Putting Blankenship forward as the executive representing the coal industry could be a worrisome prospect, but those that have watched and listened to him know he is unflappable. Many in the coal industry are familiar with his position on business, labor, the environment, and his love for West Virginia. Whether he is standing in blue jeans at a coal rally or in a suit and tie fielding calls from Wall Street analysts, he defends those positions confidently.

A Harvard grad, Kennedy was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” for his success helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River. He is a clinical professor and supervising attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic. In an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post during March of last year, he wrote: “Yesterday was a great day for the people of Appalachia and for all of America. In a bold departure from Bush-era energy policy, the Obama administration suspended a coal company’s permit….[and] promised to carefully review upward of 200 such permits awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

University President Ed Welch moderated the debate. Instead of taking an environmental approach, Kennedy talked about jobs. He tried to paint a picture of a callous industry that has erased jobs by moving away from underground coal mining to large-scale surface mining. He claimed  out-of-state coal companies were profiting from natural resources at West Virginia’s expense. He tried to portray Blankenship as a tycoon who has profited in a similar manner. Kennedy chided Blankenship when he mispronounced Massachusetts and pointed out that he actually lives in New York City, unwittingly pointing out that he was a blue blood and an out-of-state activist.

Blankenship lost points, as the coal industry always does, on environmental compliance. Kennedy knew the number of environmental citations Massey Energy received last year. At times, some of the Blankenship’s rebutting comments could be considered flip to an uninformed viewer, especially regarding environmental compliance and mountaintop mining.

Kennedy supports wind power and spent part of the debate talking about climate change and the benefits of alternative energy, but it seemed he wanted to divert attention with the jobs issue. Maybe he thought jobs would appeal to the audience during this difficult economic period. Blankenship discredited alternative energy and the notion of green jobs. He pointed to the fact that Kennedy profits from the subsidies.

Who won? Based on the performance that evening, Blankenship won. Kennedy did not seem to win the audience over. While he came across as passionate about the environment, he had a hard time defending some of his assertions. One has to respect his courage to travel to West Virginia and participate in this debate, but he boarded on a plane to New York while Blankenship got back to the business of meeting Massey’s payroll.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief
sfiscor@mining-media.com