Rolling Coal

Conservatives who show their annoyance with liberals, Obama, and the EPA by blowing black smoke from their trucks.

Photo illustration by Slate, photo courtesy Mark Spearman/Flickr Creative Commons.

Forty-five second YouTube clips don’t come any more American than “Prius Repellent.” It starts with a camera angled from the passenger side window of a truck, pointed at the namesake Japanese hybrid car. After 12 establishing seconds, the cameraman moves and points out the back window, where viewers can read the ominous decals:


At 23 seconds, the engine revs and the viewer finally learns what the arrows were pointing at. Smoke pours out of dual stacks, right in the path of the Prius, which retreats into the rear view. The truck’s passengers share a well-earned chortle.

“Alright, enough!” says one of them.

“You got ’im!” says another.

“We got ’im!” says a co-conspirator.

“Prius Repellent” is a perfect introduction to one of the Obama era’s great conservative subcultures: the men and women who “roll coal.” For as little as $500, anyone with a diesel truck and a dream can install a smoke stack and the equipment that lets a driver “trick the engine” into needing more fuel. The result is a burst of black smoke that doubles as a political or cultural statement—a protest against the EPA, a ritual shaming of hybrid “rice burners,” and a stellar source of truck memes.

The “Prius repellent” decal is easy to find on truck fan sites, as are memes of single or double stack trucks humiliating the drivers of smaller cars. There are videos of “hot babes” getting rolled on, and a mega-popular video (more than 3 million views) of an annoying Prius driver complaining about diesel. “She makes me want to do a John Force style burn out right in front of her,” observed one critic on DieselBurners.com.

“Rolling coal” is not new. It grew out of the modifications people would do on their vehicles for truck pulls. It’s just only recently entered the online culture wars. I’d seen the memes and a couple of the trucks. But I hadn’t seen the left reply until this month, when Vocativ ran an expose of “pollution porn for dudes with pickup trucks.” Progressives reacted with disbelief to Facebook communities like “Rollin’ COAL” and (naturally) “Prius Repellent,” and to the sheer number of Instagram and Tumblr entries that recorded this stuff. They reacted with a mid-June surge of comments, sprinkled throughout these pages, all about the breeding patterns and penis sizes of the coal-rollers.

The liberals seem a little surprised that conspicuous consumption—waste, even—could be a method of protest. They shouldn’t be. The motivation for political coal rolling is roughly the same one that gets people buying guns and ammo after mass shootings. The expectation, every time, is that liberals will capitalize on the shootings to ban guns, so it’s time to stock up.

The use-it-before-liberals-ban-it instinct is powerful. Since 2007, environmental activists have campaigned for an “Earth hour,” 60 minutes in which people turn off all electricity. Since 2009, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute has responded to this with Human Achievement Hour, a call to spend those same 60 minutes by keeping the lights on.

Pickup truck with smokestacks and bonus blue trucknuts.
For as little as $500, anyone with a diesel truck and a dream can install a smoke stack and the equipment that lets a driver “trick the engine” into needing more fuel.

Photo courtesy Nikoretro/Flickr

“Utilize something that requires energy to make,” says Michelle Minton, director of “sin industry” studies at CEI. “Make a phone call to someone you love. Have a beer.” The point is to expose how the people turning off electricity are just preening, when they have access to technology and medicine that the global poor are being denied. (One meme portrays the hermit state of North Korea at night, without any lights, in a state of “permanent earth hour.”) The greens, says Minton, “are going to make it harder for us get to the next level of energy use. They’re basically eliminating the garage team of scientists.”

What about the push for calorie labeling, for smaller soda sizes, for mandatory calisthenics led by Michelle Obama? This, too, is being battled with conspicuous consumption. CEI, which gets some of its funding from the energy and food industries, has co-opted the Salvation Army’s annual Doughnut Day as a time for “patriotic civil disobedience.” To participate, eat two doughnuts. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax reform throws a “sin tax party,” where guests can enjoy the spirits and foods being hit by higher taxes. An invitation to the 2012 party announced that guests could “celebrate finally paying off the burden of government by enjoying these extra-taxed goods that bear the strain of the growing Nanny State.”

But those are ideas germinated in the libertarian/conservative think tanks of Washington. Coal rolling is genuinely grassroots: No PR guru would come up with something like this.

Despite the very public, check-this-out nature of coal rolling, the practitioners I talked to were sometimes reluctant to appear in the media.

One big reason: The EPA was cracking down on devices that allowed truck drivers to remove diesel particulate filters. Coal rollers spoke in worried tones about Edge, the Utah company that took a $500,000 hit for selling more than 9,000 of the units, which allowed drivers to improve their mileage at the cost of tons of new particulate emissions.

“I talked to a guy today who was almost crying about it,” one seller told me. “He said, I only get 10-12 miles to a gallon now. Before the filter, I was getting 20 mpg, and a whole lot more horsepower.”

Rolling coal is different and totally legal process from removing the filter. And yet it has everything to do with the EPA. It has everything to do with Obama. It has everything to do with the tax credits that go to hybrids and electric cars.

“I run into a lot of people that really don’t like Obama at all,” said one seller of stack kits from Wisconsin. “If he’s into the environment, if he’s into this or that, we’re not. I hear a lot of that. To get a single stack on my truck—that’s my way of giving them the finger. You want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you.”

The lifestyle isn’t for everyone. A couple of years ago, Sean Miller discovered that the high elevation of his Arizona county made his truck roll coal without any special modification. For a while, he uploaded videos of his towering “hybrid repellant.”

But the gimmick wore on him. He’d be driving, and the road behind him would fill with smoke. Conspicuous, yes, but after a while it got embarrassing.

“I know a lot of these guys thrive on how much coal they can roll when they’re in town next to hybrid cars,” said Miller. “It’s just a testosterone thing. It’s manhood. It’s who can blow the most smoke, whose is blacker. The blacker it is, the more fuel you have in your injectors. It was kind of fun. But I’ll be honest with you. I decided I’d save some money. It’s like throwing dollar bills out the window.”

Boer Deng contributed reporting.