Coal execs tweeting away on climate change

June 30, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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You think some coal industry PR firm had a seminar on social networking? I’m starting to wonder.

First, Massey Energy President Don Blankenship signed up for Twitter, a move that drew coverage from The Associated Press.   And that prompted Massey Energy to put out a press release touting the fact that AP had picked up on Blankenship’s Tweeting. (Memo to AP: If you’re writing about someone’s Twitter feed, give us their screen name. Blankenship’s is DonBlankenship).

Then, Blankenship’s former Massey collegue, International Coal Group vice president Gene Kitts, signed up to Tweet.  I also see ICG’s general counsel, Roger Nicholson has signed up for Twitter, but hasn’t posted anything yet. Also, Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers union is Tweeting under the name minervoice.

Updated, 1:45 p.m.: Roger Nicholson Tweets for the first time:

I am reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg as well as Hot, Flat and Crowded by Tom Friedman. There, Ken, I’ve posted.

That’s just a few — if you know any other coal-related folks who are on Twitter, let me know.

Environmental groups, including those who oppose mountaintop removal and the coal industry in general, are all over Twitter and some other social networking tools. Just last week, for example, the Sierra Club was micro-blogging the Senate mountaintop removal hearing via Twitter.

My friend Amy Gahran, who blogs about online journalism for Poynter, has talked about how citizen journalists helped drive the early coverage of the TVA coal-ash disaster. Bill Dawson has made similar observations for the Society of Environmental Journalists, as has my buddy, former CNN producer Peter Dykstra, writing for the Mother Nature Network. Sandra Diaz, National Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, has made similar commentary on The Huffington post.

I wondered yesterday about whether some of the bloggers were getting out of hand on the mountaintop removal issue, citing facts that aren’t in evidence or generally exaggerating to make their points.

As I’ve told many friends in the journalism world, I’m of mixed feelings about social media and citizen journalism.

First, social media. All of these new tools for communication are great, and provide unbelievable opportunities for two-way journalism — discussion between journalists and the consumers of news. But I worry they focus far too much on the immediacy of getting information out, at the expense of getting it right. I also worry that the time I spend moderating discussions on Coal Tattoo, tweeting and otherwise trying these new tools takes away time I could spend doing things like digging through permit files, interviewing sources and doing old-fashioned journalism.

Second, citizen journalism. I’m worried first that activist group journalism is being disguised as journalism produced by plain-old citizens. I don’t necessarily have a problem with activists producing their own blogs and all that. But don’t pretend you’re not an activist group, guys. There’s also the pushing and blurring of lines, some of what readers have remarked on with Coal Tattoo, between straight news reporting and blogging, which is more a mix of news and analysis, with commentary.

The examples I gave in Bloggers to Obama: Visit mountaintop removal site, showed some of how bloggers can twist things a bit.

Will coal industry folks do the same as they gear up their social networking presence?

Well, consider last week’s online chat we did here at the Gazette with Michael Hendryx, the WVU researcher who published a landmark paper on coal’s costs and benefits to the Appalachian region.

In the middle of the chat, we got some questions/comments in from a reader who listed her name as Monica and said she was affiliated with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.  (Actually, she just listed herself as Monica from ACCCE, without identifying who that group is). If you don’t know, ACCCE is a coal industry front group that advocates “clean coal,” especially carbon capture and storage.

Understand that Michael Hendryx did not in his study focus on climate change or emissions from coal-fired power plants. But Monica seemed intent on trying to divert the online chat in that direction, suggesting that “clean coal” projects like CCS would take care of the concerns expressed in his study.

For example, Hendryx made this comment in response to a question I asked him about whether his study considered such issues:

I also focused only on coal mining, not burning coal in power plants.   Burning coal to create power has large economic benefit, but also large ecnomic costs because pollution from coal burning kills more people than coal mining.   I deliberately limited the analysis to coal mining so the Appalachian people and governments could consider whether our reliance on coal mining for the economy was a good idea or not. 

Monica tried to ask Hendryx this question:

What about building plants using clean coal technology?

And she even expanded her question:

Clarification: What about the construction of clean coal technology plants? That will help generate green jobs and boost the local economy.

We posted Monica’s intial question, and Hendryx answered it this way:

I think there are enourmous technical and financial barriers to clean coal technology.   It can work on a small scale but to make it widely implemented would be incredibly expensive, and maybe not workable.   The money we are investing in this technology should be invested in renewal energy in my opinion.

The other scary thing about clean coal technology is that if we do try to implement it, it concerns only how coal is burned, not how it is mined.   If use of coal continues this way, conditions for the residents of the coalfields will continue to be poor.

But then Monica showed she wasn’t really interested in the discussion, unless she could twist it off onto some path that wasn’t what Hendryx was talking about at all.  Hendryx was talking about recent West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection studies of the health implications of injecting coal slurry waste underground, and he commented on how a broader research focus might be needed:

Although I think slurry held in surface impoundments is also very important, and think maybe the recent focus on underground injection might be too limiting.

Monica clearly had absolutely no idea what he was talking about — I guess she assumed any discussion of injecting anything must be about carbon dioxide — but she felt compelled to try to get a pro-coal point in there anyway:

Michael: You say that underground injection might be too limiting, but according to a 2007 NETL study, we have storage space for 3.5 trillion tons of CO2. Divide that out and we have, in effect, a 921-year reservoir of carbon dioxide storage.

What’s all that got to do with the new-found interest in Twitter by some leaders of West Virginia’s coal industry?

Well, first of all, good on them for joining the discussion. More voices is better, as long as everyone comes to the discussion honestly. It will be interesting to see what the coal folks contribute. The examples of I’ve mentioned about mountaintop removal blogging and coal industry PR folks joining in online chats suggests a problem, though, where either side of a heated debate wants to not have a discussion or contribute to emerging knowledge of everyone involved. In those cases, it was all about abusing these great new communication tools to try to make one’s own PR point. I don’t find that very helpful.

So far from the coal guys?

Well, here are some samples from Blankenship’s Tweets:

— Congress is considering if a change in quality of life of 5% of world pop. can reduce its heat. Only pompous pols could think of such a bill

— Some think that more than two-thirds of NYSE Top 500 earnings are made outside the US.

— American labor is so disadvantaged by excess regulations that they can’t compete.

— The Cap and Trade bill is essentially a Ponzi scheme that dwarfs Madoff.

It would be nice if Blankenship posted links to data or commentary that back up these kinds of statements. Could a Don Blankenship blog be the next step?

Gene Kitts posted his first Tweet early this morning:

Reading Patrick Michael’s Climate of Extremes – recommend for anyone who hasn’t surrendered their ability to think independently.

I Re-Tweeted this post, and then tried to get some discussion going about it with these Tweets of my own:

— Hey @gkitts — what about Patrick Michaels funding? http://www.prwatch.org/node/8382

— @gkitts Michaels has ‘published little, if anything, of distinction’ in scientific literature on climate change http://tinyurl.com/386rf9

That second one cited testimony several years ago by current Obama science adviser John Holdren about Patrick Michaels, in which Holdren said, among other things:

Michaels is another of the handful of US climate-change contrarians, but lacks Richard Lindzen’s scientific stature. He has published little if anything of distinction in the professional literature, being noted rather for his shrill op-ed pieces and indiscriminate denunciations of virtually every finding of mainstream climate science.

Gene responded:

Kenwardjr says Michaels has ‘published little of distinction’ but still he refers to Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’?

And I replied:

@gkitts — where exactly did I refer to “Inconvenient Truth” — and btw,Gore won a Nobel Prize … how many of those you have?

I’m sure Gene has more important work to do than tossing Tweets back and forth with me all day … and my editor probably thinks I have better ways to spend the Gazette’s time, too.

I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t have a fax machine in the Gazette newsroom. So all of this is still a little bizarre to me.

But the discussion of climate change, mountaintop removal, and coal’s future is vital to our region and our nation. It would be good if all sides came to it honestly, and used these tools for open exchange of ideas, rather than just PR games.

By the way if you’re interested in finding out more about climate change skeptics, visit this site sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

6 Responses to “Coal execs tweeting away on climate change”

  1. Amy Gahran says:

    Great exploration of the interplay of social media, journalism, PR, and advocacy Ken.

    RE: ACCCE rep trying to skew the discussion in your live chat: I notice in the chat transcript that you didn’t identify her group, with a link, when she started speaking up. That’s one tactic to aid transparency when someone tries to hijack a chat. Also, it’s fine to tell people to stick to the topic as moderator of a live chat.

    I’m intrigued that you retweet Don Blankenship and Gene Kitts. Could you explain more about why you do this, and what kind of results/reaction this retweeting has gotten? Do you similarly retweet prominent environmental advocates on the coal issue?

    Thanks,

    – Amy Gahran

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Amy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I have retweeted Blankenship and Kitts mostly to get the fact that they are tweeting out to a larger audience — and in some ways less to spread the particular comments or message they posted.

    On the other hand, I have found that there are different discussions going on concerning coal and climate change, and the two sides rarely talk to each other — Blankenship and his followers talk to each other; the enviros talk to each other.

    It seems to me they need to talk to each other, and LISTEN to each other more, and perhaps if I retweeted the coal guys’ comments, enviros (and environmental journalists) who follow me would engage them in discussion online.

    Ken.

  3. Thomas Rodd says:

    A couple of nights ago I saw on TV a clip of a dozen or so people parading with candles in downtown Charleston (I think). The announcer said something like they were young Republicans, going to Senator Rockefeller’s office to protest “cap-and-trade.”

    I wonder if some of them are getting glib, misleading tweets from “totallllly bogus!” climate change deniers.

    For sure, PR people of all persuasions understand that it’s good to reinforce people in their beliefs as often as possible.

  4. I’m fascinated that Mr. Blankenship has signed up to follow my tweets and welcome this interplay of information. I do wonder if its actually Mr. Blankenship or a PR employee that’s actually pressing the keys though.

  5. Casey says:

    Regarding Gore’s Nobel prize, Norway’s Ivar Giaever of Norway has a Nobel and the physicist decries man-made warming as the “new religion”. Dr Itol, a Japanese environmental physical chemist who contributed to a U.N. climate report now dubs man-made warming “the worst scientific scandal in history”. A group of 54 noted physicists, led by Princeton’s Will Happer, is demanding the American Physical Society revise its position that the science is settled.

    The above was reported in a WSJ editorial. As was the observation that the global warming tide is again shifting perhaps because Gore & Co “did a little too vociferous job smearing anyone who disagreed with them as “deniers”. The backlash has brought the scientific debate roaring back to life in Australia, Europe, Japan and even, if less reported, in the U.S.”

    Also “Dr Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist, published “Heaven and Earth”, a damning critique of the “evidence” underpinning man-made warming” and “the book is in its 5th printing”.

    I’m told that science never reaches a final conclusion — it’s all about continual study and improving the available information. So I guess the science is continuing.

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