John Oliver talks coal mining and more on this week’s Last Week Tonight


Coal has long been an important part of American life and its economy. John Oliver explains why that’s going to change no matter what politicians tell you

There have been a metaphorical mountain’s worth of thinkpieces about the 2016 election. How did this all happen? What, exactly, were the different factors that led to a previously unbelievable Trump win? While John Oliver had no designs on explaining that latest and exhausting presidential election, he did focus in on one particular strand: coal mining.

It’s likely that Trump’s ability to connect with the often struggling and impoverished coal mining communities may have been a large part of his path to the White House. In numerous campaign stops and speeches, he claimed that his administration would bring back all the coal jobs taken away by Obama-era regulations. In one speech, he said that “we’ll start winning, winning, winning”.

Except, Oliver claimed, his motivations were not quite so altruistic. First of all, despite EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s claims, Trump has not already brought back tens of thousands of jobs. Instead, the actual increase in coal jobs looks more like 1,300.

Even more damning, however, are the indications that Trump is less aligned with the interests of miners and their families, and more so with those of coal company CEOs.

First, Oliver said, we should set aside the environmental concerns of coal use. In a real world setting, this is a huge factor, but Oliver chose instead to focus on the financial and social impact of the coal industry.

Secondly, it’s clear that coal mining is on the decline. Coal companies employ about 76,000 people, compared to the 114,000 people working with the struggling JC Penney department stores. Miners are increasingly outpaced by automation. Natural gas has become steadily cheaper, while renewable energy is likewise more accessible. In fact, pointed out Oliver, the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum draws a significant amount of its power from solar panels.

The human cost

However, it’s worth noting the real, human impact of these numbers. Coal mining jobs are typically concentrated in communities. Moreover, a coal miner can make upwards of $80,000 a year, meaning that the loss of such a steady and lucrative job can be devastating to families and communities. Meanwhile, those green jobs are hard to come by in coal country: renewable energy companies are often located elsewhere. Former miners then face some seriously difficult choices.

Statistics, argued Oliver, do next to nothing to help struggling communities. So, what can be done? Trump and company argue that decreased regulations will help the struggling coal industry. But can it really make a difference when the CEOs of mining companies get away with so much?

Take Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy. At a rally, he claimed that that safety of coal miners is “my most important job”. Then, his company experienced an explosion that killed 29 miners. Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison for violating safety and health standards. Indeed, he just got out of prison with $86 million to get him back on his feet again. Blankenship is already asking the Trump administration to repeal rules for mining companies because they supposedly don’t improve mine safety.

Instead, the evidence points to Trump’s love of mining companies rather than the miners themselves. Bob Murray, head of Murray Energy, is a particularly loud voice in favor of Trump. However, said Oliver, Murray “illustrates the divide that can exist between a coal company’s interests and those of its workers”.

Murray Energy and Bob Murray

Murray Energy actually sent a cease and desist letter to Last Week Tonight. Their legal team threatened “immediate litigation” if Oliver and his team libelled Bob Murray. Indeed, Murray Energy has sued the New York Times for libel, as well as the Huffington Post and a series of small to mid-sized local papers.

So, of course, Oliver said “let’s talk about Bob Murray”. First of all, Murray Energy recently put forth an unsuccessful suit to stop a regulation that would protect miners from breathing in coal dust. According to Oliver, “If you even appear to be on the same side as black lung, you’re on the wrong f-ing side”.

Even the miners have been overtly critical of Murray. Several returned bonus checks for mining extra coal, protesting a situation that they claimed encouraged unsafe mining practices. Murray told the miners that they could simply write “void” over the checks, though a few took it further and wrote some very direct (and vulgar) messages to Murray as well.

Conflict between companies and miners

The conflict between miners and their employers echoes the long and sometimes violent history of mining in the United States. No one is suggesting outright violence, and Oliver himself certainly did not do such a thing. That said, it is difficult not to think of events such as the West Virginia Mine Wars or somewhat more recent unrest in Harlan County, Kentucky.

The 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine disaster further harmed Murray’s reputation. Nine people, including six miners and three rescue workers, were killed as a result. Murray claimed it was the “first major accident… and this was caused by an earthquake,” rather than something Murray Energy or its employees did.

However, a government investigation concluded that the collapse was caused by “unauthorized mining practices [which] increased geological stress levels in the vicinity of working coal miners”. The investigation found no evidence of an earthquake which caused the collapse.

A Department of Labor investigation also uncovered testimony regarding Murray’s behavior towards families of the miners. He was reportedly unsupportive and even aggressive towards family members; one testimony claimed that he yelled abuse at the miners’ relatives.

That squirrel story

Perhaps more strangely, Murray also claimed that a squirrel told him to start his company, saying “Bob Murray, you should be operating your very own mines”. Murray Energy told Last Week Tonight that “It never occurred”. Oliver actually agreed. He said that it was likely Murray was misunderstood. Also, squirrels are far more interested in discussing their favorite varieties of nuts than delivering business advice.

But what of the much-vaunted return of coal mining jobs? Even Murray himself was reluctant to pronounce everything solved. In a television interview excerpted on the show, he said that “I don’t think those jobs can come back, but we can stop the destruction” of coal mining jobs.

Oliver wasn’t having it, though. “If Trump really cares about miners,” he said, “he would be putting a plan in place for their futures as mining continues its long-term decline”. Yet, the Trump administration is cutting the budget for programs that could help. This includes the Appalachian Regional Commission, which funds employment programs in communities affected by the loss of mining jobs.

The Commission provides money to companies such as Bit Source, a Kentucky-based business that provides computer coding and programming training to laid-off miners. However, decreased funding and a tiny number of jobs (nine total, according to Oliver), mean that Bit Source can only do so much.

What are Trump’s real motivations?

Why would Trump do all of this? Oliver provided a telling quote from a 1990 interview Trump held with Playboy:

"If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination – or whatever – to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it’."

Of course, “it” could be any number of things, like being born into great wealth and squandering at least a portion of that money on strange and unnatural hair.

Instead of all this, Oliver said that “we need to stop lying to coal miners”. Their jobs are not going to magically return. Nor is coal somehow a clean energy source or a real competitor to the growing alternative energy industry. It is far more useful to control the reality of the situation: the coal mining industry is undergoing a painful but ultimately necessary transition.

Still, Oliver couldn’t quite let the whole “squirrel talking to Bob Murray” affair go. He reiterated that, no, it was incredibly unlikely that Murray actually, seriously thought that a squirrel told him to start a mining company. However, he did take the opportunity to introduce “Mister Nutter Butter”.

Next: John Oliver on Brexit, buckets and Theresa May

Mr. Nutter Butter is, of course, a giant squirrel. Nutter Butter asked Murray not to sue him, as he had little to match the threatened millions of dollars in litigation. However, he said, “I do have a check for three acorns and 18 cents”. He offered the check to Murray, telling him “It’s made out to ‘Eat sh-t, Bob!”, as per earlier miners’ efforts.