Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Oct. 12, 2012

A Norfolk Southern Railroad train pulls transport cars full of coal through central Illinois Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, near Goodfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

The politics of coal continued to be a big issue in the media this week, with one of the more interesting pieces being this Washington Post editorial:

The coal industry cannot and should not continue operating as it has, and Mr. Obama is not the reason. Cheap natural gas has gutted the economic case for burning coal. Climate change and coal-related pollution explain why that’s a good thing.

When the economics of energy help to redress environmental and public-health problems, the country’s leaders should cheer. They also should help those who depend on the industry prepare for transition, not tell them fairy tales.

Living on Earth and NPR both had stories about the “war on coal” campaign by the industry and its implications for political campaigns, and In These Times magazine had a piece about the decline of unionization in the coal industry and its implications for elections like this one:

Thirty years ago there were battles in the coalfields—often physically violent—for unionization of mines. Workers were at odds with companies, fighting for better pay, higher levels of safety and better benefits. Those battles, last fought by the UMWA in the 1980s and 1990s, were generally lost. The union abandoned mass strikes and lost contracts.

Companies like Massey Energy, bought out by Alpha Natural Resources, raised wages and benefits while squelching unionization—and, with mechanization, cut many jobs. Depopulation followed. Today only one major regional company, Patriot Coal, is unionized, and it is in bankruptcy.

For those with jobs, life can be good. “We are scabs. We’re proud to be scabs,” says one surface miner at the Camp Branch mine in Logan County, W.Va., who also spoke anonymously. He praises Alpha Natural Resources, the region’s biggest coal corporation, for its treatment of its workers—how good its benefits are, how much management cares about the employees. (This despite the fact that the federal government cited Alpha for more than 200 safety violations at its mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.) Most of all, my source stresses how good all the miners are to each other and the surrounding community.

… The coal companies are not alone in stirring up anti-Obama sentiment. The Christian Right is deeply involved in coalfield politics. This is also a gun culture, and many believe the NRA’s charges that the president is attempting to take guns away.

Those forces play upon values of autonomy and independence that run deep here. For 150 years, these values have helped Appalachians survive outsiders exploiting their mountain resources. Now those values have become aligned with out-of-state coal companies against environmentalists and liberals.

Some hold true to the region’s Democratic roots. A retired miner, sporting a “UMWA for Obama” cap, rails, “These people are gonna be real sorry when they vote for Romney and lose their Social Security.”

Hundreds of coal miners and their families stand in line while waiting to attend a rally at the Century Mine near Beallsville, Ohio, for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Intelligencer, Scott Mccloskey)

Coal continues to be a hot topic in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia, and  Alex MacGillis at The New Republic had a lengthy piece reporting:

… Over the years, CEO Robert Murray has brought in GOP pols from as far away as Alaska, California, and Massachusetts for fund-raisers …  This year, Murray is one of the most important GOP players in one of the most important battleground states in the country. In May, he hosted a $1.7 million fund-raiser for Romney. Employees have given the nominee more than $120,000. In August, Romney used Murray’s Century Mine in the town of Beallsville for a speech attacking Barack Obama as anti-coal. This fall, scenes from that event—several dozen coal-smudged Murray miners standing behind the candidate in a tableau framed by a giant American flag and a COAL COUNTRY STANDS WITH MITT placard—have shown up in a Romney ad.

The ads aired even after Ohio papers reported what I was told by several miners at the event, a bit of news that an internal memo confirms: The crowd was not there of its own accord. Murray had suspended Century’s operations and made clear to workers that they were expected to attend, without pay. “I tell ya, you’ve got a great boss,” Romney said in acknowledging Robert Murray from the stage. “He runs a great operation here.”

The accounts of two sources who have worked in managerial positions at the firm, and a review of letters and memos to Murray employees, suggest that coercion may also explain Murray staffers’ financial support for Romney. Murray, it turns out, has for years pressured salaried employees to give to the Murray Energy political action committee (PAC) and to Republican candidates chosen by the company. Internal documents show that company officials track who is and is not giving. The sources say that those who do not give are at risk of being demoted or missing out on bonuses, claims Murray denies.

The story included this explanation from company officials:

Murray Energy general counsel Mike McKown says the firm’s approach to political giving complies with federal laws. Employees are not required to give to the PAC, he says, nor are they reimbursed. “We follow carefully the FEC [Federal Election Commission] rules about what employees can be solicited and how they can be solicited,” he says, adding that Bob Murray’s encouragement for employees to contribute to individual candidates is the CEO’s personal endeavor. “The PAC and Mr. Murray’s fundraising are kept separate,” he says.

The story led to a complaint being filed against Murray with the Federal Elections Commission, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:

The Ohio Democratic Party has asked state and federal regulators to investigate the company practices of one of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s biggest regional benefactors — a coal executive who Democrats say may have strong-armed financial contributions from employees for Republican candidates and causes.

Robert E. Murray, president and CEO of the Pepper Pike, Ohio-based Murray Energy coal company, said in an interview with the Post-Gazette that memos sent over the past several years to employees urging donations to pro-coal candidates were within federal guidelines.

The accusations are laid out in a letter sent this week to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio and the national Federal Elections Commission. The FEC told Mr. Murray he has 15 days to respond. Mr. Murray said the Democratic Party’s letter is an attempt to stifle critics of the president ahead of a critical election.

“It’s timed to shut me up,” Mr. Murray said Tuesday. “It’s a dishonest, totally false and fabricated group of charges to embarrass Gov. Mitt Romney, my family, our company and me.”

In another election-related story from Ohio, The Hill explained:

An ad campaign launched Thursday by a conservative group aims to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) by linking him to Obama administration regulations opposed by the coal industry.

American Commitment is spending $400,000 on the Ohio TV and radio effort. The group is headed by Phil Kerpen, a former strategist for Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth.

The Washington Post reported this:

An environmental group is calling on President Obama’s campaign to take down a TV ad criticizing Republican challenger Mitt Romney for declaring years ago that a Massachusetts coal-fired power plant “kills people.”

And in international news:

Hundreds of miners are set to lose their jobs by Christmas as one of Britain’s few remaining coal mines looks set to close.

The 540 workers at Maltby pit, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, have been given 90 day ‘potential redundancy’ notices by its owners.

Hargreaves Services blames serious geological problems for the closure of the 100-year-old pit, which he says makes mining there dangerous.