"I think people have to realize that there is no such thing as clean coal," Perks said. "You might as well believe in unicorns if you believe in clean coal."
But coal industry representatives argued their strategy was intended to raise public awareness about the benefits of coal-generated technology in a different and more light-hearted way.
"This is obviously a very serious subject," said Joe Lucas, vice president of ACCCE. "There has been a lot of engagement this year in the policy dialogue with the presidential campaign. This was an opportunity to sit back and not be so serious for once."
He said the campaign was "a little tongue in cheek," but was intended to drive home the message that coal is affordable as an energy option, abundant in resources and generates jobs.
"Let's face it, coal has not been the gift of choice for Christmases past," said Lucas. But, as energy costs go up, "this is the year that people are probably happy to get coal in their stocking."
He wasn't surprised that environmental groups had expressed dismay at the campaign, but said the groups were "moving the goal post of what is clean coal technology."
Lucas said the industry disagrees with the environmentalists' definition of clean coal technology as only that which involves the capture and storage (or sequestration) of the global warming pollutant carbon dioxide. He argued that clean coal "is so much bigger than that."
Up until now, he said, the focus has been on reducing the emissions of sulphur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants. And, he emphasized, the industry has been successful in that, citing emissions reductions that have measurably improved public health.
The next challenge is to bring to market carbon capture and storage, he said. In 2009, the industry will see the first commercial deployment of carbon capture technology at a plant in West Virginia, he said. A full-scale deployment is slated for a different plant in 2010, Lucas continued.
Describing clean coal technology as only carbon capture and storage, Lucas said, "is like describing medical technology as only MRI machines."
Many industry watchers, however, warn that the coal coalition's term "clean coal" is a term of art.
"It's essentially meaningless and it's extremely misleading," said Brad Johnson, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded by John Podesta, a former official in the Clinton administration and currently an adviser to President-elect Obama's transition team.
While it's true that, decades ago, the clean coal targets were indeed sulphur dioxide and similar pollutants highlighted in the Clean Air acts, the focus has shifted to carbon dioxide and its effects on the climate.
"Now we're no longer talking about particulate matter so much, we're not talking about acid rain so much. What we're worried about now is climate change and carbon dioxide, which is much harder to pull out of the smoke coming out of the smokestack," said John Anderson, a visiting scholar at nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future. "The current issue is CO2."
As the country considers an energy mix that will mitigate climate change, Johnson said a distinction needs to be drawn between policy discussions about how we use coal and propaganda campaigns.