I got the idea for this inaugural column for Climate Investigations when the business publication SNL Financial queried a group of coal producers and other stakeholders for their positions on global warming. I hoped that in addition to the industry’s sketchy publicly available statements, which was all SNL was able to pry loose from the companies, I’d succeed in getting at least a couple of on-the-record phone interviews with Big Coal.
Like SNL, I asked basic questions of the ten leading coal producers: Do you believe in global warming? Is human activity partly or wholly to blame? And what role has coal played in what is generally acknowledged to be a global emergency?
There have long been industries whose existence was largely premised on a product whose deleterious effects far outweighed any good it did the world or its people. There was asbestos, an industry that learned in the twenties and thirties that the mineral’s microscopic fibers caused cancer and an incapacitating scarring of the lungs – but pretended otherwise to the eleven million workers who mined, manufactured or installed it. Then there was lead, which the industry falsely claimed needed to be in gasoline and paint long after serious health impacts were known.
The cigarette companies seemed to be in a class by themselves – a handful of firms employing no more than a few thousand turning out a product that took more lives than the combined toll of all the wars of the 20th century and since. After more than ten years reporting on Big Tobacco, I was certain I’d never the see its equal for the chasm between its reason for being and any reasonable definition of the common good. But though this is my first column for Climate Investigations, coal already has a distinctly familiar feel.
The cigarette companies were famously hostile to reporters, but at least they’d call you back. Not so Big Coal. Over a period of three weeks, the only firm willing to discuss the issue was Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR), the third-biggest U.S. coal producer, headquartered in Bristol, Virginia.
It wasn’t a landmark moment in journalism.
“We don’t have a position on global warming yet,” said Steve Hawkins, their head of media relations, on my answering machine. “We’re working on it.”
When I rang him back, Hawkins said Alpha’s position on climate would be ready “within two weeks.”
“But do you folks believe there is such a thing as global warming?” I asked.
“That’s what we’re putting together. We’re just not there yet,” said Hawkins.
“Kevin [Crutchfield, Alpha’s chief executive officer] has just been asked the question and we feel that we need to be able to respond.”
While I waited for Mr. Hawkins, I contacted the rest of coal’s Big Ten in the United States, consisting of, in descending order of size (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). The top 4 mine more than half the coal by the way.
7. Energy Future Holdings EFHC.UL (going through bankruptcy)
In return came two emails – and only two. One was from Murray’s media director informing me that Robert Murray, the head of the company, “is not able to accommodate an interview at this time.”
Murray, the ninth-biggest producer, is privately-held, meaning it issues no annual reports and makes little information available to the public. By clicking “press releases” on Murray’s skeletal web site, I learned the company has sued the Obama adminstration’s “radical Environmental Protection Agency” over its “illegal, unworkable and disastrous” rule limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants. But about carbon and climate itself, nothing.
Patriot, the other firm that emailed back, sent me to the National Mining Association’s website to soak up the coal industry’s trade association’s position. But there I found only a “Position on Sustainable Development” that concludes coal is sustainable and a “position on energy” that says we have a lot of coal and it’d be a shame not to find a way to burn it. Nothing on global warming.
Several of the coal producers’ websites like to tell what Alpha’s calls “The Story of Coal” – how coal is mined, cleaned and shipped off to power plants. The Story is told as a slide show with images of grinning sooty faces and gargantuan machinery, like the 1570-W dragline now operating at Peabody Energy’s El Segundo surface mine in New Mexico.
This is a crane-like piece of equipment that weighs eight million pounds and is operated from a cab the size of a four-story house. It drags a huge bucket across the earth to expose the coal seam.
Unfortunately, however, Big Coal’s websites and reports don’t tell us anything about the Story of Carbon.
Instead of climate, the companies like to talk about the “energy poverty” crisis, parroting Peabody’s “Advanced Energy for Life” global advertising campaign. “See how Arch is powering the working world,” read the big blue letters on Arch’s homepage. A big part of the pitch is of course that Big Coal wants to provide cheap coal-fired electricity to raise standards of living in developing nations like India where the grid misses much of the rural interior. Children can’t read at night, so they can’t study. Businesses can’t stay open. Daily routines end at dusk.
However, the Sierra Club is already in India and has released a short documentary with the Center for American Progress recounting its success with the distribution of solar lanterns in Uttar Pradesh, the poorest of India’s 29 states and the biggest, with 200 million people living a mostly agrarian existence. Solar lanterns are cheap, replacing kerosene which is dim and smoky. Aside from carbon footprint, the lanterns are better than coal-fired power because in India, like many other places outside the industrial west, the grid is unreliable, making a decentralized power source infinitely more valuable – after all, the vast majority of Indians in rural areas have cell phones
And it hasn’t escaped the attention of the green community that coal is a peculiar messiah for the world’s poor since the poor are least able to get out of the way of rising seas and rivers, encroaching deserts and deadly storms. In fact, irrespective of climate, coal will do irreparable harm in countries like India where an overwhelmed, underpaid and frequently corrupt government does little to enforce the few existing environmental and health standards.
This contradiction led the World Wildlife Fund to file complaints against Peabody Energy in Belgium and Great Britain, both of which have administrative codes forbidding dishonest advertising, over an ad in the Financial Times touting Peabody’s commitment to eradicating energy poverty while never mentioning coal’s leading role in global warming. The WWF asked regulators to order the ads pulled and corrections printed, claiming Peabody was deliberately trying to disguise its true interests (to sell more coal) in a smokescreen of altruism.
There are corporations you could ask these questions and get direct answers. There are those that have ponied up and accepted global warming and said so, and said we need to act fast and have taken action. Google, Walmart, Apple, Coca-Cola and most recently, General Mills are notable examples.
But with none of our coal producers willing to be interviewed on the subject, I was left to surf their annual reports and 10K Securities and Exchange disclosures, their press statements about the EPA’s proposed carbon rule, and three “social responsibility” reports. Huge sections of the 10Ks are boilerplate warnings to investors and other interested parties of dozens of potential hazards to the coal business.
One risk that is uniformly listed by coal producers 10Ks is that the cost to comply with more “burdensome” carbon regulations could be so burdensome that coal would cease to be a competitive fuel.
There was an outlier in the group – Cloud Peak Energy, whose 2013 10K filing at least mentioned climate science:
“Cloud Peak continues to acknowledge that the climate change debate and the impacts on our industry are a political reality and must be recognized as such by our industry. This does not mean that we accept that climate science is “settled” – we are strongly supportive of the view that there is much more the scientific community needs to learn before a defined regulatory pathway can be established. Therefore our view that climate change discussions require ongoing scientific and economic review to incorporate the inevitable new information and knowledge that the future will bring. Decision-makers need to take into consideration both the potential for new insights as well as the economic, social and energy security impacts of any decisions and actions they may make in addressing climate change concerns in the near term.”
That was by far the most direct treatment of the issue among the nine publicly-held companies, yet it’s still just a variation on the industry’s uniform position that concern about global warming is a “political reality” that must be dealt with – – mostly, the industry’s statements make clear, by suing or cajoling the EPA into delaying, truncating or withdrawing its carbon rule. But, say the companies, we’re not saying the claims about global warming have any merit,
Because, says coal, much more research is needed before we can ever accept the claims we hear about global warming. Climate change is still just a theory.
That is where they sound exactly like tobacco – no causal link has definitely been proven between smoking and cancer. Much more research needs to be done.
And tobacco had plenty of scientists they’d send you to who would tell you that. Coal, however, doesn’t seem to have any scientists. Which is probably why they won’t discuss the science.
Of course, I still had Alpha to get back to, so after I’d gone through all the documents and waited a few more days for any further contact from other coal producers, I decided to check in with Steve Hawkins, who seemed to be the only guy in the coal industry who would answer his phone and talk to me.
It was nine days since our last conversation. No position yet, said Hawkins. I wasn’t surprised. I remembered he’d warned me earlier that there were a whole bunch of other things on the agenda ahead of global warming.