West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said that God will “give us time” to fix climate change — “if” it exists, he emphasised — if the U.S. acts now to increase fossil fuel production to respond to the burgeoning energy crisis thanks to the invasion of Ukraine. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, but here we are!
The remarks came during a public briefing Justice gave on Monday that was supposedly a COVID-19 update for West Virginia. After spending about 10 minutes talking about the pandemic, Justice took a sharp pivot and started discussing the war in Ukraine and its implications for energy in the U.S. — or, rather, what Justice thinks is happening here.
“Our coal miners, our gas workers, our oil workers, they get up every morning, they get their dinner buckets, and they go get dirty, don’t they,” he said. “Oftentimes they’re doing stuff that is extremely risky.” After describing the recent death of a West Virginia miner, Justice lauded how coal miners “saved us in World War II and everything by giving us the coal that was mandatory to make steel, and absolutely preserved this country.” He then goes on to blame the Biden administration for “trying to extinguish them…Now all of a sudden we’re on the brink of World War III, maybe, and now who do they call? …They call screaming, ‘drill, baby, drill!’”
I’ll just let you read a (slightly condensed) transcript of where this goes next, because it’s really a journey:
Absolutely today in many ways, West Virginia, they could call on West Virginia, and West Virginia may be very well the catalyst to stop a lot of the carnage, to reinforce in many ways the fact that this country should be totally independent. I absolutely stand rock solid in favour of all the alternative energies. But I believe it is absolutely frivolous to think that today we can do in this country or this world without fossil fuels, and if we believe that we’re going to have just what the hand has dealt to us right now. We’re going to have chaos, we’re going to have real problems. … I believe, and my belief as strong is it may be, or can be, I believe with all in me, that we’ll have time and [God] will give us time as we go forward. If there is such a thing, and I underline if, if there is such a thing as climate change, I believe that he will give us time and the smart people will fix it. But today, today energy is being used as a weapon. This country, hands down, needs to be totally energy independent. It is a crying, pitiful shame to see what has happened under the Biden administration in trying to absolutely cripple us. We have become weak, have we not?”
Other than giving God some serious credit for their ability to un-fuck-up our shit — and coining the alarming phrase “on the brink of World War III, maybe” — Justice is doing some serious metaphorical lifting for the oil and gas industry. The idea that fossil fuels in the U.S. need to be totally unregulated and promoted in order to save us from an energy crisis is something that the industry has been screaming from the rooftops. But the reality, as most energy experts would point out, is much more complicated, especially since the U.S., as a global exporter of fossil fuels, has basically tied itself to the volatility of the global market. Even though the Biden administration has put a lot of words behind its climate goals, it has also given a hell of a lot of free rein to oil and gas drillers — not to mention that coal took a steep decline even under President Trump, who gave as many freebies to the dying industry as he could.
There’s a particular irony to Justice, of all people, painting miners as victims of some outside mistreatment and talking about how dangerous their work is. Justice’s family owns dozens of coal mines across five Appalachian states, and those mines have some serious issues. In 2014, two years before Justice was elected governor, NPR reported that his mines owed around $US2 ($3) million in outstanding safety-related fines and had miner injury rates more than twice the national average. In 2019, NPR reported that those fines had ballooned to $US4.3 ($6) million, accounting for almost 10% of all outstanding debt from coal mines in the entire country.
“[Gov. Justice] and his family has simply chosen to disregard, flagrantly violate, continually violate and increasingly violate the rules of mine safety and the penalties of mine safety,” a former federal mine safety official told NPR. (Justice’s family agreed to pay the outstanding fines in 2020.)
Justice’s mines also have plenty of environmental violations: In November, the state of Kentucky fined Justice and his son almost $US3 ($4) million for not cleaning up some coal mines in the eastern part of the state. With friends like these, God and the “smart people” better get to work soon.