This weekend, John Oliver, the host of the popular political comedy show, “Last Week Tonight,” dedicated his episode’s in-depth feature report to the coal industry. But his take didn’t fall along the usual partisan lines.
With President Donald Trump promising to bring back coal jobs and loosening regulations aimed at the industry, the issue has kicked up a firestorm of debate about whether or not the sector has declined because of Obama-era emissions rules or the rise of natural gas and clean energy.
Oliver touched on those points but then leapfrogged the issue to examine something else that could be hurting coal miners: the industry’s own CEOs.
Although coal company CEOs have been vocal in their opposition to strict emissions regulations, and have pleaded earnestly to save their employees’ jobs, Oliver pointed out how several have actually been willing to cut worker benefits while strapping on a hefty golden parachute for themselves.
Alpha Natural Resources, for example, reportedly considered nixing health and life insurance benefits for 1,200 retirees while it was filing for bankruptcy. But a few months later, the company also wanted to hand out nearly $12 million to 15 of its top executives. A federal judge later approved the bonuses, along with benefit cuts that ultimately affected about 11,000 active and retired employees — a move the company said removed a $125 million obligation from its balance sheet.
Oliver also pointed out that Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy Corp., enacted a rule that based employee bonuses on how much coal they extracted, which employees had long complained would compromise safety. Murray reportedly told employees that if they didn’t like the system, they didn’t have to accept the bonuses. This arrangement inspired several employees to send bonus checks they received for just a few dollar back to the company with notes like, “Kiss my ass, Bob.”
Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship also got flak from Oliver for the severance he received, even though he served a year in prison for his role in a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers. Blankenship was convicted for a misdemeanor of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. But Blankenship left Massey with an $86 million severance package.
Blankenship has continually argued that he is a victim of a government conspiracy. Recently, he has been lobbying President Trump to not go along with Congressional attempts to increase criminal penalties against coal CEOs for health and safety rule violations.
“I have a very special affection for coal miners and, therefore, a great interest in coal miner safety,” he wrote to the president.
But Oliver’s message? “Stop lying” about the industry and how it’s really treating its workers.
See Oliver’s entire report below.