Big Coal: No Corporate Social Responsibility for us, please

 Updated on October 21, 2008 -- Corporate social responsibility" (CSR) is all the rage today in corporate America. 

 One recent study found that 86 of the S&P 100 companies now having either corporate sustainability Web sites or a major CSR component in their own Web presence and over half producing a "sustainability report" in 2007.

Defense contractors talk up their "stewardship" these days.  Even tobacco companies have the gall to tout their supposed "values."

So, we got to wondering.  What about America's biggest coal companies?  

After all, over 90 percent of the 1,129 million short tons of coal produced in the U.S. goes to generate electricity.  And those power companies account for as much as 40 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions.  And if you are one of those people who still have their head in the sand when it comes to climate change, consider what coal-powered utility pollution from electric utilities means in terms of ill health in the U.S.:  

Power plant pollution is responsible for 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks and 554,000 asthma attacks each year. The continued use of older coal power plants-many of which have minimal pollution controls or none at all-and the construction of more coal plants will only exacerbate these dangers.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes neurological and developmental problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable. Power plants in the United States release approximately 45 to 50 tons of mercury into the air every year. This mercury settles into water bodies, where it works its way up the food chain and contaminates the fish we eat. Even the best controlled new coal-fired utility boiler will emit more than 100 pounds of mercury each year.

But that dreadful legacy of climate and health consequences does not seem to trouble the coal industry much at all, judging from a quick review of the Web sites for Peabody Energy Corp., Arch Coal Co., CONSOL Energy Inc., and Massey Energy Co., four of the top 10 coal producers in the U.S.

Peabody's Web site brags that it is "the world's largest coal company and the only global pure-play coal investment ... At 9 billion tons, Peabody's reserve base is the industry's largest, and, combined with our global operations, provides us with the best leverage to the strongest growth markets."     You won't get any results if you plug "CSR" or "corporate social responsibility" into the Peabody Web site search engine.  But you will find a corner of the Massey Web site devoted to the topic.  

A visitor to CONSOL Energy's Web site is greeted with the vaguely off-color branding slogan "America's on switch".  The closest thing you will find to CSR on this Web site is a "ethics/code of conduct" statement, which was belatedly adopted by the CONSOL board of directors in February 2008.

Massey's tersely worded website for the general public doesn't really get into corporate social responsibility, though it does make much of coal company's sponsorship of a high school football game and a basketball tournament.  (What is it with these coal company slogans?  Doing the Right Thing With Energy?  Seriously?) 

However, in the "investor relation" (IR) sub-section of the Massey Web site you will find a corporate responsibility report that was posted in the last few weeks.   It is one of the oddest environmental discussions that we have ever seen in a CSR report.  Most companies tout their voluntary efforts to do things in cleaner and more efficient ways than their competitors.  But the "Our Planet" portion of the Massey report (starting on page 19) talks about how the company is getting 36 percent fewer citations for environmental problems than once was the case.   Translation:  We're still breaking the environmental rules two thirds as much as we always did!

In an even more bizarre passage, the Massey "corporate social responsibility report" tries to stand an even more awkward fact on its head:  "In December 2007, Massey reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a Clean Water Act lawsuit."   So, let's get this straight ... Massey is arguing that it is a good corporate citizen because it got nailed with a $20 million EPA penalty for violations of the Clean Water Act that forced it to engage in clean-up operations.

It just goes to show you that - in the wonderful world of coal - "corporate social responsibility" is a concept that can be stretched out of shape beyond any recognition.

And that brings us to Arch Coal - which proudly announces to its site visitors that "Arch Coal's mining complexes provide the fuel for 6% of U.S. electric generation ...we contribute roughly 12% of America's coal supply ."

Arch Coal's corporate social responsibility report sees the company bragging about things it is forced to do under federal laws and regulations - such as running safe mines.    Other CSR "highlights" at Arch Coal includes student mine tours and brainwashing kids and teachers about the wonderful world of coal. 

Hmmm.  Not one word here about Arch's record-size strip mining permit application and the largest-ever mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining operation scarring the embattled countryside of West Virginia

The report does, however, crow about how a strip mine was converted into a golf course ... presumably for coal company executives:   "Mingo Logan's Low Gap surface mine in southern West Virginia was transformed over six years into a world class, 18-hole golf course for public use. The development of the Twisted Gun Golf Course was integrated into the normal mining reclamation process - and paid for through contributions from Arch, Premium Energy Corp., and Pocahontas Land Corp. Twisted Gun is the only 18-hole golf course in a three-county region due to the great expense of course development in the mountainous terrain."

In the final analysis, there just isn't enough greenwashing in the world that will make a coal company look socially responsible!