Coal Tattoo

Blankenship vs. Kennedy II: Deconstructing the debate


I’m sure Coal Tattoo readers are anxious to start weighing in on tonight’s big debate between Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship and environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. So please have at it below in the comments section … just keep it clean and respectful of each other, and both Kennedy and Blankenship.

We’ve got tomorrow morning’s print story online now, and here’s the link to that. Here on the blog, I’m going to try to do a little bit of deconstructing, a little bit of fact-checking and just generally give some more perspective on what we all heard over across the Kanawha River in the University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium.

UPDATED: If you missed it, the complete audio is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

My guess is most of the commentary is going to say Kennedy won the debate. And let’s face it, Kennedy is a great public speaker and a very charismatic guy.  In a post-debate media briefing, even Blankenship admitted that public speaking isn’t his favorite thing — he says he’s a small-town guy, kind of shy and reserved. I don’t know about that, but Blankenship does sometimes mumble a bit and tonight he failed to really offer much of a detailed response to some of Kennedy’s major points.

debate6.jpgSeveral times, Blankenship expressed frustration as he tried to respond to Kennedy as bombarded him with a litany of problems Kennedy linked to the coal industry:

There is so much rhetoric that it’s tough to deal with in these kinds of discussions.

At the same time, Kennedy certainly was far from perfect and made a few statements that were just way wrong or don’t really hold water. A few examples:

debate5.jpg— Kennedy said that wind power provides 85,000 jobs, more than the 81,000 provided by the coal industry nationwide. As I’ve blogged before, that comparison is bogus. The wind industry figure includes construction jobs and manufacturing jobs (folks who make and built the turbines). But the coal industry figure, while accurate as far as it goes, does not include spin-off jobs, vendors, etc.

— Kennedy said that tens of thousands of miners — I think the exact number he used was 90,000 —  had lost their jobs since the 1950s, and none of them were forced out of work by environmental regulations. It’s always dangerous to use always or never … and in this case, anybody who follows the coal industry closely knows Kennedy was wrong. As Gene Trisko of the United Mine Workers testified to the U.S. Senate last year, the acid-rain provisions of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 cost something like 30,000 jobs in the high-sulfur coalfields of places like northern West Virginia and southern Illinois.


University of Charleston officials set up giant video screens for the overflow crowd at Thursday’s debate. Gazette photo by Chip Ellis.

— And at the end of the debate, Kennedy said somewhat glibly that he and Blankenship probably agree that carbon capture and storage, as a technology to deal with global warming, “is a joke.” OK. Now, Kennedy is among the environmentalists who point to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, as the scientific gospel on climate change issues.They point to it is absolute proof of the scientific consensus that the world is warming, it’s caused by things like burning coal, and something needs to be done about it. But guess what? The IPCC has said several times that one of the things that needs to be done is carbon capture and storage. (See IPCC reports here and here, or check out my quotes from the IPCC reports in this lengthy story on CCS).


It might be unfair to do, but if I had to summarize the two world views expressed by Blankenship and Kennedy, at least regarding the coal industry, this is how I’d do it.


This [mountaintop removal] is the worst environmental crime that has ever happened in our history. These companies are liquidating this state for cash with these gigantic machines.

We’re not going to get rid of all mining in this state, and I’m not advocating that. [But] the state needs to start diversifying and transitioning to a new energy economy.


Coal is what made the industrial revolution possible. It’s what won World War I and World War II and it’s the best hope for the future of this country.

The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country. This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.

Coal industry folks like this line. And there’s a lot of truth to the part about how coal helped build the country. Coal Tattoo reader and commenter Tom Rodd has mentioned this fact repeatedly, and it is a huge mistake by the environmental community (and this blog, too, if I’m being honest about it) that they don’t do more to acknowledge this fact. But Blankenship isn’t really among those in the industry who are jumping to “embrace the future,” of a carbon-constrained world or finding ways to further reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal. (See previous posts here, here and here for some examples of industry folks who are doing so.)

And this is one place where Blankenship fell down. Despite the growing scientific consensus that mountaintop removal’s environmental impacts, Blankenship said that these types of mining operations “don’t have any meaningful pollution.” Blankenship made out like EPA’s concerns are only about tiny amounts of harmless stuff in water downstream from mining operations, instead of the widespread destruction of forests, headwater streams and coalfield communities.

Most interesting was Blankenship’s response to Kennedy’s riff about the pollution of fish in streams across the country with mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Blankenship said he wasn’t sure where that information was coming from and that, “you can find anything you want on the Internet.” In fact, you can find details about how mercury from coal-fired power plants is contaminating fish on the Internet. It’s right there, on the Web sites of the U.S. Geological Survey or the National Academy of Sciences.

And, Blankenship offered no coherent response when Kennedy brought up the peer-reviewed research by West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx that Appalachians who live near coal-mining operations suffer more illnesses and die sooner than those who don’t.

Blankenship did reply when Kennedy talked about other research by Hendryx which found the adverse health effects of the coal industry outweigh mining’s positive economic benefits for Appalachia:

It may have some external costs. I don’t know what they are or how much they cost But I know we provide a lot more to the communities than we take away from them.

Updated: Last year, the National Academy of Sciences put the price of just one small part of these external costs — premature deaths from coal-fired power plant air pollution — at $62 billion a year.

And as I said, Blankenship several times express frustration with trying to respond and react to all that Kennedy was throwing at him:

It’s easy to spout out rhetoric, but the truth is if it weren’t for coal, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit here and discuss it.


It’s very difficult listening to this rhetoric and understanding that it’s just not the case. It doesn’t make sense to have a dialogue when we’re throwing out all sorts of things that just aren’t true.

And Blankenship kept going back to his view that Americans have it pretty good compared to suffering in the rest of the world — and environmental or workplace conditions in other places, perhaps — and that there are bigger problems than mountaintop removal or climate change that deserve our attention more:

The real sin is that the environmentalists want to focus on 1 part per milion of iron or all of this other nonsense, when tens of millions of people are starving to death.

The other thing Blankenship repeated was his belief that an attack on the coal industry is an attack on the people who work in it — an attack, for those of us who live here, on  “the people who are teaching your Sunday schools and coaching your Little League.”

Several environmental bloggers and some other folks I spoke with tonight were all over this. Their thought was that Blankenship criticizes Kennedy and other environmentalists for invoking “emotion” in their fight against coal industry practices, but that Blankenship is really doing the same thing.

Of course, they are right. But there’s something else in what Blankenship is saying that caught my attention. Now that the “Big Debate” is over, the national media and many of the activists or publicists on both sides will go home. The people of the coalfields are still here, stuck with the same problems: An industry on the decline, causing widespread environmental damage — and contributing greatly to global warming — but still responsible for a big economic boost in places like Boone and Logan counties.

UC President Ed Welch deserves a lot of credit for taking this event on and then pulling it off.  The Associated Press said the debate “amounted to a prize fight for the hearts and minds of Americans who know next to nothing about coal.” And Kennedy told me he hoped the event would draw more national attention to help fight mountaintop removal.

But what if the “neighbors” Blankenship was describing decided to use this forum as a jumping off point to start talking to each other — instead of talking past each other, yelling at each other or threatening each other — about coal’s downside, its upside and its future?

And that takes me right back to where I started this morning, quoting Sen. Byrd:

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.