It’s not every day you get a chance to confront some of the most downright bad people in the world. We talk about these evil-doers all the time, largely in euphemisms: we call them fossil fuel lobbyists and big polluters. We reference them passively by capitalizing the words “Dirty Coal”. While Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (who has been described as nothing less than an Evil Bastard) has faced a quite a lot of public scrutiny recently, we generally don’t know or think much about the names and faces of those who make daily decisions to put their companies’ profits over people and the planet.
But every once in a while, an opportunity arises to confront the bad guys, face to face.
Yesterday, Congressman Ed Markey held a hearing in his Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming titled “The Role of Coal in a New Energy Age.” Three coal company executives and the president of a coal mining association testified. Grateful to Chairman Markey for dragging these crooks out into the open, our crew of activists decided we couldn’t let this one pass us by.
There’s something really tantalizing about an opportunity to confront so much evil and so much power. But how to stick it to these guys (yes, all guys in this case) in just a brief public moment of protest? How to capture all the complexity – the blowing up of mountains, polluting of streams, melting glaciers, droughts, conflicts over resources and refugees? How to honor the lives of 29 miners lost in a devastating West Virginia mine disaster just over a week ago?
We decided to keep it simple by putting on dust masks and telling the coal execs, committee members, and other hearing participants what role we think coal should play in the “new energy age”: a non-existent one.
Just as Gregory Boyce, President and CEO of Peabody Energy was getting into talking about so-called C$#@n coal, three of the folks in dust masks walked up to the front of the room and dumped lumps of coal on the desks of the coal executives. One of them tried to hand a piece of coal to Preston Chiaro, Chief Executive for Energy and Minerals at Rio Tinto. He wouldn’t take it. The CEOs refused to make eye contact with the graceful and solemn activists. I stood up in my seat and yelled, “Coal is Dirty! Coal will always be dirty! It has no role in our energy future!”
A number of activists also stood outside the hearing room distributing lumps of coal and fliers highlighting local groups that are fighting or have successfully defeated coal projects owned by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Rio Tinto.
Aside from our protest, the rest of the hearing mostly went as expected. The dirty coal barons regurgitated worn-out arguments and lies about the role that their dirty coal should play in America’s energy future. Michael Carey, President of the Ohio Coal Association seemed to admit he falls into the ever-diminishing camp of climate skeptics. “We believe that the science undermining the EPA finding is questionable,” he said. Three of the four coal execs said they needed more government funding for developing Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and reaffirmed their previous opposition to the house-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act. This is absurd, considering that ACES gives away a whopping $60 billion dollars to help develop this long shot technology.
Fortunately, climate champs Chairman Markey and Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) challenged the coal CEOs on a number of issues. “I ask you that you cease efforts to deny the science of global warming and stop spending millions of dollars misleading the public on the true science behind climate change,” Markey said. In response to a plea that climate legislation be delayed until CCS is viable, Inslee suggested, “That’s like saying when people stop robbing banks, then we will put a law in place to make robbing banks illegal.”
This brings me to one last point. Beyond all the physical destruction caused by the coal industry, companies like Peabody and Arch are also causing massive, well-funded obstruction in Congress. The mining industry spends tens of millions of dollars annually on lobbying and is working hard to defeat comprehensive climate legislation. Coal interests are also currently pushing a number of extreme legislative proposals aimed at halting Clean Air Act regulation of carbon emissions from the oldest and dirtiest coal plants. What’s scary is that these “Dirty Air Acts” are actually gaining significant support. Over half the members of Markey’s Global Warming Committee – including democrats John Salazar (CO-3) and Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (SD-0) – are already co-sponsoring one or more of these proposals which aim to overturn the finding that global warming endangers public health and welfare. This is outrageous.
I think it’s fair to say that the coal industry took some heat yesterday. A representative from the National Mining Association sitting next to me at the hearing said, “I can’t argue with someone in a dust mask,” and actually encouraged our protest before we did it, telling me it would be wimpy if we just sat through the whole hearing in dust masks. I know he meant it as a joke, but I’d like to believe that deep down inside he knows that it is wrong to go on destroying the earth and harming communities. Maybe I’m dreaming. Regardless, it felt damn good to slam those coal execs. I recommend it if you ever get the chance.