Misplaced Hopes, Dysfunctional Attachments, and Unplanned Energy Transitions: The Role of Clean Coal Discourse in the Cultivation of Energy Communitarianism Along the Ohio River

Richard T. Stafford

Major Professor: Denise Albanese, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Roger Lancaster, Andrew Light

Online Location, https://gmu.zoom.us/j/92695476083?pwd=TUVDZWRLMUdGK0o1eW9FempOKzZldz09
July 21, 2022, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM

Abstract:

In the 2000s, the phrase "clean coal" signified technologies that would sustain coal-powered electrical generation through an anticipated period of decarbonization. However, “clean coal" was already a fraught term in Appalachia, signifying both the threat that environmental laws would compromise regional coal industries and the promise that technologies could prevent undesired regional energy transitions. Focusing on the locality around the first US coal plant that sought to capture carbon dioxide at a commercial scale, this dissertation shows how the promise of these technologies helped maintain the hegemony of coal even as the industry contracted. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and systematic content analysis of newspaper coverage, it argues that clean coal discourse promoted a form of energy communitarianism that endured even after the promise of “clean coal” had faded. Clean coal’s sociotechnical imaginary temporarily displaced class antagonisms and environmental conflicts by representing the interests of the nation, the locality, fossil fuel industry employers, and its employees as aligned. Locally, “clean coal” contributed to what Raymond Williams characterized as a “structure of feeling” defined by the sense that there was no alternative to coal. For many locals, it cultivated deeply felt attachments to coal, shaped their sense of history, and constrained their visions of the future. Following Lauren Berlant, this dissertation argues that the sentiments associated with "clean coal" locally proved cruel: as the energy transition began, rather than offering a flourishing life, “clean coal” helped maintain the power of the incumbent fossil fuel industries and discouraged the formation of a political bloc demanding a just transition.