Blankenship vs. Kennedy: A great show, but what then?

January 21, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

kennedy.jpgblankenship-2.jpgWell, everyone seems to think it should be quite a show tonight at the University of Charleston when Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship and environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. debate mountaintop removal, climate change and future energy policies.

University of Charleston officials are calling it a “Forum on the Future of Energy,” and it is certainly getting a lot of attention.  I stopped counting the number of out-of-town media — big operations like The Washington Post — who are sending reporters to Charleston to cover this thing. It’s going to be broadcast live by West Virginia Public Radio and by Bray Cary’s West Virginia media stations.

Complete details on how to watch, listen and attend are here on UC’s Web site. I’ll be trying to tweet the event, and we’ll have coverage in the Gazette and on Coal Tattoo later tonight.

You’ve really got to give UC President Ed Welch a lot of credit for trying to bring these two gentlemen together on the same stage. I talked to him the other day about his hopes for the event, and we published a little preview story in today’s Gazette. And Welch was just on MetroNews Talkline, and told host Hoppy Kercheval:

We don’t do a very good job in our society of having reasonable arguments or discussions of important issues.

I’m going to push the participants to go beyond the sound bites and really respond to each other, and see if we can find some common ground.

Of course, that all came after Hoppy was promoting the event as a big “smackdown” or comparing it to last night’s WVU-Marshall basketball game. And, The Associated Press has dubbed the event (in the “slugline” or title for its preview story) as an “Environmental Prize Fight” and says what’s at stake in tonight’s debate is “a way of life.

Phew …  Ed Welch hasn’t asked the first question yet, and we’re already getting those kinds of media reports.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not quite as excited about this event as the rest of the media — and certainly partisans on both sides of the mountaintop removal issues — apparently are.

Why not?

Well, my guess is when the dust clears, environmentalists will say Kennedy cleaned Blankenship’s clock. And coal industry supporters will insist Blankenship exposed Kennedy as the out-of-state trouble-maker he is. Where does that get West Virginia and other coalfield communities who are facing the almost inevitable decline of an important industry — and the economic challenges that presents — and seemingly intractable fights over how to reduce mountaintop removal’s impacts and how to face the reality of global warming?


This afternoon, activists hung this banner on the South Side Bridge in downtown Charleston, in anticipation of today’s big debate.  Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

Sure, for my friends in the national media, this is a great story: Coal baron vs. radical environmentalist (who, conveniently, happens to be named Kennedy).  I don’t blame all those folks for flocking to this event, ready to file dispatches for their readers around the world.

But what will those stories say? Unfortunately, they’ll probably depict West Virginia as this bitterly divided state, where some of us agree 100 percent with Blankenship and others think Kennedy is right about everything.

The reality, though, is that a majority of West Virginians — while they oppose mountaintop removal — aren’t living and dying on these issues.  They don’t like the idea of blowing up mountains and burying hundreds of miles of streams. But they get pretty darned uneasy about their neighbors losing their jobs, too.

Go back again to what Sen. Robert C. Byrd said in his incredible commentary about coal needing to “embrace the future” —

Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it. We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.  One thing is clear.  The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Blankenship and Kennedy both say they have the best interests of Appalachia in their hearts and minds. If that’s true, they’ll both spend more of tonight’s forum trying to understand the other person’s point of view and less time trying to prove the other guy wrong.

And, it would be great if both sides of the coal debate would spend the evening not looking for sound bites they agree with, but trying to find something the other side says that makes some sense.

8 Responses to “Blankenship vs. Kennedy: A great show, but what then?”

  1. roselle says:

    It would be nice to think there were two sides to the climate change debate, but there isn’t. If Don starts out with that, then what? Blame both side for not agreeing to see each others point of view? It would be great if they could say, “Here we are. Now what?” But we know that won’t happen. And I don’t think Blankinship represents anyone other than himself.

    I won’t be going either, but that is because I have some friends up on Coal River Mountain who also happen to believe that mountain top removal is wrong. And its time to stop talking about it and to just end it. Forever.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    One of the reasons I’m not that jazzed about this event is that I think there’s kind of a straw-man set up here … The science clearly shows that global warming is happening and that mountaintop removal is damaging. So a debate over those two things isn’t really the point … and as Sen. Byrd has said, isn’t the debate West Virginia needs to have.

    The debate West Virginia needs to have is what to do about these things.

    On climate change, for example, reasonable people can discuss what sort of eggs W.Va. should be putting in the CCS basket — as opposed to other strategies.


  3. roselle says:


    Agreed. But if you don’t believe in climate change you have no reason for supporting CCS, much less changing business as usual in the way coal is mined. There are lots of things that could be discussed tonight, but I doubt much will. But it will draw national media attention to mountain top removal mining than it will be a big plus for “our side”. I don’t see how Blankinship can win anything here. And in the auditorium no minds will be changed or nor will any real listening happen. But the rest of the country is becoming increasingly concerned with MTR and many of those will receive an education tonight.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    When I spoke with Kennedy, he was certainly focused on the fact that this will draw a national audience and more attention to the issue.

    Personally, I wonder if what is desired here is a “discussion” of the future of energy of less polarizing speakers — and speakers who have staked out less absolute positions — would have been better.

    Clearly, Kennedy v. Blankenship draws a big audience. But it might also just generate more heat than light.


  5. jawvmm says:

    Ken, I agree that it will generate more heat than light, and it certainly won’t be a reasonable discussion. My hope is that the national publicity will reveal to a larger audience what has been obvious only by attending events like the Corps hearing, because the media has not been willing to cover this aspect – mountaintop removal is a violent activity not only in the blasting, the poisoning, and the coercion in mining communities. It is allowed to continue because of intimidation and the threat of force, not only economic threats.

  6. John A says:

    If any of you knew anything about coal mining or the environment, you would know that underground mining has worse long term affects than surface mining – there are sink holes in the mountains caused by collapsed underground mines that will swallow a house; there are inactive underground mines currently smoldering, and some still on fire like a vulcano; the water seeps into the sulfuric mine, fills to a certain level and drains into the mountains and streams – at least surface mining controls and treats the water in the sediment ponds prior to it entering into the streams and rivers. I’ll agree that neither is great for the environment, but neither is building roads, shopping malls, other industrial parks, and single drivers – everyone seems to turn their heads when all this occurs, because their beauty salon moved into the new strip mall, or a good restaurant went in, and we want to eat there… Folks, this is WV’s heritage, and the reason thousands of West Virginians have a decent paying job – move back to wherever you originated.

  7. Jason Robinson says:

    Wow john you got them all except “keeps the lights on”. There certainly isn’t any science to support your contentions about “the long run”, after all these forms of surface mining are relatively recent compared to deep mining. One big reason those other activities aren’t under the microscope is because they don’t occur in geographically concentrated clusters organized by a small number of individuals and permits, and because NEPA does not allow for any machinery to evaluate the long term effects of residential or suburban commercial development in the same way that it does for energy production. Other legislation does, and we routinely use the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act to insure that those sorts of developments follow the law of the land just as SMRCA and CWA are being used here. Binary propositions are neither true nor false.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    OK … folks, I’m going to shut down the comments on this particular posts. Hopefully, I’ll have a post up about the debate later on this evening. I’ll look forward to your comments then about how this whole “discussion” went.