Monday, June 13, 2016

Biggest US coal company funded dozens of groups questioning climate change

These donations could have been used to help continued funding of pension programs for their employees.

Suzanne Goldenberg and Helena Bengtsson
Monday 13 June 2016

Peabody Energy, America’s biggest coalmining company, has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations, analysis by the Guardian reveals.

The funding spanned trade associations, corporate lobby groups, and industry front groups as well as conservative thinktanks and was exposed in court filings last month.

The coal company also gave to political organisations, funding twice as many Republican groups as Democratic ones.

Peabody, the world’s biggest private sector publicly traded coal company, was long known as an outlier even among fossil fuel companies for its public rejection of climate science and action. But its funding of climate denial groups was only exposed in disclosures after the coal titan was forced to seek bankruptcy protection in April, under competition from cheap natural gas.

Environmental campaigners said they had not known for certain that the company was funding an array of climate denial groups – and that the breadth of that funding took them by surprise.

The company’s filings reveal funding for a range of organisations which have fought Barack Obama’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and denied the very existence of climate change.


“We expected to see some denial money, but it looks like Peabody is the treasury for a very substantial part of the climate denial movement.”

Peabody’s filings revealed funding for the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate lobby group which opposes clean energy standards and tried to impose financial penalties on homeowners with solar panels, as well as a constellation of conservative thinktanks and organisations.


The names of a number of well-known contrarian academics also feature in the Peabody filings, including Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has been funded almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry, receiving more than $1.2m from oil companies and utilities, but this was the first indication of Peabody funding.


Earlier this year, bankruptcy filings from the country’s second-biggest coal company, Arch Coal Inc, revealed funding to a group known mainly for its unsuccessful lawsuit against the climate scientist Michael Mann.

The $10,000 donation to the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E) was made in 2014, according to court documents filed in Arch’s chapter 11 bankruptcy protection case.

Last October, court filings from another coal company seeking bankruptcy protection, Alpha Natural Resources, revealed an $18,600 payment to Chris Horner, a fellow at E&E.



Typically in bankruptcies, a big looming question is how any restructuring might affect pension and health care promises to workers. Peabody still has hundreds of millions of dollars in obligations to workers who helped dig up all of that coal, many of whom have developed serious health problems in the mines.

For now, the company says it does not expect any changes "to the vast majority of pension benefits" for current workers and retirees.

But that's not the end of the story. There's another gruesome twist here: Over the past decade, Peabody has been trying to get rid of obligations for thousands of other retired miners.

That story starts in 2007, when Peabody spun off 13 percent of its coal reserves into a brand-new company, Patriot Coal. It also, curiously, transferred 40 percent of its health obligations at the time, covering some 8,400 retired miners. Later on, Patriot also assumed some retiree obligations from Arch Coal, ending up with more than $3 billion in liabilities for some 22,000 miners, retirees, and spouses in all.

Then... Patriot went bankrupt. I'll let my colleague David Roberts tell the sordid tale:

Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy in 2012. And it wasted no time asking a bankruptcy judge to let it jettison health care liabilities. (The judge said yes, just as she said yes two weeks prior when Patriot asked for permission to pay their executives almost $7 million in "retention bonuses.")

Patriot had no loyalty to these retirees, of course. For the most part, they'd never even worked for Patriot. ...

Ditching its obligations to workers — "restructuring," in the antiseptic language of corporate law — didn't save Patriot. It filed for bankruptcy again in 2015. Its efforts to escape its liabilities are ongoing.

Coal-employee pension funds have subsequently sued Peabody and Arch, accusing them of setting up Patriot to fail as a way of squirming out of their obligations. These "liabilities" included promised medical benefits to retired miners who are now dealing with black lung and other health problems. (I talked to a few of those retirees here.) The legal battles around responsibility for these workers are likely to rage for years to come.


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