Coal Tattoo


A newly released photo from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows the location of last week’s deaths at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine in Boone County.

It’s hard to really know where to start with a piece of op-ed commentary like the one the Daily Mail published yesterday from Steve Roberts, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

But after skimming it once, then reading it more carefully  two more times, and then talking to some folks about it, I couldn’t help thinking back to a story from nearly a decade ago. It was just after the 2004 general election, and Brent Benjamin had won his seat on the state Supreme Court, with much help from the shameless campaign funded by then-Massey Energy President Don Blankenship. The story was really a very modest effort at reminding readers again who was behind this campaign. Among the people I asked for comments about Don Blankenship was Steve Roberts. As I recall, I wanted to know if the president of the chamber thought Don Blankenship was a good corporate citizen. Here’s what Roberts said:

steveroberts-web1They are a good corporate citizen in the sense that they employ 4,000 to 5,000 people in West Virginia … I believe it is hard for their kind of company to avoid making mistakes, but I think they try to avoid making mistakes. I don’t think they do those things intentionally.

Since then, the evidence — through admissions of Massey officials and mine managers who have pleaded guilty in the federal criminal probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster — has confirmed what many coal industry watchdogs long believed: Some Massey officials were operating through a conspiracy to evade key mine safety and health laws.

What’s that got to do with yesterday’s op ed by Steve Roberts? Well, when I read about the head of the state’s top business lobby group saying that West Virginia political leaders need to “stand strongly for … working people,” I wonder why I never see an op-ed from the Chamber of Commerce calling for tougher workplace protections for our state’s coal miners — or any other of our “working people” for that matter. Just last week, two coal miners died in the sort of preventable incident that claims the lives of far too many workers in the coal and other industries. Certainly, as we reported on Sunday, the dangers of the type of “retreat mining” being conducted when those miners were killed are well known — and there are questions about whether industry and regulators have done enough about those dangers.

It wasn’t so long ago that Steve Roberts and the Chamber were attacking the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd for the senator’s efforts to make it easier for disabled coal miners to get black lung benefits.

And, I certainly wonder why the Chamber of Commerce is promoting the terribly flawed notion that if we can just get President Obama and his EPA off our backs, then the next big coal boom is just around the corner, instead of joining with other business leaders who are increasingly clear that West Virginia needs to embrace the future, and work toward diversifying our economy and living in a world where coal production in the southern part of the state is half what it is now, for reasons that have little to do with EPA or climate change.





In his op-ed, Steve Roberts talks a lot about politics — about President Obama “politicizing” the debate over climate change, saying “no” to “putting politics ahead of national interest,” supporting action on climate change for “blatantly political purposes” — but he never really says what exactly this mysterious, ulterior political motive is.

Perhaps that’s because the only game that some of our state’s leaders really have is the anti-Obama one. It’s an easy game to play, and it’s one that the career campaign consultants are pushing as the way to help win elections. Of course, Steve Roberts isn’t running for anything — but then again, President Obama isn’t running either this time around.  Remember that Steve Roberts was still hammering away at this narrative long after the voters of this country swept President Obama back to the White House for another term, despite the best efforts of the “war on coal” crowd.

It’s true that real solutions to climate change require global action by many countries, not just a go-it-alone approach by the U.S. But it’s also true that it’s unlikely that anything will happen without U.S. leadership — and remember that if you look at cumulative emissions over time, our rich country is still the leading culprit. Pretending that the developing world isn’t right to expect us to act is like pretending that the mine disaster in Turkey shows how we’ve solved mine safety problems here at home.

Regardless, it’s not like Steve Roberts wrote an op-ed to propose any solutions to climate change and the economic issues it raises for coalfield communities. No, what we got from our state’s top business leader was 500 words peppered with some not-so-subtle science denial:  President Obama is “leading the sky is falling” chorus and the president is exaggerating the global warming message to motivate an otherwise lethargic electoral base.”

But where you really get to the heart of what this piece is about is the last graph:

This starts by rejecting his most recent anti-energy rhetoric and the ballot box is the right place for West Virginia voters to make their views clear.

OK. Now, it’s true that West Virginians are going to get to go to the polls this fall. But again, President Obama isn’t on the ballot. And despite the efforts of the Koch brothers and the career campaign consultants to make voters in some races think otherwise, there are simply no competitive races in West Virginia where the choice for voters is between one candidate who accepts science and wants urgent action on climate change and another candidate who denies science and wants to keep cooking the planet.  While some candidates might, when really pressed and before the right audience, grudgingly acknowledge the scientific consensus, they’re always quick to say they still oppose anything having to do with Obama and EPA (see here and here).

Yesterday’s New York Times carried yet another piece about the latest science on the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, reporting:

Scientists reported last week that the scenario may be inevitable, with new research concluding that some giant glaciers had passed the point of no return, possibly setting off a chain reaction that could doom the rest of the ice sheet.

Antarctic MeltFor many, the research signaled that changes in the earth’s climate have already reached a tipping point, even if global warming halted immediately.

“We as people see it as closing doors and limiting our future choices,” said Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. “Most of us personally like to keep those choices open.”

But these glaciers are just the latest signs that the thawing of earth’s icy regions is accelerating. While some glaciers are holding steady or even growing slightly, most are shrinking, and scientists believe they will continue to melt until greenhouse gas emissions are reined in.

“It’s possibly the best evidence of real global impact of warming,” said Theodore A. Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

There are lots of serious discussions to be had about how to act on climate change, and how West Virginia can both be part of the solution and try to embrace the future in a way that improves life here. It’s a shame the leader of the state’s business community doesn’t want a seat at that table.