Among visitors to Freedom Fest, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, you might miss the aging Don Blankenship amid other middle aged attendees and a swarm of college students in three piece suits. Blankenship, wearing a bowling shirt and tan slacks, moves from panel to panel carrying a tote bag filled with free schwag — of which there was a lot to choose from, including this “water bottle” from the Charles Koch Institute — like anyone else. The former CEO of Massey Energy became the most feared man in West Virginia for his ruthless control over his mines and for busting unions throughout Appalachia. Now, he might be the most hated after a 2010 blast at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers in one of the worst mining disasters in American history.
Blankenship, who retired from Massey after the tragedy at UBB, is now a political activist, and he’s in Nevada for several reasons. For one thing, he was there to attend the Heartland Institute’s conference on global warming denial, which preceded Freedom Fest. And in any case, he now resides in Sin City for tax purposes.
It’s the first time Blankenship has attended either event, he tells me, but he’s eager to gather intellectual fodder for a movie he’s creating on the U.S. economy. “I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship says. “We’re in a reg-cecession,” he explains, which is a term he created for “a recession caused by excessive regulation, including many based on global warming.”
At the height of his power, shortly before the blast, Blankenship was already a powerful political player and served on the board the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most influential business lobbying group in the world. After the mine tragedy, the Chamber and other coal-connected political group successfully defeated congressional efforts to update the laws governing mine safety. Republic Report obtained a financial disclosure form that shows that under Blankenship, his coal company donated $100,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that penned an op-ed after the mine collapse to warn against letting the tragedy be used by “anti-mining activists” for new regulations.
“Most people excuse their lack of involvement in politics as politics being dirty and politics causing problems,” says Blankenship, “but the only way to have good government is to have better candidates and elect better people and it’s why we have $17 trillion in debt and an economy that’s declining.”
Blankenship concedes that he is not as active in the political realm as he used to be, though he still gives an occasional phone call to his former colleagues. “I’ve spoken to the U.S. Chamber and I’ve spoken to the coal associations. You can not just immediately have your hand out to compromise, you’ve got to have belief and you have to stand up for what’s right, not what’s politically correct.”
After listening to Blankenship’s short diatribe against the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, I asked Blankenship what should be done about these environmental groups. “You’ve got to fight them at every step,” he replies. “The environmental movement isn’t a great cause, it’s a great business.”
To Blankenship, the EPA’s coal power plant regulations and the mine safety crowd are all represent the same ideology. “The actual UBB explosion was partially the result of the War on Coal,” he says.
A minute later, after mentioning that he is going to be late to meet his date for lunch, he makes the connection even more explicit. “UBB is just another example of how willing the far left is to outright lie and of course when was CEO of Massey I was coached to say ‘untruthful,’ but really it’s a lie. The reason you know they will lie about the science of global warming is because they lied about the very science of UBB. Their willingness to lie about that solidifies in my mind their willingness to lie about the science of global warming.”
Over the last year, Blankenship has tried to clear his name over the UBB mine disaster. He created a short video and has told almost any reporter willing to listen that the disaster was a freak accident relating to the build-up of natural gas. Reports from workers and subsequent investigations have made clear that Massey Energy’s mines had skirted safety rules and were infamous for allowing a dangerous build-up of methane and other flammable gas. A study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University showed that Massey’s corner-cutting had led to the worst safety record of any coal mining company for ten years prior to the disaster.
Blankenship continues to expound on his worldview. “Here’s where I get into answers that are very unpopular.” A wry grin creeps Blankenship’s otherwise expressionless face. “You’re basically seeing, well, I don’t want to use the word, but the way I describe fascism is the control of people’s lives by the combined efforts of big business and big government.” He rattles off several examples: GE getting sweetheart deals from the Obama administration, the bank bailouts, Warren Buffet. Publicly traded companies are increasingly making their money oversees, so they don’t have to comply with domestic regulations, Blankenship says. That’s why they support the Obama administration.
Before he has to go, he reminds me that his movie on regulation will come out on Labor Day. It’s argument he claims will even sell with union workers, who have been duped by their bosses into supporting anti-mining politicians like Obama and Joe Biden.
Who would better lead our country?
“I love Ted Cruz’s courage with the Obamacare filibuster,” he says. “I don’t like Rand Paul as much as father Ron Paul. Like what Rubio’s been saying. Ben Carson.” If he had his druthers, who would he pick for the White House? “I’d reincarnate Ronald Reagan.”
With that, he smiled for the second time in the conference, waddled into his seat and disappeared into a crowd of other libertarian activists.