Last month, I attended Platt’s 36th Annual Coal Marketing Days. As a journalist predominantly focused on climate change and the coal industry for the past year, I was pleasantly surprised at how much ground was covered. At the same time, I was not surprised by the subdued mood that permeated this event.
If coal is your business, your best days are behind you, whether you're a mining executive or a PR flack. And the convention attendees were incapable of hiding their forlorn resignation. The gallows humor was contagious, even to someone who can be characterized as generally happy to see one of the world's dirtiest fuels in decline.
But one flickering glimmer of hope was provided by Lauri Hennessey, a Vice President at Edelman, the world's largest public relations firm, notorious for its corporate greenwashing campaigns.
Hennesey represents the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports, a front group for coal mining and rail corporations that would profit from the export of Powder River Basin coal. Listen to her hallway conversation with some Arch Coal executives reflecting on the prospects of coal export terminal proposals in the Northwest:
In her presentation to the conference, Ms. Hennessey repeatedly labeled the citizens of Oregon and Washington “weird” and “strange."
Afterwards, I asked her about a recent decision to expand the purview of an environmental review of proposed export terminals, and about her organization's role in countering the decision to evaluate the ultimate emissions footprint of the coal that would move through the proposed export terminals.
She told me that the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports is making the case that thermal coal from the Powder River Basin will displace coal with lower thermal content from Asia, thus reducing GHG emissions.
Hennessey's rhetorical ploy leaves out the fact that more coal in the market means lower prices, and more consumption. The dynamic plays out in a number of ways: more dirty energy plants get built (as opposed to solar, wind or other renewable installations), aging coal plants are retired later than they otherwise would be, and ultimately, the coal shipped from the Powder River Basin is simply added to the amount that is burned overall, making it a raw deal for the global climate.
For Ms. Hennessey to be correct, the dirtier coal from other regions would have to remain in the ground. But she was at the same convention I was, so she has to know that isn't the case.
I know this because I saw Ms. Hennessey listening intently as Matthew Ferguson, Arch Coal's Senior Vice President for Thermal Coal Marketing, delivered a presentation reviewing the expected increases in production and exports of lower quality coal from Indonesia, Australia and other sources. Mr. Ferguson explained that these projects would move ahead regardless of prospects for expanded access to export markets for coal from the Powder River Basin.
A few minutes later, I was milling about the hotel lobby looking for interviews with other coal luminaries when I spotted Mr. Ferguson and approached him to ask a few questions. He was friendly and receptive, but asked me to wait a moment while he spoke with Ms. Hennessey, who had just walked by us. I demurred with a smile, and stood aside as the two of them (and another Arch executive) began a conversation that revealed a lot about their true colors. Here is what I recorded:
It's striking to me that it was one of the few times that I saw smiles and laughter during the conference. This occasion seemed a bit like predators chuckling over the helplessness of their prey. Hopefully their confidence is misplaced.
They also seemed to talk as if they are a separate species from the people who happen to live in the path of their planned rail and port terminal expansions, mocking those who are asking reasonable questions about the impacts of exporting America's coal to Asia.
They clearly regard with contempt the majority of Americans concerned about climate change.
Hennessey knows climate change is more than a PR problem for her coal industry friends. It is both a political lightning rod and a grim reaper for her clients, including the Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports.
Arch Coal, along with the rest of the coal industry, remains hostile to efforts to fight climate change by limiting carbon emissions.
The fossil fuel industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past twenty years to attack climate science and delay solutions that would result in less consumption of their products.
Ms. Hennessey's speech at the conference acknowledged climate change, but she asserted that the mining of Powder River Basin coal and its export to Japan, China, India or Korea would not increase the threat of global warming.
This simply isn't true. The more coal we burn, the more carbon we pump into the atmosphere. Scientists tell us we simply cannot burn much of what we know is left in the ground.
Powder River Basin coal is a huge source of sequestered carbon. We cannot afford to release all that carbon (not to mention lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, etc.) into our atmosphere.
And that's no laughing matter.
Five years ago, Lauri Hennessey wrote about how crucial it is for PR professionals to maintain their high standards of integrity: “Nothing, and that means nothing, kills a PR career quicker than lying.”
Listening to her conversation with these Arch Coal executives, I wonder if she still believes this.
Neither Ms. Hennessey nor Edelman responded to my request for comment.
If they had, I would have asked Hennessey why she believes the people of the northwest are “strange” and “weird”. I would have asked Hennessey to clarify her position on climate change: Is she truly concerned about it, or is that something she only “pull[s] out” in the right crowds? Are her statements of concern for the poor people in developing countries mere talking points?
Paul Hoggan wrote a book about the moral vacuum inherent to so much of the PR industry. I couldn’t help thinking about it as I witnessed Hennessey cackling along with the coal executives, and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of despair.
In a world ruled by logic instead of money, this would, as Hennessey said five years ago, end her career in PR. At the very least, it would make her job with the Alliance untenable.
But we don’t live in that world. The media knows full well that PR flacks like Lauri Hennesey, Jack Gerard, Mike Duncan and Marc Morano are skilled manipulators that respect the truth only when it helps their case. But Laurie Hennessey and Jack Gerard and Mike Duncan and Marc Morano continue to see their propaganda published on the most influential op-ed pages. Each of them can announce a press conference, reporters will dutifully show up, and way too often, the lies they tell will make it into print.
Take a moment to reflect on that: We live at a time in which known liars are afforded as much (or more) respect than professors, scientists, and (of course) activists. Four hundred years later and we're still persecuting the Galileos in service of the money-changers.
But I digress.
Really, I should be happy to put this into the public sphere. I was lucky to catch the corporate lackeys speaking so frankly, and this kind of exposure cannot be good for Edelman and Hennessey. Hopefully, at a minimum, it will arm the public with useful knowledge of the export terminal’s proponents.
Here is a rush transcript of the conversation I recorded for reference:
Matt Ferguson: I really enjoyed your presentation, by the way.
Lauri Hennessey: Thank you.
Matt Ferguson: It was really good, you lay it on the line, tell it like it is.
Lauri Hennessey: Well that’s the thing, You guys got what I call the insider version, which is like, 'here’s what we’re facing out here, here’s how wacky it is. We want to do more.' We have different kind of focuses with this crowd, it’s definitely an insider crowd. But yeah, Deck is great. [Deck Slone, Arch Coal Senior Vice President of Strategy and Public Policy]
Matt Ferguson: I talk to Deck a lot about it, and ah, as well as, ahh, Ken Cochran. [Kenneth Cochran, Arch Coal Senior Vice President of Operations]
Lauri Hennessey: Yeah. And who’s the, Tom Altmeyer? [Tom Altmeyer, Arch Coal Vice President of Government Affairs]
Matt Ferguson: Yeah he’s the guy in Washington. Yeah, he’s our....
Lauri Hennessey: DC yeah, I talk to him sometimes too.
Matt Ferguson: Yeah, OK, and uh, so, yeah, it’s an exciting project. We were just in the Far East last week, and of course we’re telling everybody, “It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. [laughter] I just hope it is! [laughter] I hope we’re not lying to them.
Arch Coal representative 2: You need to make it happen.
Matt Ferguson: We’re just depending on you, Lauri.
Lauri Hennessey: Yeah, no pressure! [laughter] No, it’s, it’s a hard- it’s a, it’s a very, it’s a very, um, interesting experience for people who don’t live out there [in the Northwest] - like our board on the Alliance, you can just tell them “it’s awesome” but it’s like, ‘No! This is so weird!’ So, yeah it’s kind of like an education process.
Matt Ferguson: Your comment on the civil unrest was quite funny.
Lauri Hennessey: Oh wasn’t it? Yeah, I got, I got hassled.
Matt Ferguson: Yeah, it’s like, let’s be adults here.
Lauri Hennessey: That was a project like a year ago, and, I think it was my second week on the job. So, I grew up in the Northwest, and I don’t know if you saw, I used to work for EPA a long time ago?
Matt Ferguson: Did you? [laughter]
Lauri Hennessey: Yeah. [inaudible] So I have - and I also worked for Bob Packwood on the Hill - so I have both sides. But we’re connected.
I worked with EPA, and I pull that out in the right crowds, because in the Northwest, that's a good thing, right? But it's funny because I never really went out of my way to mention it to our Alliance board before. And one day I was quoted in the paper, because again I was speaking to the audience in Seattle, and I was like, "Well of course we're concerned about climate change. Everyone's concerned about climate change. But what we're saying is this is not going to contribute to climate change."
But someone from Peabody got on a call, it was my second week on the job, and said, "You were quoted saying coal’s worried about climate change? We don't believe in climate change!” And I remember I was on the phone and I was like, "I can't say that..ha. I can't say that in Seattle!"
Matt Ferguson: Not worried about it!
Arch Coal rep 2: You can say that in St. Louis, but you can't say that in Seattle.
Matt Ferguson: Yeah. It’s not gonna happen.
Lauri Hennessey: Yeah, I can’t say it in Seattle, and I remember she just goes, "Wow, we really have different regions, do we?!"
Matt Ferguson: I think what you do is say, you're trying to help people out of poverty in the far east. Yeah.
Lauri Hennessey: Exactly! And I did that.
Matt Ferguson: Do they not deserve to enjoy prosperity? Like we have? Don't be so selfish, you jerks! [laughter]
Lauri Hennessey: And I said, ‘These are countries that are going to get coal,’ and ‘how are you going to say which coal they can get.’ You know, you try to take them down that path. But it was just more this great metaphorical “Welcome to the Alliance” moment. She's like, “Why would you ever say we care about climate change?” And then she goes, "I looked at your bio, you worked at EPA. What's going on here? You’re just a...”
Arch Coal rep 2: You're an insider, a narc!
Lauri Hennessey: Exactly… It's been a long fun road of getting to know each other.
Matt Ferguson: So... excellent.
Lauri Hennessey: So yeah, let's talk again.
Matt Ferguson: Absolutely, I really enjoyed that.
Lauri Hennessey: Ok, thanks.