Bite the hand that feeds you, but feed him first…

The chief executive of U.S. coal giant Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, spoke to the National Press Club late last month about the future of coal.

Blankenship looked more like he was on the witness stand than as a guest of honor at a friendly informational luncheon.

The audience just wanted to know what really happened at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, W. Va., on April 6 when an explosion caused the death of 29 miners.

One after another, they pelted Blankenship with questions. They asked:

How did that experience affect you and what are you doing now to make sure no more miners die?

What could you have done differently?

Did you move miners into an unsafe situation deliberately?

Should the US create a new arm for mine safety?

Do you feel at all guilty about the 29 deaths?

photo by dipka bhambhani

Blankenship said he was “heartbroken.”

“No one wants a coal miner to be safer than a coal miner,” Blankenship said, a former coal miner himself.

“I believe the physics of natural law and God trumps whatever man tries to do,” he said.

It wasn’t the most coal-friendly audience and Blankenship’s big news didn’t change that.

Blankenship said he wants to reopen the Upper Big Branch mine, and he wants to expand the controversial practice of mountaintop mining, in which tops of mountains are exploded to extract coal.

Advocates say the practice saves miners from having to mine in the traditional fashion; it’s safer.

Environmentalists and activists such as Ashley Judd, who visited the press club this summer, are furious and say the practice destroys clean water resources and pristine ranges.

“You live on top of a mountain and commute by helicopter. What if someone wanted to blow up the top of that mountain?,” someone asked.

Sadly for Blankenship, the repast is better left in the past.

He told me that Washington is a little insulated from reality.

In a statement, Blankenship told Energy Check, “I’m always happy for the opportunity to educate people in Washington, D.C. about the importance of coal to the American economy. It’s a town that doesn’t understand or appreciate the need for affordable energy the way the rest of the country does. Therefore, the questions asked during the speech weren’t as important as the answers because the truth is the truth, no matter how people try to spin it.”

The harbinger of the luncheon may have been the head table seating chart.

Blankenship was seated with Russell Mokhiber, an activist who heads up ProsecuteMassey.org, a man who wants Blankenship to be found guilty of manslaughter for the 29 mining deaths at Upper Big Branch.

Some suggest that was like inviting Glenn Beck to speak and seating him next to, well…insert favorite liberal personality here.

In some ways it seems completely reasonable to question Blankenship. After all, he had just announced his intention to reopen the mine that caused the largest coal disaster in recent history, well since 1984.

On the other hand, what choice do we have?

Blankenship says we don’t.

The fact is coal generates 50% of U.S. electricity. Many Americans are struggling to pay their electric bills now. What do they think will happen if they get what they wish for, no more coal…perhaps no more cheap electricity?

To boot, it does not appear Congress will pass an energy bill with any price or cap on carbon any time soon.

But that’s ok.

Blankenship said, “Over 100% of the increase in CO2 emissions in the world since 1990 have been outside of the United States.”

Further, Blankenship says we have to choose—economic prosperity, improving lives, or cutting CO2 and coal generation.

“Facts should matter over here on the Hill. Every 3.6 seconds a person dies of starvation. So when we hold ourselves up as being saviors of mankind by trying to reduce CO2, we need to think about that,” he said.

About 1.5 million people die each year from pollution in their own homes because they’re burning manure to fry their food, he said.

“It’s a different world out there than many of us realize,” Blankenship said.

Economic prosperity, proper sanitation, heating and cooling and proper food are more important, he said.

“There’s 7.8 billion tons of coal burned in the world. That number is going to increase by about two to three to 400 million a year depending on the economy,” Blankenship said. “That’s a fact of life.”

“That’s how the 1.2 to 1.3 billion people [globally] are gonna get out of poverty. You have to look at things pragmatically,” Blankenship said.

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