Coal Tattoo

Blankenship: ‘I don’t think I’m electable’

The Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher has what I guess is considered a big scoop, a story posted last evening based on an interview with former Massey CEO Don Blankenship. The story starts out:

The former chief executive of Massey Energy Co. said in a rare interview that he has no immediate plans to return to the coal-mining business, after a noncompete agreement expires at the end of the year.

A controversial figure in the coal industry and West Virginia politics, Don Blankenship has largely kept himself out of the spotlight since retiring from Massey in December 2010, eight months after an explosion—the industry’s worst in 40 years—killed 29 workers at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

Then, Kris mentions yesterday’s big news that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin here in Charleston has secured the cooperation of a longtime Massey executive, David C. Hughart, in his office’s ongoing probe of Upper Big Branch and of what investigators say was Massey’s more widespread culture of putting coal production ahead of worker safety and health:

On Wednesday, one of Mr. Blankenship’s former executives was charged with being part of a conspiracy that allegedly involved other company officials ordering miners to violate safety laws. Mr. Blankenship hasn’t been charged in the continuing investigation into the explosion. He appeared before a U.S. Senate hearing into the accident and declined, along with a number of other former Massey officials, to speak to federal and state civil investigators.

Maybe I missed it, but the story doesn’t indicate when this interview took place — and there’s nothing in the story to suggest that Kris asked Blankenship about the ongoing criminal probe which — even long before yesterday’s announcement — clearly had prosecutors working to move up the corporate ladder toward former top Massey officialsUPDATED: Kris Maher says via Twitter  that the interview was on Tuesday, prior to the announcement about charges against former Massey executive David C. Hughart. Either way, it would have been interesting to hear what Blankenship had to say about the broadening investigation. UPDATED: Kris also says via Twitter that Blankenship declined to comment on the criminal probe when he spoke to him, apparently a second time, yesterday.

The story does offer some new information about Blankenship’s own plans for the future:

In recent weeks, the 62-year-old Mr. Blankenship has launched a red-white-and-blue-themed personal website and began posting again on Twitter, raising speculation that he might be preparing to launch a business venture or even a political campaign.

“I don’t have much in the way of plans with coal,” said Mr. Blankenship, noting that he believes central Appalachian coal won’t be competitive with natural gas for a long time. Although he founded McCoy Coal Group last year and is listed as an officer at several other firms, he said he doesn’t plan to seek mining permits or buy up reserves. “It is easier to make money in the stock market than coal,” he said.

He said he has no plans to run for office at this time. “I don’t think I’m electable,” he said, but added he could change his mind and “run for something just to speak my mind.”

And it gives Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, to again avoid questioning whether some of Massey’s business practices weren’t exactly of the sort our state should encourage:

Don Blankenship is a West Virginia success story who has a history of being very outspoken,” said Steven Roberts, president of the state’s Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s likely that Don might use some of his significant resources to amplify his message.”

Regarding politics, the story goes on:

Mr. Blankenship, who spent $3 million of his own money in 2004 to help elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice, said he would continue to contribute to political campaigns, including that of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who announced plans this week to run for the U.S. Senate, but only in a “modest way.”

“Most of the candidates don’t want contributions from me because it gets too much negative publicity,” he said.

And Blankenship gives his view on the future of Central Appalachian coal:

Mr. Blankenship said he primarily blames low natural-gas prices “combined with coal costs driven a lot by regulations.” He also cited weakness in the export market stemming from the Chinese slowdown. “So it’s been a host of things that have really hurt the industry,” he said.

He said he expects lower-cost mines in Wyoming and Illinois to compete again with natural gas when gas prices “normalize,” but he took a darker view of mines in West Virginia where he ran Massey’s coal operations for more than two decades.

“Central Appalachia steam coal is in big trouble,” he said. “I don’t really see them being competitive with gas for a long time.”