Looking Back At The Wall Street Journal's Coal Op-Ads

A Media Matters analysis reveals that The Wall Street Journal's editorials on acid rain mirrored misleading talking points featured in coal industry advertisements running elsewhere in the paper in the 1980s. The Journal also heavily promoted the claims of one particular industry consultant that was on the wrong side of science on acid rain, secondhand smoke and climate change. Years later, as industry groups orchestrate efforts to cast doubt on the science demonstrating health and climate impacts of fossil fuel use, the Journal continues to aid their efforts.

An American Electric Power ad that ran in The Wall Street Journal in 1979 downplays the environmental impacts of coal The Wall Street Journal Echoed Misleading Acid Rain Claims From Coal Industry Ads

In the winter of 1981, the Coalition for Environmental-Energy Balance, a front group for the coal industry, ran several advertisements in The Wall Street Journal defending the industry's emissions of sulfur dioxide, which were contributing to acid rain. The ads cast doubt on the threat of acid rain, warned about the cost of regulation, and claimed that calls for action to address sulfur dioxide emissions were politically motivated. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board used these same rhetorical tactics to forestall action on acid rain, as a previous Media Matters analysis found.

1) 'We Don't Know Enough': An ad by the Coalition for Environmental-Energy Balance that ran in The Wall Street Journal and other papers in November 1981 claimed that the primary causes of acid rain “cannot be stated with certainty.” Shortly after, in 1982, a Wall Street Journal editorial stated: “Scientific study, as opposed to political rhetoric, points more and more toward the theory that nature, not industry, is the primary source of acid rain.” Casting doubt on the science behind acid rain was an industry-wide strategy: an ad by Ingersoll-Rand Mining Machinery that ran in the Journal in 1985 claimed that acid rain is “mostly natural rather than industrial in origin” and said it is “probably wrong” that acid rain “threatens forest in the Eastern U.S.”

2) 'It Will Cost Too Much': The coalition ads claimed that addressing acid rain could cause electric bills for Midwest consumers to increase by “as much as 50%,” and Ingersoll-Rand claimed that legislation would be “prohibitively expensive,” costing “billions.” In 1990, the Journal cited the Edison Electric Institute -- an industry group -- to say that electric utility costs would “surely” be “staggering.”

3) 'It's All Politics': A coalition ad attempted to obscure the science on acid rain by saying, “Some of the information [you hear about acid rain] is scientific, much of it is opinion.” In 1983, the Journal stated “politics, not science, clearly is driving the acid-rain campaign.”

But the industry's claims about the state of the science on acid rain were out of step with the knowledge at the time. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had connected acid rain to fossil fuel use years earlier:

And the Journal's claims that addressing acid rain would be too costly did not stand the test of time: the acid rain program is widely seen today as a measure that successfully mitigated the problem at a cost much lower than industry and government estimates.

The Revolving Door Consultant And The Journal

In February 1982, The Wall Street Journal ran an ad by the Edison Electric Institute, an organization that represents many companies that generate coal-fired electricity, which emphasized that the science on acid rain is “incomplete” and offered a free “fact book” on acid rain.

The Wall Street Journal later recommended the coal industry's “fact book,” promoting the booklet's claims in five paragraphs of an eight paragraph editorial in August 1984:

We recommend that the EPA weigh every word on that five-foot shelf [of public comments] carefully, over, say, the next 20 to 200 years. For the preliminary finding it might try a 49-page booklet, “Understanding Acid Rain,” by Alan W. Katzenstein, a technical consultant to the Edison Electric Institute. The EEI is, of course, a very interested party, but that doesn't make Mr. Katzenstein's four-year analysis of scientific and pseudoscientific work any less interesting.

The editorial highlighted the booklet's claim that the “primary” source of acidity in lakes was the decaying organic matter on the forest floor -- even though by that point the National Research Council had linked coal plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and acid rain, and President Ronald Reagan's own scientific panel had said that failing to regulate these emissions risked irreversible damage.

And a few months earlier the Journal had published an op-ed by the booklet's author, Katzenstein, who also highlighted his claim that the primary source of acidity in lakes was organic matter. A forest ecologist responded in a letter to the editor that Katzenstein “made several assertions” about research findings that the ecologist had been involved in and “all of them are incorrect!” After correcting Katzenstein on several points, the ecologist added: “These results have been published widely. It is apparent that Mr. Katzenstein's sole purpose is to confuse the acid rain issue.”

Why was the Journal publicizing an industry consultant's claims about science? Katzenstein was not a scientist -- he was a public affairs consultant and media representative for various industries. The extent of his science background was a bachelor's degree with a “background in chemical and biological sciences,” according to his biography.

The New York Times and Washington Post also ran the EEI ad, but never cited Katzenstein, according to a Nexis search. The Associated Press quoted Kaztzenstein questioning whether any policy would reduce acid rain in a 1984 article.

Source: Legacy Tobacco Documents Library

Katzenstein later became a consultant to the Tobacco Institute and Lorillard Tobacco Co. In that capacity, Katzenstein told the media that “there's no credible evidence -- no convincing evidence -- that your health is in jeopardy if people are smoking around you.” He even claimed that secondhand smoke could be good for us: “cigarette smoke really serves a purpose as an early warning signal that ventilation is inadequate,” following a memo from the Tobacco Institute's Vice President.

The Journal and The New York Times both published letters to the editor from Katzenstein questioning the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, without disclosing his ties to the tobacco industry. The science showing that secondhand smoke causes heart disease, lung cancer, and many other health problems only grew stronger, and later studies found that the public smoking bans had significant health benefits.

But Katzenstein again tried to debate scientific findings from the world's top experts. In 1994 the Journal published another letter to the editor from Katzenstein, this time claiming that there “are increasing doubts among scientists that global warming is a real threat to our planet” and emphasizing natural carbon dioxide emissions. The Journal did not identify Katzenstein, and it is unclear if he was still working for Edison Electric Institute. Katzenstein died less than a year later according to a New York Times notice.

Fool Me Twice ... The Journal Continues To Push Industry Claims

Despite the fossil fuel industry's history of distorting facts to bend public opinion, The Wall Street Journal continues to stand with the industry on the wrong side of science. In recent years, the paper has helped industry groups spread misinformation about the science demonstrating health impacts and dangerous manmade climate change:

  • Wall Street Journal op-ed by two industry-funded “experts” denied the health dangers posed by mercury emissions from coal plants.
  • Wall Street Journal op-ed by 16 scientists, several of whom have links to fossil fuel interests and most of whom have not published peer-reviewed climate research, argued against doing “something dramatic” to address climate change. The op-ed cited a paper partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute.
  • Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that “Climategate” showed temperature records were “rigged.” Every one of the investigations into “Climategate” has found that the scientists did not manipulate data to exaggerate global warming, and a study by a previously skeptical scientist reconfirmed the temperature record.
  • Wall Street Journal column suggested that one year's snowpack showed global warming was not “real science.”
  • And the Wall Street Journal's editorial board has repeatedly claimed that climate science is “disputable”:

Information about advertisements and Wall Street Journal content included in this analysis were retrieved from ProQuest and Factiva, respectively. The ads featured in this report and more can be seen in a new slideshow and archive by Greenpeace.