National Recognized Activists “Infuriated” at Bloomberg-Backed Coal Documentary

Source:  Mother Jones Community Foundation
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Contact: Maria Gunnoe: info@motherjoneswv.org 304-989-9581

 “From the Ashes,” a new documentary on the coal industry directed by Michael Bonfiglio, distributed by National Geographic and funded by former New York City Mayor and one-time presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, is drawing bitter opposition from environmentalists, mountaintop removal opponents, Appalachian community activists and coal miners.  

The film presents the history and future of the U.S. coal industry, interviewing coal mining families and communities, leaders of Big Green environmental groups and other experts, and argues for transitioning away from coal in a way that does justice to coal mining communities.

But that’s not the source of the complaint.  What environmental activists are objecting to is the way the film purports to be concerned about coal miners and coal mining communities, while exploiting their plight to advance an ulterior, undisclosed agenda of boosting the fracked gas industry, which because of massive methane emissions, water contamination and other problems, is every bit as damaging to the climate, environment and public health as coal.

The film is funded by Michael Bloomberg, and deeply entwined with his networks. Bloomberg and his allies, including Big Green leaders the film interviews, have been vociferous in their support for expanding natural gas and fracking as a “bridge fuel” to more sustainable energy. But in fact, say environmental advocates fighting fracking, fracked gas extraction and infrastructure will enrich elite investors at the expense of the climate and the environment.   “From the Ashes” is the first feature film to be produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It partnered with Radical Media, a production company that previously worked with the Bloomberg administration on various projects. “From the Ashes” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, which the Mayor’s office was instrumental in founding. 

The film interviews Carl Pope, the longtime former executive director of the Sierra Club, who publicly supported billionaire oil investor T. Boone Pickens’ plan to reduce foreign oil dependence by developing US domestic reserves, particularly fracked gas. During Pope’s tenure as executive director, the Sierra Club accepted many millions in donations from the natural gas industry to support its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Much of that money came from the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, which is among the largest gas drilling companies in the US, and is heavily involved in fracking.  Later, Sierra reversed its position on natural gas, turned down further funding from the industry and launched a “Beyond Gas” campaign. Today, Bloomberg Philanthropies is a major supporter of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Another point of objection among activists is that the film also credits the Sierra Club with ending the practice of mountaintop removal, which they dispute. 

In statements released today, a retired coal miner and leading activists prominent in the fights against mountaintop removal and massive expansion of fracking and fossil fuel infrastructure are calling out the film, Michael Bloomberg, and Carl Pope for what they say amounts to greenwashing the fracking industry, obscuring and making misleading claims about Sierra’s record, patronizing coal miners and selling out Appalachian communities. Their statements are below.  They are also available for side interviews on request.

Statement of Chuck Nelson, a retired United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) coal miner

“After watching this film, I was infuriated.  The Sierra Club did not end mountaintop removal. In fact, Bloomberg’s money for Sierra’s efforts to end coal has led to the current fracking boom and natural gas pipelines destroying what’s left of Appalachia.  ‘Beyond Coal’ represents the money in the Sierra Club from the natural gas industry, from Chesapeake to Bloomberg. It has done nothing good for the people living here in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.”

Statement of Maria Gunnoe, an Appalachian activist who won the prestigious Goldman Prize for opposing mountaintop removal in her community

“I have fought the impacts of the coal in industry in Boone County, West Virginia all my adult life.  I was born and raised here. Mike Bloomberg, and Carl Pope couldn’t handle living like we do for a day, and they wouldn’t know coal if they tripped over it. While he was Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope accepted $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to kill one fossil fuel, coal, to benefit natural gas fracking and pipelines. Then, Mike Bloomberg gave Sierra Club $80 million to shut down coal-fired power plants, with no consideration for how it left the coal miners and the people of Appalachia.  There was no plan for them in Beyond Coal. We are worse off now than ever.  To add insult to injury, profits from this film go to The Rockefeller Fund. Don’t let them fool you. These organizations owe Appalachia, too; they are morally responsible for its demise.  Exploiting already exploited people for money is wrong.

The Sierra Club is why we have surface mining today. In 1977, Congress gave the Sierra Club the right to sign off on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.   These elitist organizations are selling off the coal communities of Appalachia for their own salaries and for profit.  Sierra Club and Bloomberg bragged that they stopped mountaintop removal. Truth is, no, they did not stop mountaintop removal, but they made very lucrative careers by pimping out the work of Appalachian leaders who are still fighting to END mountaintop removal coal mining. We are ignored by these outsiders exploiting our pain for their own agenda.  These organizations use our people and our struggles for their propaganda and let on like they do something to help.  Mike Bloomberg, Carl Pope, the Sierra Club, and the media just proved once again that In Appalachia there is NO JUSTICE; there is JUST US!

The family in your film are my neighbors. Y’all came in here and never even told them that you were making a film! They fed you biscuits even though they could live for years from your crumbs but you didn’t even give them that. You used them for ‘From the Ashes,’ which is nothing more than a vanity piece for elitists in NYC or San Francisco who think they know what’s best for us hillbillies.  Well I have news for all of them, you can’t own Hillbillies.” 

Statement of Kathy Selvage, a longtime Appalachian activist and lifelong resident of Wise County, VA, which has lost a third of its entire land surface to radical forms of extraction

“Let’s be clear.  Your reputation cannot be pristine if you have in your past accepted huge amounts of money from the gas industry and their representatives to displace coal with gas.  This solution was embraced by many in both major political parties but truthfully, it was never a solution for climate change, our environment, or our pocketbooks here in the Appalachian coalfields. (That’s why residents in Southwestern Virginia had to bring a class action lawsuit against Chesapeake for royalties that went underpaid for decades.  We won, but got about $1800 each.)

You are merely facilitating the long and sordid switch from one fossil fuel to another that continues unabated and is causing irreparable harm in the Appalachian Coalfield region, from mountaintop removal coal mining to the deadly menace of over 8600 gas wells (most of which are fracked) in far southwest Virginia.  The truth is that promoting gas is a double dunking of the Appalachian people, their environment, their health, and their lives and livelihoods. 

‘From the Ashes’ offers no solution achieving the economy of scale required to abate climate change.  We need a national green energy policy that would displace fossil fuels, and employ a “Rosie the Riveter” workforce. With the right planning, administration, and commitment, that could bring about full employment (for real), even in the Central Appalachian coalfields, for decades to come.  That would afford Appalachian people real choices. 

Exposing the Appalachian coalfields’ deep and pervasive poverty, its opioid crisis, the destruction of its mountains, air, water, and people, has prompted lawsuits,  donations and settlements. That money should be invested in Appalachia, for God’s sake. This is not about enriching individuals; it is about fostering real change in Appalachia.  Do the field research.  Examine whether the lives of those in grassroots communities have gotten any better as a result of the money that has come in.  You’ll find many are busy dancing with those that brought them to the party.”

Statement of Josh Fox, anti-fracking activist, and Oscar-nominated filmmaker of the documentary GASLAND

“In progressive circles in New York City, we call Mr. Mike Bloomberg by his given names: Mayor Pepper Spray (a title he earned because of his handling of the Occupy movement) and sometimes we like to call him Mayor One Percent, or Mayor Gentrification, or Mayor Please Go Away Already.  But my favorite name for him is even more dangerous: Mayor Fracking, because all his anti-coal activism ends up pointing to one place: the transition from coal-fired power plants to fracked-gas fired power plants.  Mayor Fracking would take us out of the coal-fired frying pan and into the fracking fire. Not only has he consistently advocated for fracking and natural gas, he has also turned the Sierra Club into a de facto pro-fracking organization, by supplying $80 million to its “Beyond Coal” program (earmarked “not to be used to fight fracking”), while the Sierra Club Beyond Gas program starves.

Carl Pope was an advocate for fracked gas for many years while Sierra Club was shilling for Chesapeake.  It was previously though that natural gas was better than coal for climate change.  But the fracking industry leaks so much raw methane into the atmosphere (a greenhouse gas a hundred times more potent than CO2 as a warming agent) that fracked gas is at a par with coal for total greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course, you would never know that from ‘From the Ashes,’ because they are utterly silent on fracking and they also don’t mention that the chief sponsor of the film is a proponent.”  

We in the anti-fracking movement have always stood alongside of our Appalachian brother and sisters who are fighting for a just transition away from coal, because we all know what Goldman Prize winner Maria Gunnoe once told me: ‘If the coal don’t get us, the gas will.’  We are all fighting for a better earth and a better world.  Bloomberg is just using our movement for his and his 1% friends fracked financial gain.  Currently there are 300 new fracked gas power plants being proposed for the United States.  If Sierra Club and Bloomberg really want to fight for justice and against climate change, they must oppose all new fracking and all new gas plants, not trade the misery of the wonderful people in Appalachia for a rapidly warming earth in which we all suffer. WE WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN!  Anti-frackers and those fighting for a just transition away from coal know the real answer:  RENEWABLE ENERGY — and fewer documentaries by billionaires, please.”

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