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Coal people think their industry is misunderstood.

So they set out last fall to change the hearts and minds of the American public.

They hired R&R Partners, a public relations company with an office in Salt Lake City that was behind the popular "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas" slogan, to develop a $35 million campaign. Its aim is to influence people to think of coal as a cost-efficient source of electricity rather than one of the culprits behind global warming - and to keep coal central to discussions about the country's energy future.

"It's our job to keep coal at the table. It's not there now," said Robert Henrie, a Salt Lake-based principal in R&R Partners and a strategist well acquainted with the bad-news stories that plague coal.

In 1984, he was the spokesman for Emery Mining Corp. when the Wilberg mine caught fire, killing 27 people. His name, face and thoughts were constantly in the news for more than a year, the length of time it took rescuers to extinguish the flames, then dig their way back into the smoldering Emery County mine to retrieve the victims' bodies.

Henrie's expertise was called upon again last fall after four coal mine disasters in 18 months, the last of which occurred just a few miles north of Wilberg - last August's dual wall collapses in the Crandall Canyon mine, where six miners were fatally buried Aug. 6 and three would-be rescuers were killed 10 days later.

In September, R&R Partners secured a contract from the National Mining Association and its partners to develop national advertising and paid media campaigns to boost coal's image.

"The advocates of coal haven't had a lot to advocate for. People have a mindset to build a case against coal, rather than for coal," said Henrie, whose firm's goal is to imprint a positive message in the public consciousness - "Before you write us off, understand the contributions we make."

It is a message touted through an industry organization, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, on its Web site (www.americaspower .org) and trumpeted in media ads and on billboards in states with high-profile presidential primaries. The coal group even became a sponsor of the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate from Las Vegas on Nov. 15.

That the coal industry turned to R&R Partners was not surprising.

R&R is reveling in the fame of having developed the "Stays in Vegas" promotion for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, one of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent years.

But the firm is not just an advertising agency, Henrie emphasized, citing its expertise in developing strategic approaches to broad public policy issues, its government and public affairs lobbying capability, and its experience in dealing with the media.

Those attributes have enticed a number of Utah organizations to hire R&R Partners, including Intermountain Health Care and the Utah Transit Authority. Other noteworthy clients include the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, a co-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine and Sierra Pacific Resources/Nevada Power, which would like to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada.

To service its clients, R&R Partners has 260 employees in offices in Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. It also has entered into a partnership with The Gallatin Group and Phase Line Strategies, dubbed the WestNet Alliance (, to help clients in 10 Western states deal with critical issues, from gaming and aquaculture to timber and public utilities.

Henrie figures prominently in the coal campaign.

Before joining Emery Mining's parent company, Savage Industries, which had a contract to operate Utah Power & Light's coal mines, Henrie was an aide to Rep. James Santini, D-Nev.

Henrie also was chief of staff to the House Mines and Mining subcommittee and worked closely with the U.S. Bureau of Mines, American Mining Congress and mining companies on legislation and campaigns promoting national awareness of strategic minerals.

"Santini was a big proponent of geothermal energy during a period [the late 1970s] when there was a national resolve not to get caught up again in an energy crisis similar to what plagued Jimmy Carter's administration," Henrie said. "But 25 years later, we're no better off than we were then. Our reliance on foreign oil hasn't changed. Our development of resources hasn't changed."

What also hasn't changed, he added, is the country's dependence on coal as a source of affordable energy.

Coal-fired power plants generate 50 percent of the electricity used in the United States, a percentage Henrie does not expect to change much despite the resurgence of the nuclear power industry and increasing attention on renewable resources, such as wind power.

In addition, the U.S. still has ample supplies of coal, an estimated 200 years' worth based on current production.

"We have a stable, reliable, independent, inexpensive source of energy - the only one we have," he said. "What will be the cost to our economy when we write off our least-expensive and most-abundant source of energy?"

Henrie contends that coal industry leaders recognize global warming as a "real issue. They get it. They aren't arguing whether it's real or not. They're concentrating instead on, 'What do we have to do to develop the technology to capture carbon emissions?' "

He said the emphasis on developing clean coal technology not only will help reduce harmful emissions from coal-fired power plants but also advance research into carbon sequestration, which involves storage of atmosphere-damaging carbon gases until a useful purpose can be found for them.

Developing this technology, Henrie insisted, also is crucial to worldwide efforts to combat global warming.

"The rest of the world won't stop burning coal. But the rest of the world will use clean coal technology if we make it. China won't build it on its own."

Environmental groups are not buying his message.

"Coal is one of the most polluting sources of energy available, jeopardizing our health and our environment," contends the Sierra Club. Its perspective is reflected in the title of one of its publications, "The Dirty Truth About Coal: Why Yesterday's Technology Should Not Be Part of Tomorrow's Energy Future."

"We owe it to our children to consider smarter, cleaner, healthier options for meeting our energy needs rather than locking ourselves into using a polluting, backward technology for the next 50 years that harms people, damages our environment and makes global warming much worse," the Sierra Club added.

Grist, an online environmental blog, described the multimillion-dollar publicity effort as "coal's desperate campaign for survival" and decried its approach as a "dirty agenda . . . dirty ads . . . dirty political targeting . . . and dirty lies."

Henrie shakes off the criticisms.

"People are much more environmentally sensitive and responsible," he acknowledged. "They want to hear there's an easy way out, but that doesn't change the reality that there's not an easy way out."

A 'Who's Who' of clients

On its Web site, R&R Partners cites a long list of influential clients in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, including:

* Intermountain Health Care

* Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake City

* Utah League of Cities and Towns

* Utah Symphony & Opera

* Utah Transit Authority

* Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

* Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada

* Nevada Resort Association

* Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona

* Tempe Center for the Arts

Source: R&R Partners