On Thursday the University of Charleston in West Virginia hosted a debate between Don Blankenship, CEO of mountaintop-removal mining firm Massey Energy Co., and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental lawyer and founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance. I kept up a running play-by-play that can be accessed by scrolling back through my Twitter feed, but I didn’t take notes, so this is from memory and I won’t be using direct quotes.
The mystery to me going in was why Blankenship agreed to it. What possible incentive is there for a corporate CEO to put himself in a risky situation, publicly defending a widely reviled product? What’s the upside? Why not just buy some ads or hire more lobbyists?
Having watched the debate, I’m more mystified than ever. If that was supposed to be damage control, I’d hate to see damage. Blankenship had every advantage, with a friendly hometown crowd eager to applaud him and a moderator who helpfully read off pro-coal facts during commercial breaks, but he was painfully and obviously outmatched by Kennedy. I guess it’s easy to get over-confident when you’ve effectively purchased a state government and broken the law with impunity for years.
He didn’t seem even cursorily prepared. Kennedy reeled off fact after fact about declining mining employment in WV, the age of Appalachian ecosystems and the impossibility of recovering them after MTR mining damage, the enormous health and economic impacts of coal on Appalachia, the size of Chinese investments in clean energy, the number of Clean Water Act violations from Massey, and on and on and on. Every fact was geared toward a plea to West Virginians: look, this man is making himself rich by making you poor. He’s sapping your state of jobs, income, health, and a future.
In response Blankenship had nothing but ressentiment and nativism. Over and over he dismissed Kennedy’s facts as “rhetoric” and “just false” claims that “you can find on the internet,” but not once did he refute or even convincingly contest a particular claim. He asked the audience to dismiss them based purely on crude stereotypes about out-of-state environmentalists.
His very first rebuttal drew on a familiar conservative trope: environmentalists are are overly emotional and rely on extremist rhetoric rather than facts and cool reason. But no sooner had the words left his mouth than he was talking about how the coal industry is really “your neighbors” and “Sunday school teachers,” working to create down-home energy so terrorists don’t come over and kill us. He warned that pesky regulatory constraints from do-gooders mean “we all better learn to speak Chinese.” This is what reasoned, non-emotional rhetoric looks like, I guess: if you criticize my company you hate Sunday school teachers, love terrorists, and want to surrender national sovereignty to Red China.
When Kennedy accused him of leaving behind ghost towns across WV, Blankenship responded that he’d bought up all those homes at fair market value (“those people left voluntarily”). In response to Kennedy’s points on water pollution, Blankenship effectively dismissed the threat of mercury as a bunch of hype on the internet. (If mercury is dangerous, he asked, how is it people in India live to be 79? Really, that was his argument. Apparently he’s never heard of Minimata disease.) When Kennedy listed the social and health damages done by coal — “externalities” the industry charges to taxpayers — Blankenship mumbled, “do we have some of those externalities? I don’t know. Maybe.” When Kennedy pointed out that China is dumping trillions into renewable energy, Massey responded that they were only building windmills to appease the UN. When Kennedy pointed out that Massey’s own disclosure revealed some 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act last year, Blankenship responded that they’re reducing their violations year to year, now that they’ve been reminded by the EPA that it would be a good idea.
In short, Kennedy was the encyclopedic superego of environmentalism and Blankenship was the raw id of crony capitalism.
I’ll admit I’ve always been perversely fascinated by Blankenship. Most big corporate CEOs have mastered the art of calorie-free management speak. They’ve learned how to stay on message and skirt controversy. Not Blankenship. Not only does he openly flout the law and buy political access, he remains defiantly unpleasant in person, speaking in an affectless, heavily accented mumble. Watch toward the end of this video, the archival footage:
He still talks like that. He simply dismissed Kennedy’s facts and stuck to his narrative: global warming’s a hoax, hippie environmentalists are strangling free enterprise, out-of-staters have no right to question what happens in WV, and China is going to take over if we don’t mine and burn all the coal we can as fast as we can. We’re crazy to be worried about “parts per million” of pollutants when coal is the only thing keeping our life expectancy above Angola’s. We’re in a ruthless global competition for dominance and the most productive and efficient win, mountains and poor people be damned.
In sharp contrast to, say, Duke Energy’s congenial, folksy CEO Jim Rogers, Blankenship fashions himself a hillbilly John Galt and doesn’t give a f*ck what you think about it.
Why he’d want to take that act to a national audience is a true puzzlement.
By the way, asked what they might agree about, the Blankenship and Kennedy settled on two things: they don’t like “free trade” and they think carbon capture and sequestration is nonsense.