and cost upwards of $1 million annually, is to position coal as the energy source of choice for West Virginians, thereby making it "publicly and politically" comfortable for politicians to support policies favorable to the industry.
In addition, the Coal Association hopes to reinforce its product's central role in West Virginia's economy, as the state is one of many now experiencing serious budget shortfalls.
"Coal has long been the backbone of the economy in West Virginia," said Ryan, "so now, with the economy hurting, it's a good time to make sure it remains that."
But America's reliance on coal as a source of energy has undergone serious challenges in the past several years, particularly from environmentalists.
Critics cite its status as a non-renewable resource whose processing contributes heavily to the degradation of the environment. Such critics actively campaign on the national level to erode public and political support for coal production.
Ryan addressed such concerns, saying, "There are approximately 53 billion tons of coal reserves in West Virginia, enough for 300 years at current production rates."
Ryan said the industry's messages would be developed during a research phase, then disseminated through meetings with editorial boards, participation from state opinion leaders, and paid advertising. Former West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen will serve as the campaign's primary spokesman.
A grassroots initiative, West Virginia Friends of Coal, is also under way. The Coal Association distributed bumper stickers and buttons at a rally in the state last week.
Charles Ryan Associates has done sporadic work with individual coal companies before, though the current contract, won after a three-agency pitch, marks the first time it has worked directly with the Coal Association.