Letter To The Editor: Spoofed Coal Company Making Up Facts

After being the victim of a fake website, coal giant Peabody Energy responded with some "interesting" stats about the benefits of energy use.

coal fire

Yesterday the world's largest privately held coal company, Peabody Coal, was hoaxed by Coal Cares, a Yes Men-sponsored website that promised free inhalers for children with asthma from coal plants. As has become typical with these things, the hoax was revealed and the company issued a statement denying any connection to the satirical site.

But in their statement, Peabody noted a groundbreaking statistic: "The World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer." We need simply to use more energy to increase longevity? Turn up the AC and leave the lights on. Quickly, the World Resources Institute, a venerable environmental think tank, sent us a letter:

"In a press statement today, Peabody Energy falsely attributes a conclusion to the World Resources Institute. The incorrect reference is likely drawn from information found on a blog post by the "World Climate Report," which is not affiliated with WRI.

The press statement asserts that "the World Resources Institute found that for every 10-fold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer." First, WRI has never made such an assertion and has never done analysis to that effect. Second, this conclusion ignores critical factors related to energy production and human health.

WRI’s long standing support for a global transition to cleaner, low-carbon energy is well-documented. WRI does not support Peabody’s press statement or the related conclusions drawn from this data.

We called Peabody back to ask what they had meant by the made-up reference. They regretted the error but seemed like they wanted the whole thing to go away. They said they wouldn't be issuing a corrective press release. Which makes sense, because their CEO is on the record erroneously citing the WRI for that same fact in a recent issue of Coal News (see item number 1 in this PDF).

The thing is, their fact makes some amount of illogical sense. Collectively, societies that use more energy are more developed and have longer life expectancies. Based on that logic, if you increase computer ownership, individuals live 10 years longer. That's just because rich people live longer, and rich people use more resources. But it certainly doesn't work, as Peabody implies, on the individual level. Personally shoveling coal into a furnace isn't going to help your lifespan one bit.

UPDATE: And now, finally, Peabody Coal has removed the press release; there is now no mention of Coal Cares at all on their website.

[Image: Flickr user Cook24V]

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1 Comments

  • Andrew Krause

    The World Resources Institute collaborated with the OECD to produce a graph showing a strong positive correlation between lifespans and per-capita electrical use. This is the graph seen on the World Climate Report page. This is WRI's data. The only mistake Peabody Energy made was in attributing the "finding" to WRI when they should have cited the data itself.

    Let's hold FastCompany editor Morgan Clendaniel to the same editorial standard, shall we?

    A more responsible take on the matter comes from Hans Rosling's latest TED Talk. Simply put, people who can leverage labor saving devices powered by electricity are able to be more productive, freeing up time to do things that increase their overall welfare. Sure, living upwind of a coal-fired plant might reduce your life-span by a few years, but the energy it provides adds decades to your life. That's a net gain.