Coal and climate: Still searching for Cecil Roberts

April 6, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

I’m not sure what MetroNews radio personality Hoppy Kercheval would prefer — For United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts to announce the union will work against President Obama’s re-election or for Brother Cecil to keep refusing to do so, giving Hoppy endless material for the statewide radio network with all of its coal industry advertisements.

But it is clear that Cecil Roberts isn’t doing a very good job of not taking Hoppy’s bait. Maybe he’s not trying that hard. It’s interesting that the UMWA has taken its complaints about the Obama administration’s environmental policies to a particular sort of media/infotainment outlet. First, there was the union president’s appearance Tuesday on Hoppy’s statewide Talkline program and then last night, a quick interview on a CNBC program hosted by conservative commentator Lawrence Kudlow. Could a guest blog for Don Surber be the next move in the UMWA’s media strategy?

Of course, the thing that got the most attention from this week’s Cecil Roberts media tour were his remarks about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. If you missed it, early in the interview with Hoppy, Cecil threw this in from really out of nowhere:

I noticed this past week the vice president was talking about the campaign and he mentioned that Osama Bin Laden was dead and general motors was alive. He should have gone on to say that the coal industry is not far behind with respect to what happened to Osama Bin Laden.

Later, as Hoppy continued to try to corner Cecil about the union’s 2008 endorsement of then-candidate Obama, the radio host asserted:

This is happening by the EPA under a particular administration which you guys supported, and this administration is hanging you out to dry. Hanging you out to dry.

Cecil responded with this:

I don’t know if I would put it that distinctly, but I would say this, the Navy Seals shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington, so there you go.

This line got picked up by a variety of beltway media outlets (see here, here, here and here) and was the lead-in for Cecil’s appearance on CNBC last night.

What to say about this sort of rhetoric?

Well, Cecil should and I’m sure does know better, at least deep down somewhere.

Not so long ago, UMWA officials were privately complaining about the Inspector General including a line in one of its reports about a Massey Energy expert expressing concern about the union’s “history of violence” during the investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. If the union doesn’t want to be associated with violence, perhaps a first step would be for Cecil to make more of an effort to not use references about shooting people when he’s engaged in a discussion about a major national public policy issue. Much as now-Sen. Joe Manchin did with his “Taking dead aim” ad about the Waxman-Markey bill, Cecil’s comments perpetuates the stereotype that folks in coalfield communities think every difference of opinion amounts to something that should be resolved with gunfire. And with tempers as hot as they are over issues like mountaintop removal, responsible leaders — if we had any around — would use their bully pulpit to urge restraint, understanding and reason, not to throw around analogies about shooting people.

Seriously now, Cecil Roberts is comparing our government’s assassination of the mastermind of the 9-11 terror attacks to EPA’s peaceful and non-violent proposal of Clean Air Act regulations? Come on. Cecil is a very smart guy and an accomplished public speaker. He can do better than that. I kind of hoped Cecil had just let this slip out, pushed as he was by Hoppy to take a tougher stand against President Obama. But union spokesman Phil Smith told me:

I think [Cecil Roberts] thinks he used some pretty strong words. But I don’t know that he necessarily regrets those words.

It sounds more like the UMWA is pleased with the media attention the remarks have gotten them, and thinks this little episode will get them somewhere with the administration. I’m not so sure about that, but time will tell.

More importantly than all of this, though, is the underlying substance of what Cecil Roberts had to say this week about coal, climate change and the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with what is without a doubt one of the most significant, pressing and urgent problems confronting humankind.

Even more specifically, it’s key to go back and look at what Cecil Roberts didn’t say this week: He didn’t say that urgently reducing greenhouse gas pollution to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change is important and must be done.  Go back and listen to the Talkline appearance and see what I mean. Cecil’s comments are all about what he thinks is bad about this particular EPA regulatory proposal. We’ve written before about how Cecil Roberts, while professing to accept the clear scientific consensus about global warming, slips into denier-talk at worst and, at best, does not explain to his members the importance of dealing with global warming and how the coal industry might play a role in that.

Go back and re-read what Cecil’s friend AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka says about climate change:

Today, as we meet together, scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change—with catastrophic consequences for human civilization. We must have a stable climate to feed the planet, to ensure there is drinking water for our cities but not floodwaters at our doors. A stable climate is the foundation of our global civilization, of our global economy—the prerequisite for a profitable investment environment.

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

We’re still waiting to hear words anywhere near that clear and eloquent from Cecil Roberts.

Rightly so, Cecil Roberts is focused on the coal miners he represents — and not only working miners, but thousands of retirees and widows, folks who rely on coal production fees to fund their retirement and health-care benefits.  He’s right to worry about and try to work to protect their interests. I’m not sure anybody quibbles with that.

But in his Talkline interview, Cecil repeatedly said his view of putting his coal miners and their families first is a broader view than that taken by EPA and groups like the Sierra Club. I’m not sure how he translates working for the interests of a relatively small (in global terms) number of people’s economic security into a broader view than working for protection of the very climate the the rest of the world’s residents rely on to live. I’ve repeatedly on this blog urged readers from the environmental community to try to put themselves into Cecil’s shoes on these issues. But  saying he had a broader view of climate change than those who are actually working to address it was a poor choice of words, especially when used in this context

There are other problems with the arguments  Cecil is making on this.

He seems to advocate the United States not taking any action at all on global warming unless it’s doing so as part of a global treaty with developing nations, ignoring the notion that the U.S. should be a progressive world leader.  Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory would drive the U.S. to abandon mine safety laws if China didn’t adopt those same worker protections.

And Cecil argues for no action by EPA on global warming unless Congress passes a comprehensive climate change bill. But let’s remember that his union refused to endorse the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House, despite saying publicly of that legislation:

As it stands now, the amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact.

Phil Smith told me that the union believes, if that bill had become law, the nation would be three years further down the road toward perfecting and deploying carbon capture and sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants. Instead, we see projects like AEP’s Mountaineer Plant CCS installation being dropped, largely because without mandated emissions reductions, there’s no reason for utilities to move forward.

Just this morning, Phil Smith told me again that the UMWA — unlike the Hoppy Kerchevals and Don Surbers of our state — accepts the science on global warming. If that’s true, then Cecil Roberts knows that global warming pollution levels are worse than scientists feared they would be, and he knows there is a “pressing need for substantial action” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And Cecil also knows that the only way to both deal with these issues and still have a coal industry is to press forward with CCS.

If that’s what he knows, then why doesn’t Cecil say it, instead of taking the bait from global warming deniers?

7 Responses to “Coal and climate: Still searching for Cecil Roberts”

  1. Edd442 says:

    I agree, Ken. Leaders, especially elected officials, should use their positions of authority during trying times to call for unity, civility and decency among their constituents. Those that did this after Martin Luther King’s assassination, for example, saved many lives and much bloodshed. They were able to acknowledge the natural feelings of anger but were able to translate that into a higher cry for peaceful action. True character is revealed under times of extreme duress. The coal industry is no exception.

  2. Walt says:

    Trumka wouldn’t be making those comments about climate change if he were still president of the UMWA.

  3. Forrest Roles says:

    Cecil Roberts needs no help, especially from the likes of me, in defending his public responses to the radical EPA proposed rules limiting CO2 emissions from new power plants in terms which, even if not intended to, in effect prohibit the construction of any new coal fired facilities. They do nothing to address the emission of greenhouse gases otherwise and are not coordinated with any other efforts either here or abroad to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, they amount to a completely useless slow strangulation of the US thermal coal industry, which employs a majority of the members Mr. Robert’s union represents and supplies the majority of the funds which support the excellent, if expensive, pension and healthcare system negotiated for the many more retirees represented. Given those facts, I cannot help but respond to your criticism of his assertion that the EPA is out to assassinate his organization.
    Mr. Roberts is rhetorically accurate. The EPS’s justification is that the killing is only a regrettable casualty in the necessary war on climate change. Ha! War is serious enough to require comprehensive effort. This is the sole action of the Obama administration designed to limit emissions and as such is predictably unavailing even to significantly effect US emissions. On the only scale important – world emissions, it will cause not a blip in the increasing level of coal fired plant emissions because of the growth in developing nations.
    Your criticism is even less logical. You first appeal to the benefits of US leadership. There is no reason I can think of to believe any other nation will follow our example of useless self destruction. Your second argument is even worse. You suggest that a US decision to refrain from emission reductions until a world commitment, necessary to real success, is reached is the equivalent to abandoning safety efforts until China matches our world standard practices. That is a particularly wrong argument to make to Mr. Roberts as he knows that such a step would expose those he has spent a lifetime seeking to protect to great harm while doing very little good as safety is critical to real productivity. Poor safety in China harms only the Chinese. Emissions anywhere in the world contribute to global warming. Your argument simply is not logical.
    Therefore, Mr. Roberts is justified in his Bin Laden analogy. This action has all the hallmarks of a knowing and intentional killing as a useless death is the logical result and the proffered justifications are transparently false. Although the action could have resulted instead from a arrogant ideology blind to economics and uncaring about the pain of unemployment, I agree with Mr. Roberts that premeditated murder of an industry which is a political enemy is the most likely explanation. He deserves our applause, not illogical criticism.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks for your comments, Forrest. Two points in response:

    1. Part of the UMWA’s argument is that U.S. climate change regulations will harm their members by putting them at a competitive disadvantage with other coal miners operating in other counties that don’t have such regulations.

    It is a perfectly logical comparison to note that the U.S. has stronger safety laws than China and that Cecil’s argument, followed to its logical conclusion, would do away with those safety laws to ensure that U.S. miners could compete with the miners in China.

    2. Please try to restrain yourself and don’t take the violent rhetoric even farther than Cecil Roberts already has. You could make your point without using words like “murder” and “strangulation”.

    While it was important to cover Cecil’s comments, I’m not going to allow this blog to turn into a forum for needless comparisons between policy decisions and actual physical violence.


  5. Forrest Roles says:

    I accept your suggestion to tone down the violent side of the rhetoric. I was only saying that Mr. Roberts use of it was justified by the intentional administration’s effort to eliminate the domestic market for thermal coal for no real purpose and with a disingenuous stated rationale. In the vernacular, it’s a “crime” very harmful to the members he represents and the economy of the region he calls home. Such events do not call for understatement.
    I reject the second admonition. The UMWA has not made and no one can sustain an argument that the EPA rules somehow put UMWA mines at a competitive disadvantage to non US mines. Rather, those rules gradually eliminate the logical market for much of the UMWA produced coal, for everyone. The competiveness argument simply does not apply and your suggesting it underlies the arguments of opponents to the EPA’s proposed rules is at best a straw man.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I would think, given your history, you would respect the notion that violent rhetoric can often — intended or not — lead to actual violence.

    As to your second point, the UMWA has absolutely made this argument. In discussing Cecil’s appearance on Talkline with me, for example, union spokesman Phil Smith said:

    “Our members are being put at a competitive disadvantage by actions being taken by this country.”

    Phil elaborated that he did indeed mean that these greenhouse gas (and other environmental) rules put American miners at a disadvantage compared to other miners in other countries. I would agree that it’s not an agreement that can be sustained — but it’s not an argument that I invented to set up the UMWA with a straw man.

    Phil went on to say that, regarding safety rules, the UMWA’s position most certainly isn’t that the U.S. should have the same standards as China — to the contrary, he said, the U.S. should push China to adopt the same standards we have in this country. It’s clear to me that the same reasoning applies to important standards such as protecting the planet from the climate crisis. America can be a leader, or we can continue to do nothing.


  7. Bob Kincaid says:


    May we remember that Friend of Coal spokesman Don Nehlen actually SAID we need to get rid of regulations on coal so as to be able to compete with China? “They mine coal for six dollars a ton and we’ve got to be able to compete,” was, if I recall, the wording he used. I’d provide you the link, but the Daily Mail sent it down the memory hole, according my search.

    Granted, former Coacyh Nehlen’s no union spokesman, but ultimately, he and Mr. Roberts are talking about the same thing, aren’t they?

    Thanks for addressing the eliminationist language, Ken. It’s no less disturbing to hearing it come from Mr. Roberts than it is to see it displayed by one of our current sitting senators.

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