You’ve seen them. The ads for “clean coal.” And you’ve probably seen some of the satiric take-offs on the industry efforts to convince us that “coal is our friend.”
And if you’ve visited Kevin Grandia’s DeSmogBlog you saw “educational” material about coal geared for the young’uns. Take this coloring book, “Let’s Learn about Coal!” produced by “Friends of Coal” and available through the industry group, the West Virginia Coal Association (WVCA).
It starts off with the easy-to-debunk claim that coal is our “most plentiful fuel,” (only if you ignore the far larger potential from solar or wind power), but quickly moves to game-like activities that just slap a happy face over every aspect of coal.
For example, there’s a connect-the-dots page depicting surface mining. Giant machines “take away” the earth to get at the coal. Although solar power wasn’t included as an energy source earlier, the sun makes an appearance here, smiling down as if mesmerized by the human activity below.
The authors could have illustrated surface mining with a picture of mountaintop removal mining, but that might have sent a confusing message about coal mining.
Throughout, “Let’s Learn About Coal” subtly underscores the same themes the coal industry uses to convince adults that coal is their friend, too. Issues, such as:
The coloring book is just the start
Friends of Coal describes itself as “a volunteer organization … dedicated to inform and educate West Virgina citizens about the coal industry and its vital role in the state’s future.” Nowhere on the Website is there any mention of funding from the coal industry or any other links between the group and industry.
But the design of the “Friends of Coal” logo is nearly identical to that of the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group made up of the major mining companies and equipment suppliers in that state.
The Website itself was first registered in 2002 by The West Virginia Coal Association, with the extension “.org.” When the extension “.com” was added later, the registrant was listed as the Eastern Coal Council, another affiliated industry group.
Actually getting the coal coloring book into classrooms has been the task of yet another industry front group, the “Friends of Coal, Ladies Auxiliary.” Given the name, it’s not surprising that the organization’s logo doesn’t stray too far from its roots.
Still, the Ladies Auxiliary presents itself as a simple, independent grassroots group. The excerpt below is from their Website.
In July, 2007, a group of concerned women decided that it was time someone began to promote coal and its role in our state and national energy policies. We felt that a group without direct economic ties to coal companies could enhance the image of coal and combat some of the adverse publicity coal receives on a daily basis in the press and from many organized environmental groups. [Emphasis added]
The Auxiliary in involved in a variety of projects. They host information booths at events…
…and distribute temporary tattoos supplied by Friends of Coal…
…and license plates…
…and stuffed dogs named Mr. Coal (and wearing bibs with pro-coal slogans) to sick children in hospitals…
But the centerpiece of the ladies’ group is the program to bring their pro-coal message into elementary schools.
A lesson in giving back to the community
Regina Fairchild (seen above, holding “Mr. Coal”), chairwoman of the auxiliary, explained the program’s goal in a radio interview last May.
“Our age group when we were growing up we were taught about coal and knew a lot more about it,” said Fairchild. “They teach you how to plant a garden in Iowa so we are about coal. West Virginia is coal so we thought maybe we could give back in that direction.”
In addition to the coloring book, the third grade students receive a pencils, pens and a bracelet with the “Friends of Coal” logo, lumps of real coal…
… T-shirts extolling the importance of coal to West Virginians…
…and guest speakers. The coal lessons last about 20-minutes a day, and are held on four consecutive Wednesdays.
One classroom speaker was Bill Raney, president of the WVCA.
In a newspaper interview earlier this year, Raney said a program like “Coal in the Schools” was needed to counter the stereotype of coal companies preying on small towns.
“What we’ve dealt with for years is ‘the coal industry comes in here, swoops in, mines the coal and never supports the community,’” he said. “When you begin to finally autopsy what goes on in local communities, then you find out there’s a whole lot of silent support there.”
The environment? Too complicated
Teacher Mary Grace Peck, whose third grade students were among the first to take part in the program, said that while there are positive and negative aspects to coal mining, the Coal in the Classroom program doesn’t tackle any negative issues such as the destruction of mountaintops.
“Not in third grade,” Peck explained. “That might be an issue for middle school or even high school….It’s very complicated.”
Keeping things upbeat is also important to Regina Fairchild.
“It is very important now especially with this [Obama] administration,” says Fairchild. “This has fit like a pocket on a shirt as far as getting the message out. We came to give a positive message. There is so much negativity out there we are about giving back and being positive about it and I don’t think you can create anything other than what we’re doing but good.”
The chairwoman of the Ladies Auxiliary goes one step further, however. Fairchild advocates taking the program statewide, and making it a mandatory part of the West Virginia school curriculum. Students need to learn about the positive aspects of coal, says Fairchild, “because that’s who we are.”
Making coal synonymous with the state of West Virginia and its people is a leitmotif in industry PR. The WVCA even offers several ringtones setting the concept to music.
Coal is WV – Mountain Mix
The lyrics are, “Coal is West Virginia, coal is me and you. Coal is West Virginia, we’ve got a job to do. Coal is energy, we need energy. Coal is West Virginia!” (More coal ringtones are found below.)
Whether or not most West Virginians would agree that they are coal, when chairwoman Fairchild makes the claim, at least it has more substance. That’s because the organizer of the Ladies Auxiliary is married to the coal industry. Despite boasts that the Ladies Auxiliary is “a group without direct economic ties to coal companies,” Fairchild’s husband, J.D. Fairchild, is sales director for Terex, SHM (Superior Highwall Miners) whose parent company, Terex Corporation, had revenues of $10 billion last year.
Like the WVCA’s Bill Raney, JD is one of the speakers in the “Coal in the Classroom” program organized by his wife Regina.
He talks mostly about what he knows best: highwall miners, machines that weigh a million pounds and that can be operated — JD tells the children — by a single person.
Asked what he liked about the class, one third-grader responded, “Learning about the machines. Because those are bigger than little people.”
In a video produced by Regina Fairchild’s organization about the Coal in the Schools program, at least one group of students is seen admiring her husband’s giant machinery close up. The location isn’t identified on the video (nor is the machine for that matter), but it’s clearly the Terex® miner and the field trip was probably to the manufacturing plant which is located not far from the school.
Before leaving “Coal in the Classroom,” here’s the complete list of Coal is West Virginia ringtones from the WVCA:
Male Voice Choir………………………………..
Lyrics: “When we go down deep through the dark today, we come up with a light for America!“
Male Voice Choir (uptempo)………………
Lyrics: “Coal is West Virginia, coal is me and you. Coal is West Virginia, we’ve got a job to do. Coal is energy, we need energy.”
Lyrics: “West Virginia coal, gonna take you on a ride. Gonna take you to the city, to the store and to the countryside. Gonna let you work your magic and your power and your pride. West Virginia coal, you’re on your way! (Chorus) When we go down deep through the dark today, we come up with a light for America! Coal is West Virginia!”
Friends of Coal America
Last July the coal industry formed another front group: Friends of America. The largest change in the logo was the addition of an eagle colored like Old Glory.
There are multiple false syllogisms at work in these names and themes:
Coal is West Virginia.
Friends of coal are friends of West Virginia.
If you’re not a friend of coal, you’re an enemy of West Virginia.
The new organization simply replaces the word “coal” with the word “America.”
So, if you’re not a friend of coal…what does that make you?
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Corporation, one of the largest mining companies in the nation, provides a hint in his video invitation to what appears to be FOA’s sole reason for being: the Friends of America Rally, held on Labor Day on a former WV mountaintop that was removed and flattened to get to the coal.
Blankenship spoke even more openly about his anti-environmentalist and anti-government world view in a speech delivered just two weeks after Barack Obama was elected President.
In his talk, Blankenship complained that “the greeniacs are taking over the world,” and that the “government remains the biggest risk to the American way of life, freedom and the environment.”
He also accused his “anti-coal” critics of being Communists and atheists and compared them to Osama bin Laden.
“They,” Blankenship said, “are our enemies.”
These themes were central to the Friends of America Rally, which featured conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity, Hank Williams, Jr., libertarian rocker, Ted Nugent, and Christopher Monckton, a British economist who recently claimed that President Obama will sign a climate protocol in Copenhagen because he (Obama) supports the treaty’s goal: “to impose a Communist world government on the world.”
Although billed as a celebration, the speakers didn’t seem to find much to celebrate.
“I believe the whole world sucks,” Emcee Nugent told the crowd. “But America sucks less.”
After boasting that “I like my tyrants dead,” Nugent warned that Obama plans to disarm Americans. “This country is now dominated by a president, his administration, and gang of czars who clearly hate America.”
According to the FOA Website, rally sponsors included Verizon Wireless, Terex SHM, a host of mining companies and mine equipment manufacturers, and the state chapters of the Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and the Automobile and Truck Dealers Association. While Massey Energy was just one of many mining companies on the list, CEO Don Blankenship made it clear who was running the show.
“I want to thank everybody for inviting me here today,” Blankenship told the crowd, and then added, “It only cost me about a million dollars or so.”
[Want more dirty pictures? Not to worry; we've got plenty more to post in a follow-up, including images of mountaintop removal and the devastating consequences flowing from coal ash -- the toxic residue that's left after burning coal.]
Note: We try to keep the focus primarily on solar power at The Phoenix Sun. This article started life as a short piece on the coal coloring-book, but the more we learned about its origins the harder it was to keep the story inside its original box
If you want to stay up-to-date with news on the coal front, you’re in luck. Ken Ward, Jr., the dean of American coal reporters, writes a blog for the Charleston (WV) Gazette called The Coal Tattoo. Read it and weep. And then organize.
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