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"Isn't it amazing what this little black rock can do?"
That's the question Australia's coal industry posed to internet viewers in its new media campaign that began on Sunday. But, the industry's attempt to highlight the amazing virtues of coal backfired, somewhat predictably, on social media almost immediately after the launch.
The Little Black Rock campaign — sponsored by the Minerals Council of Australia, which represents Australia's massive coal sector — consists of a 30-second advertisement, website, and the Twitter hashtag #coalisamazing.
In the ad, a narrator explains how coal "can provide endless possibilities," including "light and jobs," as the camera pans over scenic shots of coal mines. Coal injects $40 billion into Australia's economy each year, the narrator adds, and now emits 40 percent fewer emissions.
Twitter users wasted no time in ridiculing the campaign, with one commentator calling it "the PR fail of the year."
Seriously. Do these people have comms advisors? Or is this a hoax? It— Jenna Price (@JennaPrice) September 6, 2015
Greg Evans, the executive director of the Minerals Council of Australia said they were not surprised by the public's response to the campaign. "We have been very pleased with the level of engagement and it has been of benefit in communicating our messages," he said, "in particular how the industry is taking steps to reduce emissions."
Australia is the world's second-largest producer of coal, exporting more than 70 percent of what it produces abroad, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Australia's coal industry has a massive lobbying effort, which has been successful in getting politicians to pass favorable regulations and low taxes for the industry. The fossil fuel industry in Australia receives an estimated $10 billion in government subsidies, according to the Australia Institute, a public policy think tank.
The coal industry depends on these close relations with politicians because without pro-coal regulations and permission to open and operate mines, the coal industry could not exist in Australia, said Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute (TAI).
One way the coal industry maintains its influence is by inflating its power to create jobs and boost the economy — a message that lies at the core of its Little Black Rock campaign, explained Denniss.
"Convincing politicians what's good for mining is what's good for the economy is one and the same pursuit," said Denniss. But multiple studies have shown those claims to be greatly exaggerated. A TAI study, for example, found that that the coal industry employed only a tenth of the jobs it actually claimed in Queensland, the province where much of Australia's coal industry operates.
The other claim that coal industry frequently makes, demonstrated in the Mineral Council video, is that it pumps massive amounts of revenue back into the economy through government royalties. But recent budget figures showed that the Australian government receives nearly as much money from car registrations than coal payments, reported the Guardian.
Evans said the Little Black Rock campaign was intended "to restore some balance in the public commentary and get the facts on the table about the industry."
But environmental groups said it was a Hail Mary pass, amidst plummeting international coal prices and a pivot toward cleaner sources of energy in many countries.
"All you can see in this campaign is pure desperation," Denniss says. "The really amazing thing about #coalisamazing is that such a well-funded industry actually paid for this marketing campaign."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928