Bobby vs. Blankenship: The Debate Over Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Last night found me in Charleston, West Virginia for the highly anticipated matchup between the Coal Baron and the Kennedy.  Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a life-long environmental advocate who also serves as a senior attorney at NRDC.  Don Blankenship is the CEO of Massey Energy, the fourth-largest coal company in the U.S. and largest coal employer in central Appalachia, the region marred by mountaintop removal coal mining. 

My colleague Melissa Waage live tweeted the debate and here is the front-page story in today's Charleston Gazette and another artice today's Charleston Daily Mail (quoting Melissa).  You can also watch video of the debate here.

(Seated L-R: Don Blankenship, Dr. Ed Welch, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  Photo by Andrea Lai/Climate Ground Zero)

I got to witness the face-off from the second row of the auditorium on the campus of the University of Charleston, which hosted the event.  The capacity crowd numbered 950, with supporters of both men evenly split amongst the audience.  Local and national journalists packed the gallery to cover the expected verbal fireworks.  What drew the media, no doubt, was the specter of two diametrically opposed, passionate advocates for their respective causes, squaring off on a contentious issue in the heart of coal country. 

This "Forum on Energy" (as the debate was billed) was really a rhetorical matchup featuring the Environmentalist vs. the Industrialist -- or more like a battle between Beauty and the Beast or maybe Darth Vader vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi or...well, you get the idea.

Just consider where the two stand on the biggest environmental issue of the day: global warming.  Bobby has declared the climate crisis "the most urgent threat to our collective survival."  Blankenship insists that climate change is a hoax, even Tweeting this gem last October 23rd at 11:36pm: "Some fear we are entering a new Ice Age.  We must demand more coal be burned to save the Earth from Global Cooling."

With the stage set for this historic confrontation, the combatants ascended the platform and took facing seats just a few feet apart.  The moderator, UC president Dr. Ed Welch, expressed appreciation to both men for agreeing to debate publicly, noting that these days it's rare to have serious conversation between two people who really disagree about a sensitive issue.  And then it was on...

Blankenship kicked things off by outlining his view of the primary concerns regarding energy: America's own security and the need to improve the quality of life of all Americans and the rest of the world through plentiful, low cost electricity.  He also took a moment to thank his supporters for their well-wishes leading up to the debate, especially "all the churches for their prayers."

Bobby opened his remarks by noting his family's deep connections to Appalachia, dating back to his uncle John F. Kennedy, whose crucial campaign victory in West Virginia helped propel him to the presidency.  Bobby's father also spent considerable time in Appalachia and devoted himself to lessening the poverty racking the region. 

Then Bobby came out swinging, blasting Blankenship and his "Big Coal chronies" for "literally liquidating this state for cash, using these giant machines and detonating 2500 tons of ammonium nitrate every day" -- the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb every week -- that is turning Appalachia's "purple mountain majesties into amber waves of grain."  He denounced out-of-state coal companies for "destroying the environment, leaving barren landscapes, poisoning the water and permanently impoverishing communities."  

This brought to my mind what historian Ron Ellers wrote about industrialization's impact on Appalachia:

"The industrial wonders of the age promised more than they in fact delivered, for the profits taken from the rich natural resources of the region flowed out of the mountians, with little benefit to the mountain people themselves.  For a relative handful of owners and managers, the new order yielded riches unimaginable a few decades before; for thousands of mountaineers, it brought a life of struggle, hardship, and despair."

Indeed, Bobby invoked the example of West Virginia to challenge the myth that coal production powers prosperity, asking Blankenship directly: "How is it that the state with the richest natural resources is the 49th poorest in the country?"       

Blankenship didn't bother to answer that question.  Instead, he deflected it by scoffing at Bobby's charges and dismissing all environmentalists for their "sensationalism and emotionalism."  He also labeled such criticism "untrue rhetoric."  This seemed to be Blankenship's typical tactic: blithely batting away all facts and statistics lobbed by Bobby as false and never presenting his own counter facts to support his own statements.  Indeed, Blankenship's comments were for the most part entirely fact-free.  He continually scoffed at any and all hard data offered by Bobby, such as asthma rates from coal plant smokestack pollution, the risks of mercury poisoning to human health, and Massey's own self-reported, extensive water quality violations.  By contrast, Blankesnhip resorted to peppering any and all of his own statement with praise for American freedom -- powered by coal, by God -- and kept appealing to the audience to remember that his industry is composed of "your family, friends, Sunday school teachers and little league coaches."

For the most part, the two men spoke past each other.  Neither got flustered and both remained even-keeled throughout the debate.  At times Bobby appeared more passionate while Blankenship let slip the occasional snide remark, including personal attacks on Bobby as a rich, elite outsider who doesn't care for the fate of hard-working Americans.  At one point, Blankenship said the only thing Bobby knew about poverty was what he read in a book.  This coming from a man who just received a $15 million bonus after his company cut its employee payroll by 6% across the board.

Speaking of jobs, Blankenship continually claimed that environmental regulations are responsible for putting people out of work, the economic recession, and for driving jobs oversees.  Bobby deftly countered that pitting jobs versus the environment is a false dichotomy and noted that mining jobs in Appalachia have declined by 90% over the past several decades due to the coal industry's "ruthless pursuit of efficiency" through mechanization.  Bobby pointed out that banning mountaintop removal would not cost jobs, but would actually boost them since traditional underground mining employs many more workers.  Blankenship didn't dispute that fact but simply noted that "every industry in the world has mechanized, including coal."

In response to Bobby's call for economic diversification in the coalfields, Blankenship conceded that "it's been time to diversify our economy since 1890."  But he refuted the notion that cleaner, renewable energy industries like wind and solar are a viable alternative to coal.  "Were it not for coal," Blankenship declared, "we wouldn't have the freedom to sit up here and discuss it."

In their closing statements, Blankenship reiterated his mantra about coal promising continued prosperity for all. "Coal made the Industrial Revolution possible, coal won World War II, and it made our country the greatest in the world," he said.  He also took another swipe at climate change, insisting that it's "clearly not happening" and even if global temperatures are on the rise "it's not because of man."  Besides, reasoned Blankenship, the U.S. should not reduce its fossil fuel use since the rest of the world -- particularly China and India -- "won't stop burning coal." 

Bobby stressed the need to transition from dirty energy to a clean energy economy and suggested a good first step by eliminating the government's annual fossil fuel subsidies to provide a level playing field that will allow renewable energy alternatives to rapidly deploy and scale up.  And he specifically called for an end to mountaintop removal, deriding it as "the worst environmental crime in American history."  "There is no way to restore or replace the Appalachians," Bobby added.  "When these ridges are gone, they're gone forever." 

Finally, Bobby appealed to Blankenship and the coal industry directly: "Go underground and employ lots more workers while we transition to a clean energy future."

There you have it.  I think the debate lived up to its billing.  And clearly, Bobby cleaned the floor with Blankenship.  I just hope the rest of the country tuned in.