This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org.
Among visitors to Freedom Fest, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, you might miss the aging Don Blankenship amid other middle-aged attendees and a swarm of college students in three-piece suits. Blankenship, wearing a bowling shirt and tan slacks, moves from panel to panel carrying a tote bag filled with free schwag—of which there was a lot to choose from, including this “water bottle” from the Charles Koch Institute—like anyone else. The former CEO of Massey Energy became the most feared man in West Virginia for his ruthless control over his mines and for busting unions throughout Appalachia. Now, he might be the most hated, after a 2010 blast at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine killed twenty-nine workers in one of the worst mining disasters in American history.
Blankenship, who retired from Massey after the tragedy at UBB, is now a political activist, and he’s in Nevada for several reasons. For one thing, he was there to attend the Heartland Institute’s conference on global warming denial, which preceded Freedom Fest. And in any case, he now resides in Sin City for tax purposes.
It’s the first time Blankenship has attended either event, he tells me, but he’s eager to gather intellectual fodder for a movie he’s creating on the US economy. “I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship says. “We’re in a reg-cecession,” he explains, which is a term he created for “a recession caused by excessive regulation, including many based on global warming.”
At the height of his power, shortly before the blast, Blankenship was already a powerful political player and served on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most influential business lobbying group in the world. After the mine tragedy, the Chamber and other coal-connected political groups successfully defeated congressional efforts to update the laws governing mine safety. Republic Report obtained a financial disclosure form that shows that under Blankenship his coal company donated $100,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that penned an op-ed after the mine collapse to warn against letting the tragedy be used by “anti-mining activists” for new regulations.