Huffpost Green
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Carl Pope Headshot

"Coal Doesn't Kill. Coal Operators Kill."

Posted: Updated:
Alamy
Alamy

That variant on the NRA's famous slogan came to mind last week with the phenomenal victory mountaintop mining removal opponents and community groups achieved in a court settlement: Patriot Mining, previously one of Appalachia's biggest mountaintop removal mining companies, not only agreed to end the practice forever, but acknowledged its community and environmental costs.

Patriot Coal has concluded that the continuation or expansion of surface mining, particularly large scale surface mining of the type common in central Appalachia, is not in its long term interests ... We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint.

This settlement is one of the biggest steps yet in the decade's long struggle to end the devastation of Appalachia by poorly regulated and often illegal mining practices that destroy mountains, fill streambeds, and threaten schools and homes.

It's wonderful. But it reminds us that problems afflicting the coal industry are the direct result of the historic attitudes of its operators -- not actually the resource itself, or the men, women and communities who produce and rely upon it. And Patriot came to its senses only after entering bankruptcy. Not all coal operators are looking at their practices with a fresh eye.

Indeed, in the wake of the election two weeks ago another coal operator. Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, promptly laid off 156 of his workers, promised to lay more off later, and accompanied this decision with a stunning prayer, which equated the election results with the end of the American coal industry and indeed, the end of the idea of America itself:

Dear Lord,

The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance.

We are a Country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom.

My regret, Lord, is that our young people, including those in my own family, never will know what America was like or might have been. They will pay the price in their reduced standard of living and, most especially, reduced freedom.

The takers outvoted the producers.

Murray made a vague reference "allegations from radical Obama supporters that you know are blatantly false" -- an apparent reference to charges that he was blackmailing his employees into supporting Mitt Romney by threatening their jobs in advance of the election -- a threat, we should note, that was evidently not an idle one. But Murray made no reference whatsoever to an even bigger financial challenge he is facing; paying the $1.1 million fine he agreed to as the penalty for the death of nine of his workers in the 2007 Crandall Mine disaster in Utah.

Murray, like many other coal executives, went on to blame the layoffs and economic hardship facing his company on the Obama administration's alleged "war on coal" in the form of clean air and water standards long overdue for coal burning utilities. Well, it is true that there are decisions being made by the Obama administration that are reducing markets for Appalachian coal -- but they aren't coming out of the EPA. Ironically, if the Bush administration has followed through on W's initial campaign promise to clean up coal power back in 2000, the industry would be in much better shape -- because modernized coal plants could have competed when long-term cheap natural gas arrived in 2008, but outmoded, dirty plants without pollution controls cannot and are being shut down. So new clean air and water rules came too late to force utilities to modernize coal plants, and now they are racing away from the fuel. (This phenomenon -- that environmental regulations are often needed to spur innovation and save an industry -- is not new. It saved the U.S. coke oven industry 30 years ago, and arrived just in time for Detroit in 2009.)

What the administration has done that is hurting Appalachian coal is to continue a history of sweetheart giveaways of Power River Basin coal. PRB's price undercuts Appalachian coal in significant part because PRB operators like Peabody Coal -- which previously owned Patriot but spun it off to duck its obligation to pay the pensions of its miners -- get public coal without any competitive bidding, a practice currently being investigated by the General Accounting Office.

Appalachian coal would be mined if it was not undercut by PRB coal -- there is more than enough eastern and Midwestern demand even after the pending wave of power plant closures to use every seam in the region. The problem facing Appalachian mining communities is that they are being undercut by federally subsidized western coal, cast aside by companies like Peabody that exploited both miners and communities for decades and are now breaking their promises, and abused by executives like Murray who treat their employees like serfs, and risk their lives to shave costs.

The term "resource curse" was coined by British economist Richard M. Auty in 1993, to describe the plight of mineral rich countries in Africa. It refers to the reality that certain natural resources lend themselves to being controlled by a tiny number of people, and the profits extracted at the cost of, not to the benefit of, surrounding communities. But the first modern example was the devastation of Appalachia by coal owners, the eloquently told saga I encountered in college as depicted in Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

Last week's legal settlement with Patriot doesn't undo or end the ongoing sage of coal operators ravaging coal communities and blaming others -- unions, environmentalists, public health officials -- for the poverty and destruction that results. But it is another sign that as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. promised, the arc of history does indeed bend towards justice.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."

From Our Partners