The Coal Industry Has No “Final Villain”

“Manchin’s coal corruption is so much worse than you knew.” So proclaimed the headline of a Rolling Stone article this past January, referring to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. In March, the New York Times published a similar article. “At every step of his political career,” the Times reported, “Joe Manchin helped a West Virginia power plant that is the sole customer of his private coal business.” Salon, just a few days later, followed suit, describing Machin’s ties to the coal industry as a “stunning portrait of political corruption.” (See also here, here, here, and here). These stories, understandably, focus on Machin himself—the Rolling Stone article even calls him “the final villain” in the story of corruption it unfolds. And Manchin’s conduct is indeed outrageous: First as Governor and then as a Senator, Manchin lined his pockets off of personal stakes in the coal industry—an industry he used his political power to prop up at every turn—in spite of pollution, climate change, inefficiency, and high costs to his constituents.

Yet the journalistic outrage over Manchin’s unethical (albeit not illegal) behavior may be distracting from the real issue, if not outright misdiagnosing it. Corruption in the coal industry is not the result of individual unscrupulous politicians. The problem is coal itself.

After a century of dominating the global energy market, the long-term prospects for coal are grim. Compared to newer energy technologies, coal is increasingly inefficient and expensive. In 2021, economic models showed that abandoning coal could save rate payers billions in energy costs in West Virginia alone. Thus, despite short-term rebounds in demand, coal is rapidly losing market share to renewable energy and natural gas, and investors have been abandoning the industry en masse. Governments and regulators, too, have been cracking down on coal, trying to contain both the local pollution and global climate change effects of the world’s dirtiest energy source.

The combination of immense financial pressure and the prospect of increased regulation incentivizes coal companies to engage in corrupt dealings or even outright bribery to “obtain or retain permits or contracts or to avoid regulation.” Bribery can also stave off inquiries into securities fraud or (somewhat uniquely to utilities) climate risk disclosure fraud. These concerns are far from hypothetical: in 2019, Ohio lawmakers passed legislation that bailed out failing coal and nuclear plants, and gutted the state’s clean energy standards. The legislation turned out to be the result of a $60-million-dollar bribery scheme—Ohio’s largest-ever corruption scandal. The resulting fallout led to the arrest of the Ohio Speaker of the House and the chair of the Ohio Republican Party. The sitting Governor of the state has also been implicated, though not charged. But three years later, the legislation itself remains on the books—and the coal companies continue to benefit.

Furthermore, as coal is driven out of the US and Europe, it increasingly finds a home in industrializing countries where bribery is pervasive. Coal companies are likely to accede to bribe demands (or offer them of their own volition) as they struggle to meet financial targets. To illustrate with just one example, earlier this year the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of the Vice President of a Pennsylvania-based coal company for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for bribing Egyptian officials to obtain $143 million in coal contracts. More generally, several studies have found that coal mining operations in developing countries are associated with increased corruption in the regions where the operations are located—a result that cannot be attributed merely to the boom in economic activity associated with the mining, but rather to the mining itself. (One such study focused on regional corruption in China, while another focused on coal mines in Africa.)

None of these problems is unique to the coal industry, of course. Firms in any industry faced with similar financial and regulatory pressures might be tempted to engage in similar types of corruption. Nor is any of this to excuse Senator Manchin’s reprehensible conflicts of interest. But journalists should steer clear of framing coal corruption as the fault of a few bad apples: such framing is not only unhelpful, it’s counterproductive: When media reporting on corruption becomes a “feeding frenzy” that focuses on a specific individual, this “leads to an illusion that the corruption problems will disappear when the perpetrators are convicted. And by obscuring the connections between an individual corruption scandal and the context of occurrence, episodic news trivializes public discourse on fundamental reasons of the scandal.” Such framing ultimately “discourages citizens from attributing responsibility” to the larger “structural factors favoring corruption.”

This is all to say that the press should steer clear of framing Senator Manchin as the “final villain” of coal industry corruption. If it were not Senator Manchin propping up the coal industry in the United States, it would be someone else like him. The problem isn’t Manchin. The problem is coal.

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