We're expanding! The Cybersecurity 202 by Derek Hawkins is coming to your inboxes tomorrow. Sign up here for the smartest and scoopiest news and analysis on the politics and policy of cybersecurity.
The first thing most West Virginians think of when they hear the name Don Blankenship is the explosion.
The former coal executive served a one-year prison sentence after he was convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards following the 2010 disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine. The accident left 29 workers dead.
Such a corporate scandal would cause many chief executives to resign from public life forever. But Blankenship is trying to rewrite his own plot with a new line: U.S. senator from West Virginia.
Blankenship has a shot at winning Tuesday's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia, if internal GOP polling reported by the Weekly Standard is any indication. Despite (or maybe because of) opposition from the GOP establishment, Blankenship is garnering 28 percent of the primary vote in that poll, with his nearest opponent barely behind with 27 percent.
But the Upper Big Branch explosion is not Blankenship's first run-in with critics. Neither is his Senate run -- featuring a recent incendiary television spot about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helping “China people."
In fact, as he rose through the ranks of Massey Energy, Blankenship again and again attracted harsh rebuke — and even a few bullets. Here's a run down:
— “We don't have any love for the union”: In the mid-1980s, the United Mine Workers went on strike against Massey, which at the time employed about 1,100 workers in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Blankenship, then a manager at a Massey subsidiary, was tasked with dealing with the miners. Massey broke with the rest of the coal industry by refusing to sign a 1984 deal with the union to end the strike.
Miners believed the company was trying to break up the union by insisting on separate contracts for each of its many offshoot companies. A year after the start of the strike, nonunion coal trucks drove through a union blockade, damaging the cars of striking miners. Blankenship said the drivers smashed the blockade because they “feared for their lives.” Blankenship eventually “brought in replacement workers [and] armed security,” union president Cecil E. Roberts told The Washington Post in 2010.
It was during this strike, according to Blankenship, that an unknown gunman shot 11 bullets into his office, including one into a TV set he would later come to display as a kind of trophy.
“I'm ready to be killed for this reason,” Blankenship told The Washington Post in the 1980s, seeing the fight not as one between a corporation and its workers but as one between nationwide union and local managers.
“The UMW is trying to take away our freedom,” Blankenship said at the time. “We don't have any love for the union. I firmly believe they tried to kill us on several occasions.”
— Bigger than Exxon Valdez: In 2000, Blankenship's first year as Massey's chief executive, the bottom of one of the company's coal slurry impoundments broke into the mines below it, allowing the gooey waste to ooze into waterways in Kentucky and West Virginia. The sludge, laden with arsenic and mercury, “killed everything in the streams, all the way to the Ohio River,” Jack Spadaro, a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) engineer, told "60 Minutes” in 2004.
Spadaro had become a whistleblower by then when, as he describes it, the George W. Bush administration prematurely closed its investigation into Massey following the spill. MSHA is a division of the Labor Department, which at the time was headed by Elaine Chao — who, in a bit of irony, is President Trump's transportation secretary as well as Mitch McConnell's wife. The spill was “vastly larger in scale than the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez,” according to ProPublica reporter and McConnell biographer Alec MacGillis.
— Other deadly accidents: Even before the deadly 2010 disaster, “Upper Big Branch miners lost more time on the job through worksite accidents than did other miners nationally” in seven of the eight years before that accident, The Post reported in 2010. The statistics were stark: Between 2005 and 2010, the MSHA cited the mine for 1,342 safety violations and $1.89 million in proposed fines. Before the explosion, three miners had died there after 1998.
And at another mine, more workers died because of criminal safety violations. In 2006, a conveyer belt fire suffocated two miners at the Aracoma Alma Mine in West Virginia's Logan County. The Massey subsidiary that owned the mine eventually pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the crimes included “not providing a proper escape tunnel out of the underground mine, to not conducting required evacuation drills, and to faking a record book so it appeared the drills had been done.”
Blankenship's baggage has prompted Republican Party leaders, including President Trump, to beg West Virginians to not put him on the general-election ticket, fearing that such a compromised candidate will lose in the deep-red state just as Republican Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.
To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference. Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
The West Virginia race represents one of the GOP's best chances of keeping its thin 51-to-49 majority in the Senate with a possible Democratic wave election. The victor of Tuesday's three-way Republican primary will take on Sen. Joe Manchin III, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for reelection in November.
Yet fewer elected Republicans — outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona being an exception — are making the case against Blankenship not because he will lose against Manchin, but because he simply ought not be a U.S. senator.
The problem isn’t that Don Blankenship can’t win a general election in West Virginia, it’s that he shouldn’t win a general election in West Virginia. #CountryOverParty— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 7, 2018
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
Here is the latest on the ethical scandals surrounding Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt:
- Drip... A top official at the conservative Federalist Society paid for Pruitt to dine at a pricey dinner at Al Ceppo, one of the finest restaurants in Rome, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. “Asked about the June dinner, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Pruitt was allowed to accept the meal as a gift, given the two men’s personal relationship, but subsequently reimbursed [Leonard] Leo for the cost,” Eilperin writes. “Wilcox did not answer questions concerning the cost of the meal, when the payment was made and whether Pruitt reimbursed Leo for the lunch and dinner he hosted the following day in Rome.”
- ...drip... A new trove of emails, released by EPA under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Sierra Club, reveals the extent to which the agency has tried to protect Pruitt from public scrutiny. The more than 10,000 documents show the agency has tightly controlled Pruitt’s schedule to avoid difficult questions from the public, the New York Times reports. The emails also show the change in Pruitt’s security measures was driven by an effort to avoid opportunities for questions from the public, contradicting Pruitt’s insistence that it was a result of threats to his safety. “The emails, many of which are communications with Mr. Pruitt’s schedulers, show an agency that divides people into ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ camps and that, on one occasion — involving a secret visit to a Toyota plant last year — became so focused on not disclosing information that Mr. Pruitt’s corporate hosts expressed confusion about the trip,” per the Times.
- …drip: Pruitt fast-tracked a cleanup of a Superfund site in California after conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt brokered a meeting between Pruitt and lawyers for the Orange County Water District, which sought federal help to address the site. Documentation of the previously unreported meeting, included in the Sierra Club emails, "showed Pruitt’s staff reacting quickly to the request last September by Hewitt, who has been one of Pruitt’s staunchest defenders amid a raft of ethics controversies,” Politico reports.
- Here's the 87-word document Pruitt’s head of security detail used as justification to arrange dozens of taxpayer-funded, first-class flights in the following months, via The Post’s Eilperin and Brady Dennis. In the memo, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta wrote Pruitt was being recognized in public and those guarding him noticed “at times lashing out from passengers which occurs while the Administrator is seated in coach with [his personal security detail] not easily accessible to him due to uncontrolled full flights." Perotta wrote: “We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the Administrator would endanger his life."
- Meanwhile, Perrotta defended his tenure as Pruitt's security chief in an interview with the conservative website the Daily Caller. "I believe at the end of the day, these are disgruntled employees — staffers — who, for whatever reason, decided to air dirty laundry — false dirty laundry to the press," said the longtime EPA employee, who resigned last week.
— All this means Pruitt’s fate may be in question: Senior White House aides are again urging Trump to fire Pruitt, the New York Times reports. Up until now, Trump has expressed support for the administrator, though his “enthusiasm may be cooling because of the ongoing cascade of alleged ethical and legal missteps,” per the report.
“Since last month’s confirmation of Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, White House staff members say they believe that if Mr. Pruitt is fired or resigns, Mr. Wheeler will continue to effectively push through Mr. Trump’s agenda to help the coal industry and roll back environmental regulations,” the Times writes.
At a briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed confidence in Wheeler but would not say whether Pruitt was in jeopardy. “I don’t have any personnel announcements on that front,” she said. “Certainly we have confidence in the No. 2, otherwise the president wouldn’t have asked him to serve at such a senior level position within the EPA."
— Schneiderman resigns: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned Monday night hours after he was accused of physically abusing four women in an article published in the New Yorker. Schneiderman had been one of the most active AGs in suing the Trump administration for its regulatory rollback, taking 55 actions against the federal government over energy and environmental policy changes since Trump took office, according to New York University Law School's State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. That total is tied with California to be more than any other state.
Schneiderman, along with the attorney general of Massachusetts, is also investigating ExxonMobil over accusations of misleading investors about climate change, an inquiry the largest U.S. oil and gas company calls a "political witch hunt."
— Zinke on the Hill: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is set to face Senate appropriators Thursday on the agency’s $11.7 billion budget request, but will also probably face questions on a number of other issues. E&E News reports that Zinke could face questions on proposed cuts to certain programs, oil and gas drilling offshore and on public lands, the massive reorganization plan for the department, as well as recent concerns such as the abrupt resignation of Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Bryan Rice.
Elsewhere at the Interior Department, the agency is set to send its law enforcement officers to help secure the United States' border with Mexico, the Hill reports. “The announcement from the U.S. Park Police Planning Unit and National Park Service sent last Thursday, says that officers from both agencies will assist the Border Patrol along the southwest border starting May 13 as part of ‘Secretary [Ryan] Zinke's offer of assistance to the Department of Homeland Security,’” per the report.
— More administration redecorating receipts: The Energy Department last year spent $4,652 to redo Secretary Rick Perry’s office, E&E News reports. The department is legally required to notify appropriations committees for expenditures over $5,000, and this was under the threshold. But Perry's office said it wanted to release the renovation details to be transparent. According to the report, the office spent $857 for a wingback chair and $1,157 for a sofa as part of the refurnishing of Perry’s office. It also spent $154 on pillows and $880 on two barrel chairs as part of a $4,993 redecoration of Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette's office.
— Solving the bird migration puzzle: Why are some bird species migratory and others are not? There’s no obvious reason, The Post’s Joel Achenbach explains, but in a new study published Monday scientists suggest one reason could be energy efficiency. “More precisely, the energy cost to a bird of flying long distances is balanced out by the energy savings of being in a place where, in summer, there are lots of mosquitoes, flies, insect larvae and other avian delicacies, and there is relatively little competition for food,” Achenbach writes. “The focus on energy acquisition and energy expenditure explains not only individual bird behavior — say, why one warbler chooses to fly from the Yucatan to Upstate New York — but also the geographical distribution of all birds collectively.”
— Heat waves in the poles: Four of the last five winters in the North Pole have seen dramatic temperature spikes, a pattern which returned in the past few days, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. In recent days, the North Pole’s temperature has risen to 32 degrees, which is about 30 to 35 degrees above normal. Such warming could speed up the melting of Arctic sea ice, which has been melting at record levels.
— Decision day: Trump said in a tweet Monday he would announce a decision Tuesday about whether the United States would remain in the international nuclear deal with Iran. The announcement will come at 2 p.m. from the White House. The Post's Steven Mufson reports "uncertainty over his decision has already been roiling the Iranian economy and international oil markets."
I will be announcing my decision on the Iran Deal tomorrow from the White House at 2:00pm.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
He also criticized former secretary of state John Kerry in an earlier tweet for his involvement in coming up with the deal. European diplomats have already concluded that "they had failed to convince him that reneging on America’s commitment to the pact," the New York Times reports. Reuters reports the president has “all but decided to withdraw from the accord but exactly how he will do so remains unclear, two White House officials and a source familiar with the administration’s internal debate told Reuters last week.”
The United States does not need John Kerry’s possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy on the very badly negotiated Iran Deal. He was the one that created this MESS in the first place!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
Meanwhile, the American benchmark price for crude oil passed $70 a barrel on Monday, per the New York Times. It’s the first time oil has cracked that price since 2014, the Times reports ahead of Trump’s anticipated announcement.
POST PROGRAMMING: On Thursday, The Post will gather government leaders and experts across the energy sector to discuss issues affecting the safety, security and future of the country’s energy infrastructure and electric grid, including Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin J. McIntyre and two members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources — Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). Register here to attend. Sign up here for a live stream notification for the event.
- The House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Sharing the Road: Policy Implications of Electric and Conventional Vehicles in the Years Ahead."
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on Puerto Rico’s electric grid.
- The Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Everything Festival” begins in New York.
- The United States Energy Association holds an event on the benefits of LNG exports.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on “Innovations for a Secure Energy Future."
- The Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum holds an event on “How Low (on Energy and Carbon) Can Buildings in China and the U.S. Go?”.
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a webinar.
- American Wind Action holds an event.
- The American Wind Power Association’s Windpower conference continues in Chicago.
- The Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney to serve as the assistant for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining holds an oversight hearing on Wednesday.
- The Environmental Law Institute holds an event on infrastructure review and permitting on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Energy Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Examining the State of Electric Transmission Infrastructure” on Thursday.
- The Women’s Council on the Energy and the Environment holds an event on congressional priorities in 2018 and beyond on Thursday.
- The United States Energy Association holds an event on “An Advanced Approach to Coal Utilization” on Thursday.
— Help wanted: Given the EPA inspector general's several investigations into Scott Pruitt, this new investigator will almost certainly have a lot to do: