CAROLYN KASTER / AP / PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES
When sirens started to wail outside the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia’s southern coal country, everyone knew what was up. An explosion of accumulated methane gas had ripped the mine apart. The warnings had been coming for years – in the previous month alone the mine owners had been cited for 57 safety violations. Twenty-nine coal miners would never see the end of their shift or the light of day again. Big Branch was one of the jewels in the crown of Massey Energy, one of the biggest and nastiest energy conglomerates mining coal in the US. Its CEO is Don Blankenship, a man committed to swash-buckling capitalism with all the political connections needed to derail regulation and shape state and even federal politics to create ‘a favourable business climate’.
Hailing from Madison, West Virginia, Blankenship is a local boy made good. He is that most beloved of all US icons – the rags-to-riches capitalist. At $6 million a year, he is the best-paid executive in the coal industry. He is one of the pioneers of a devastating form of strip-mining called ‘mountain top removal’. This involves blowing the tops off some of the oldest Appalachian mountains in West Virginia, shovelling out the coal and disposing of waste rock (known innocuously in industry talk as ‘valley fill’) into nearby streams and valleys. Not only does it turn beautiful countryside into an industrial wasteland but it endangers local populations downstream with flooding and water contamination. Mountain-top removal has become a major environmental rallying point for the peoples of the Appalachian states and their supporters, who ask something which is becoming a common question – what price energy?
In the 1980s and 1990s Blankenship used scab labour and armed guards, the closure of union mines and a plethora of intimidation tactics to break the labour movement in the coal fields. After three attempts the United Mine Workers gave up trying to organize Upper Big Branch. Like most of the US coal industry, Blankenship is a big supporter of the Republican Party. In 2004 he spent $3.5 million of his own money to get rid of a state supreme justice who had ruled against Massey in a civil suit. Then he helped topple the Democratic governor of the state, Joe Manchin. More recently Blankenship got Massey to join other corporations and pour a million dollars into the anti-Obama Friends of America Rally that helped launch the militant Tea Party Movement on Labour Day 2009. In Blankenship-speak, environmentalists are ‘greeniacs’ and federal regulation of the coal industry means ‘we better learn to speak Chinese’.
Massey is just the most visible representative of Big Coal’s political inclinations. Two other coal players, Peabody Energy and the Southern Company, are major contributors to the Republican cause. George W Bush, on his arrival in the White House, quickly staffed the relevant regulatory agencies with former coal lobbyists and executives. The US is ‘the Saudi Arabia of coal’, with over 25 per cent of global supply. US coal plants alone are responsible for nearly 40 per cent of US emissions of carbon dioxide. With an estimated 250 years of supply still in the ground and each US citizen consuming the equivalent of 10 kilos of coal a day, the future looks smoky.
Very few new coal-fired electricity plants have managed to significantly reduce either emissions or to effectively engage in the much sought after ‘carbon-capture’. Those that have attempted it have found it expensive and partial at best. Most CO2 reduction technologies cannot be used to retrofit old power plants. The great hope of the coal industry had been a US public/private partnership to build a zero-emissions facility known as FutureGen. The US Department of Energy pulled out because it proved too expensive.
However, millions are spent every year by the American Mining Association and front groups like Americans for Balanced Energy Choices and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity to promote something that does not exist – clean coal. Don Blankenship’s strategy of wrapping himself in the flag and in the market (regulation is unAmerican) is at least more honest.
So here we have a source of energy which is part of the dirty heritage of 19th century industrialization, characterized by unsafe mines, black lung disease, acid rain, mountain-top removal, lung cancer and of course climate degradation, that is still at the other end of the transmission system every time we flick on the lights.
These are not good days for Don Blankenship. The regulators and investors are calling for his head. The law suits against Massey Energy are piling up. A reporter for Charleston, West Virginia’s Daily Mail even asked him: ‘How do you sleep at night?’ But chances are Blankenship is sleeping just fine. The Board of Directors has given him a vote of confidence. The people who run Big Coal are also waking up refreshed. There is just no real commitment to tackling climate degradation and putting energy alternatives on the agenda. And with BP’s crude flooding the Louisiana coastline, dirty coal seems to have a rosy future.