Ain’t no mountain high enough: Taking down Massey Coal
It’s not quite as elusive as the ivory-billed woodpecker, but in activism, an effective “inside-outside” strategy shares some of the same attributes as that storied bird: It’s highly sought after and much talked-about, but rarely seen.
First, some background. The basic idea of the inside-outside strategy for environmental reform is this: Some folks work inside legal channels, such as litigation or legislation, while other folks create outside public pressure through civil disobedience or protest. The outside folks bring attention and generate public interest, while the inside folks provide the means for lasting change (at least in theory).
I’m lucky enough to have unwittingly been a part of a successful inside-outside strategy. When I disrupted a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in 2008, some environmental groups happened to have filed a lawsuit at the same time. My actions created some chaos, a delay, and a whole lot of attention. Their lawsuit translated that public awareness into the lasting impacts of a canceled auction and significant reforms in the onshore oil and gas auction process.
Unfortunately, such examples are rare because the inside groups often choose appeasement over reform, and the outside groups often fail to act strategically.
This month saw the launch of what has the potential to be a real, lasting inside-outside strategy. Free Speech for People and Appalachian Voices filed a request [PDF] for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden to revoke the corporate charter of Massey Energy.
Grist readers probably already know that Massey Energy is one of the worst corporate criminals in the fossil fuel industry. The company’s most visible recent outrage was the disaster that killed 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in April of 2010. The governor of West Virginia at the time, Joe Manchin, commissioned an independent investigative panel that found that Massey operates in a “profoundly reckless manner.”
The report to the governor [PDF] is well worth a read for anyone who thinks the phrase “corporate criminal” is mere hyperbole. The report chronicles not only the causes of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, but also a pattern of lawlessness on the part of Massey. During the 10 years leading up to the disaster, 54 Massey miners died, and the company racked up 62,923 violations.
That death rate is more than 15 times the death rate of other coal companies, and it’s worth pointing out that 62,923 is just the number of times they’ve been caught (by an industry-friendly regulatory agency) breaking the law. Remember that limited liability and the other privileges of a corporate charter are conditioned on good behavior and serving the public interest. Not even the fossil fuel industry shills who troll Grist’s comment boards could define getting caught breaking the law 62,923 times in 10 years as “good behavior” and “public service.”
The report goes on to address Massey’s political activity, including massive campaign contributions to elect appeals judges who overturn Massey’s convictions.
And there’s plenty about Massey that’s not in the report — like how they blow up mountains, poison water, and destroy communities. Oh yeah, that.
Of course, there are already people fighting mountaintop-removal (MTR) coal mining, and some are focusing their efforts on Massey. Appalachian communities are increasingly turning toward civil disobedience in light of Massey’s obvious disregard for the law and the Democratic Party’s reluctance to take a stand. The last few years have seen mass civil disobedience actions like the recent March on Blair Mountain, as well as targeted, sustained resistance campaigns like tree sits on MTR sites. The next step is for those types of action to combine into large and sustained waves of resistance on MTR sites.
So here we have the makings of an honest-to-goodness inside-outside strategy.
Despite the clear and morally urgent case for revoking Massey’s corporate charter, the decision in the end will be a political one. Since Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden happens to be the son of Vice President Joe Biden, it is a political decision that reaches to the highest levels of government. Even though Massey more closely resembles an organized crime syndicate than it does a legitimate organization operating by the rules of its charter, revoking that charter would still be a bold and controversial move. Such an action would invite significant retribution, not just from the coal industry, but from corporate America in general. That means that for this important step to be taken, there would have to be an epic amount of political pressure.
That pressure might look something like waves of people walking onto Massey MTR mine sites every day. If 30 people or so walk onto a site, it temporarily shuts down the operation, costing the company a good deal of money; once those people are arrested, they begin to clog up the jails and the legal system. These things create a little tension and cause a minor problem for the power structure that promotes Massey. When it happens again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, the tension grows into a much larger problem for Massey and all the elected officials who are supposed to hold them accountable. As the waves of activists show no signs of stopping, the most visible of those officials are forced to choose a side.
Filling the jails of West Virginia with people struggling for clean water would be horribly unpopular for the Obama administration as it heads into a reelection campaign. Ditto for bringing in the National Guard to defend MTR sites. After a couple months of this, even the liberals who still support Obama will start to notice that he is not on the side of people who want clean air, clean water, intact mountains, and a safe climate.
Of course, no politician wants to directly give in to civil disobedience. They’d rather find an indirect solution that relieves the tension without making it clear that arrests get results. This is where inside-outside strat
egies often break down, because the easy out provided by mainstream groups is too easy and doesn’t actually make any difference. But in this case, revoking Massey’s corporate charter is a serious step that begins to undermine corporate power. (For more info on how that works, check out the FAQs [PDF] about this campaign.)
This would be a tough battle, but it’s one that we could win. It’s one of the best opportunities on the horizon for a real inside-outside strategy. We have a growing body of people around the country who want to take action in West Virginia, groups pursuing a strong inside strategy, and a president who desperately needs to start winning back some progressive support. It’s time to push.