When you think of Portland State University, you probably think of sustainability and going “green.” This is the PSU “brand,” and is openly described as such by administrators.
For many PSU students, sustainability is our passion, and we take pride in this association because we perceive it to be true. Students may then be shocked to learn that PSU is giving money to a company that is paid to lie to people about the deleterious health effects of coal and to perpetuate the myth of “clean coal.”
Portland State is a client of Gard Communications, led by President Brian Gard. Also on the client list is Ambre Energy, which is a thermal coal mining and export business. Ambre Energy plans to transport coal extracted from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming via railroad cars which will run through the Pacific Northwest on their way to ports that will ship the coal to China. If they succeed, the coal trains will run right through the city of Portland.
This contract is antithetical to the Portland State “brand.” Following is a statement from PSU’s Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability:
At Portland State we do more than just study sustainability. We engage directly with the community around us to make sustainability a reality. Our goal is to harness the strengths of our singular urban university – our progressive students, our innovative partnerships, our academic rigor – toward solving the environmental, social and economic problems of our time.
As far as innovative partnerships go, this one gets a failing grade.
Martin Donohoe, a physician and professor in Portland State’s School of Community Health, recently testified to the Portland City Council about the health effects of coal. “We Oregonians pride ourselves on our relatively clean environment and promotion of renewable energy,” says Donohue. “Why on earth would we want to step back into the nineteenth century and foster the use of coal, the most toxic of fossil fuels?”
Although the recent presidential debates included a lot of talking points about “clean coal,” we’ve known for years that this simply doesn’t exist, according to an in-depth report by TIME magazine:
The ‘clean coal’ campaign was always more PR than reality — currently there’s no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be…The biggest advantage of coal power has been cost — in most cases, it remains much cheaper than cleaner alternatives like wind, solar or natural gas. But the cheapness of coal depends on the fact that external costs — climate change, or the health impacts of air and water pollution from coal — remain external, paid for not by utilities or coal companies but society as a whole.
In 2011, researchers at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment published a study called “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal” in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which states the following:
Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as ‘externalities.’ We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive.
In other words, if coal companies were forced to bear these costs, we would probably have achieved our green energy initiatives by now.
PR firms like Gard Communications are largely responsible for misleading the public in order to perpetuate the clean coal myth; it’s what they’re paid to do.
Portland State Director of Communications Scott Gallagher is in charge of public relations at the university and says that public relations is about transparency—disseminating information to the public.
But when it comes to public relations in the fossil fuel industry, the “dissemination of information” sometimes comes in the form of strong emotional appeals and a limited factual base. One such attempt at “transparency” from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank for the fossil fuels industry, shows children blowing dandelion spores while claiming that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is good for you (“you breathe it out”) and suggesting that if CO2 were to be labeled an environmental pollutant, humanity would be thrown back into the Stone Age.
Gard Communications’ website displays their motto: “Our only standard is results.” Missing from this equation is any mention of legal or ethical standards.
Gallagher says, “We are not represented by Gard Communications nor any other PR firm. In the past, over a year ago, Brian Gard was on contract to provide input on strategic messaging and scheduling.” But Gallagher provided a copy of a $25,000 contract between Gard and PSU that ran until the end of 2011. That contract itself was less than a year ago.
A representative at Gard Communications confirmed that the client list is current. She also confirmed the relationship between Gard and PSU specifically, and said, “We do consulting for Portland State, on an as needed basis.” When asked about the nature of the relationship, she declined to comment—except to explicitly state that students do not have a right to know the nature of the business between the university and the firm that handles their messaging. So much for transparency.
Gallagher counters that PSU has a strong commitment to sustainability, and says “It is part of just about every program.” He urges a holistic look at sustainable practices at Portland State—rather than focusing on the PR connection to dirty coal—and pointed toward the more visible efforts: in social sustainability, food systems leadership with local food vendors, eco-roofs, solar energy, and hydro-stations. “We also shoot for LEED in building certification in new buildings and renovations,” Gallagher says. But he admits that PSU “isn’t perfect”: “We are a university, which means we have, unfortunately, certain needs. We can’t be 100% sustainable. But, yes, sustainability is our message.”
“PSU does look at business parters and their practices,” says Gallagher. “For example, we won’t buy t-shirts from a certain company that won’t commit to not using child labor.”
Gallagher says he didn’t hire out the Gard contract in the first place, but agreed that it may conflict with Portland State’s mission and pledged to bring the concern to the President and Chief-of-Staff to discuss the possibility of not contracting with Gard Communications in the future.
“Sustainability is our mission,” promised Gallagher. “We do consider the practices of our business partners.”