North American Coal Corp. President and CEO Robert Benson spoke at the 2014 SME Coal & Energy Division luncheon in late February.

By Donna Schmidt, Field Editor

In an industry that’s under attack, it takes a village — in this case, every rank of the mining industry — to seize the opportunity now to get out the good word on coal in the midst of today’s challenges, according to longtime coal executive Robert Benson of North American Coal Corp. (NACCO).

The four-decade mining veteran recently took the podium at the Salt Palace Convention Center during a coal and energy luncheon at the 143rd Annual Meeting of the Society for Metallurgy, Mining and Exploration (SME), offering important advice to industry individuals new and seasoned: take the time now to step forward and tell coal’s story.

“We’re under attack by land, sea and air,” he said, drawing a faint response of laughter from an audience that knows the accuracy of his statement all too well.

“This group [the EPA and regulatory agencies] is not going to be satisfied until we freeze to death in the dark.”

Taking reference from SME 2014’s theme, Leadership in Uncertain Times, Benson — whose outfit has remained busy with a presence in met coal as well as the lignite footprint it has long been known for — told the group that he wanted to push to create more opportunities during these times.

In a 20-minute address that at times resembled a motivational speech thanks to his expressive style, the executive cited a statement by the U.S. Secretary of State that the planet’s biggest threat is global warming.

“This has got to stop,” Benson said. “What about Al Qaeda? What about nuclear war…the Middle East…genocide going on in Syria…the [global] financial crisis? But no, it happens to be global warming.”

The longtime miner, whose company NACCO most recently acquired Reed Minerals in 2012 to offer greater foray into the bituminous sector, called upon engineers, “the real scientists of the world,” to step up in the name of coal’s future.

“Take it back and tell the story and quit…letting the…political side call the shots in this country and around the world.”

The message is important because mining has made significant strides, including progress in emissions since amendments to the Clean Air Act that have reduced concentrations by 80%.

“[T]hese people are not going to be satisfied until we get that last 20%…or doing the math like they do, the last 40%,” he said.

He also pointed to the industry’s reduction of CO2 intensities from electric generation, which saw a 15% drop between 2002 and 2012.

“We don’t hear those kinds of things in the media,” he said. “We need to start getting the word out to everyone.”

Benson said that a lot of improvements have also been made in the area of safety. Trends are going in the right direction, and the National Mining Association has been working hard to lead the charge for the overall improvement of safety records.

On a more concerning note, meanwhile, the executive said he has been told by several utilities that the costs of reducing the last 20% of emissions will far exceed that of the first 80%.

He asked the room to be leaders and “get out there” and tell the good story mining has to share.

“The Sierra Club has a huge war chest. We can’t compete with that huge war chest…but we do have employees. And we need to get the word out to those employees….they’re voters. And this is how we’re going to have to get this change.”

That change, Benson added, needs to be made right now.

“I personally don’t think we have a lot of time left. We’re going to have to get these things done,” he said. “Get the word to the EPA. We’ve got some time to provide input to the EPA about our position. I encourage all of you to please do that.”

Speaking to the large concentration of young engineers at the event, the executive reminded the group to get educated on the issues and find out the positions on coal held by their respective political leaders.

“Now is the time to step up…because we need you. We are in trouble, and this is a big fight. We have lived through some pretty nice times in this country. If we don’t do something, our kids and grandkids are not going to have those same opportunities.”