Alpha CEO questions climate change, looks toward election
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The president of Alpha Natural Resources said Tuesday night he isn't sure humans are changing the world's climate, wouldn't say if he thinks Massey Energy was operating the Upper Big Branch Mine recklessly, and questions whether sanctions for mine safety crimes should reach into corporate executive suites.
Alpha President Kevin Crutchfield said his company wants to find common ground with coalfield residents who oppose mountaintop-removal mining, but is looking toward the November general election to end what he called the Obama administration's attack on the mining industry.
"Frankly, a lot of damage has been done," Crutchfield said. "There's been a fair amount of regulatory fiat that's happened in the last several years."
Crutchfield touched on a variety of coal and energy issues during his appearance for a talk titled "Is Coal Still King?" The event was part of a University of Charleston Speaker Series called "Energy: Who's Got the Power?"
During a discussion with UC President Ed Welch and an audience question-and-answer session that followed, Crutchfield painted coal's future as bright at the same time he questioned efforts by citizens' groups, government and labor unions to reduce the industry's impact on the environment and public health.
"We have a responsibility to operate properly, by the letter of the law," Crutchfield said. "The goal is to try to find some kind of confluence of ideas we can all agree on."
Since being formed in 2003, Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha had somewhat quietly gobbled up coal reserves and other companies, only leaping into the public eye last June with the $7 billion purchase of controversial Massey Energy.
Today, Alpha operates 150 mines and 40 coal preparation plants in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Nationwide, Alpha is the second-largest coal producer by revenue and the third-largest by production. The company employs 6,750 people in West Virginia.
"I think [coal] was a good 18th-century fuel, a good 19th- century fuel, a good 20th-century fuel and, so far, it's doing pretty well in the 21st century," Crutchfield said. "It's not going anywhere anytime soon. What we see is growth."
Crutchfield said government estimates projecting annual Central Appalachian coal production to be cut by more than half by 2035 are "draconian." But he conceded that much of the good and easy coal in the region already has been mined, leading to a steady decline that is likely to continue.
"2035 is a long time," Crutchfield joked. "Right now, I can't see past a couple of weeks."
In response to an audience question about whether he believes Massey Energy operated the Upper Big Branch Mine in a reckless manner -- as four investigations of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners have found -- Crutchfield said he couldn't say.
"I can't speak for what happened at that coal mine," Crutchfield said. "I can only tell you what our plans are from June 1 forward. We can't change the past."
In response to another audience query, Crutchfield said he's not sure Congress should rewrite federal law to make it easier to prosecute corporate officers when companies violate safety laws. Lawmakers should be careful about trying to impose criminal liability on someone who might be "miles away" and not really be making day-to-day decisions about mine operations, Crutchfield said.
Crutchfield agreed when Welch said that government statistics show coal isn't the most dangerous industry in the country. Crutchfield said that mining accidents draw "some sort of morbid" interest from journalists, "kind of like a shark attack."
Most of Alpha's miners are not represented by the United Mine Workers union.
Crutchfield said the union played an important role in the industry's history, helping to establish workers rights and safety rules. "We certainly don't have anything against unions," Crutchfield said. "Our preference would be union free."
Asked by Welch to name one government regulation that does the most harm to the industry without providing any real environmental benefits, Crutchfield pointed to the greenhouse gas limits the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed earlier in the day for coal-fired power plants and other electricity generating stations.
"That would be hugely problematic," Crutchfield said. He said carbon capture and storage technology -- likely a mandate for new coal-fired plants under the EPA's proposal -- is expensive and hasn't been proven to work on the scale needed.
Regarding the science of global warming, Crutchfield said "it does seem like something is going on," but added, "the question that has to be asked is, 'Is mankind contributing to that.'
"I don't really know the answer to that," Crutchfield said. "Before we go down that path, we need to be sure that the science is beyond reproach. To me, it's uncertain. We need to be absolutely, unequivocally sure before we go down that path."
Most scientists and scientific organizations around the world say global temperatures are increasing, human activities -- primarily burning fossil fuels -- are to blame, and that reductions in greenhouse emissions are urgently needed to avoid dangerous impacts.
Pressed for what would convince him that scientific consensus is correct, Crutchfield said, "There are obviously two schools of thought out there: 'the science is settled' and 'the science is unsettled.' The scientific community needs to come together."
Crutchfield said he hopes that a new industry-funded effort at various universities will produce important research about mountaintop removal's impacts on the environment and public health. Coal lobbyists funded the project, based at Virginia Tech, largely to respond to a series of West Virginia University studies that found living near mountaintop removal increased the risk of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.
Also, Crutchfield said his company has had private discussions with groups that want to preserve Blair Mountain in Logan County as a historic site to honor the 1920s labor battle.
"We're very serious about the community relations," Crutchfield said. "We've engaged in dialogue with the people who want to preserve Blair Mountain. We've had constructive dialogue with them."
Crutchfield declined to elaborate.
The final event in the UC energy speaker series is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 12 at Riggleman Hall and features Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.