Timothy McLaughlin on special report revealing U.S. 'clean coal' program fails to deliver on smog cuts
This week, a Reuters special report revealed that while champions of coal say the superabundant fossil fuel can be made environmentally friendlier by refining it with chemicals, refined coal has a dirty secret: It regularly fails to deliver on its environmental promises. The report, by Timothy McLaughlin, identified 56 plants that burned refined coal in 2017. Only 18 of that group reduced NOx emissions by more than 20 percent in 2017 compared to 2009, and at 22 of the 56 plants, NOx emissions were higher in 2017 while burning refined coal than they were when using raw coal in 2009. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Timothy offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he reported the story.
Q. How did you get started on this story?
A. While reading a Utah-based life insurance company’s annual report, it mentioned a partnership called “Feedstock.” When I learned that feedstock refers to raw coal, I wondered, “Why is a life insurer messing around with coal?” It turned out to be a very long thread I pulled, after Energy Editor Richard Valdmanis encouraged me to keep digging.
Q. What types of reporting were involved?
A. It turned out to be a long and enjoyable paper chase, with thousands of pages of documents all hidden in plain sight. I also crunched EPA data on pollution rates. I called a lot of D.C.-based tax attorneys, some lobbyists and got some luck and candor from engineers running power plants owned by municipalities. And there were a number of regulatory disclosures from utility companies that cast doubt on refined coal’s ability to cut smog pollution.
Q. Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A. Customers always are interested in how their tax dollars are spent. It’s a story about how public policy gets made and how special interests can shape that policy for their benefit.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. I like finding stuff out and piecing it together.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I write about mutual funds and I’ve been fortunate to get time to write about a lot of other things that play off that beat. So the field has been wide open.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I’ve thought about that. I always come up empty. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. Big thanks to Rich Valdmanis, Brian Thevenot, Mike Williams, Janet Roberts, Maryanne Murray, Steve McKinley, Chris Keane, Brian Snyder and Catherine Thai for getting the coal series across the goal line.