Coal Tattoo

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

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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?

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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.