‘They’ll Wish They Had Paid Us…to Put More CO2 in the Air’

While writing this week’s admittedly not very cheerful story about how Kameron Coal has co-opted our governments as its communications department, I ran across a 2017 Forbes article about the late Chris Cline’s decision to buy the Donkin Mine and realized just what we’re missing when our coal barons won’t speak to the press.

We’re missing some Grade-A entertainment.

The reporter, one Christopher Helman, describes the then-59-year-old Cline as “one of the most archaic and unpopular specimens of capitalist: the coal tycoon” and begins the piece with an anecdote about a masseuse at a resort finding out Cline was in the coal business and walking out mid-massage. (True? Who knows? Cline wouldn’t name the resort in case he wanted “to go back there,” so the reporter couldn’t verify the story, but why let the truth get in the way of a good tale?)

Cline was also permitted to pose as a champion of the “poor in India and China” who “deserve to have reliable, affordable” coal-generated “electricity,” because that’s what apparently motivated him—the poor of India and China.

Cline flew the Forbes crew to Nova Scotia on his private jet and posed next to the “pyramids” of coal at Donkin:

Chris Cline at Donkin. (Photo by Jamel Toppin via Forbes)

That photo, I have to say, allowed me for the first time to properly understand this photo, which I’ve already used this week, and to ponder that old saw about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce:

A man in a hard hat in front of a pile of coal

Helmen goes into detail about the wheeling and dealing (and loans from Enron) that allowed Cline to create “one of America’s biggest publicly traded coal miners, Foresight Energy. In 2014, Foresight went public and Cline rang the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange then:

…hopped on his plane and three hours later landed in Nova Scotia to go down into a mothballed mine shaft on the eastern tip of Cape Breton, in a town called Donkin. He was drawn to the huge 12-foot-thick seam and the coal’s high energy content, which at 14,000 British thermal units per ton can be readily turned into high-value coke for steelmaking.

Cline sold his Foresight interests for $1.4 billion and bought 75% of Donkin from Glencore in late 2014 for an estimated $20 million. He “snapped up” the remaining 25% from Morien Resources for $5.5 million in 2015. Donkin, Helmen writes, “may produce 500 million tons of high-dollar metallurgical coal by midcentury.” (I’m not sure how this jibes with Morien Resources’ estimate of 3.3 million tons of saleable coal a year over 30 years, but again, why let the truth slow you down?) Cline also bought into a thermal coal mine in Alberta and turned North intending to be “the last man standing in the industry, supplying low-cost coal from Canada to energy-hungry consumers around the world.”

Man clapping while child in fedora looks on.

This is a Reuters photo of Cline ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 2014. I cannot identify the child in the fedora and can only hope he is not a coal miner.

As for the challenges of re-opening Donkin, Helmen says:

When 26 miners died in a 1992 explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine, it seemed like the end of the industry. But time—and higher commodity prices—heals all wounds.

This sociopathic take is compounded later in the piece when Cline is allowed to claim that the one thing that keeps him up at night is the thought of mine explosions—Sago, “a West Virginia mine then owned by International Coal Group where in 2006 a methane explosion killed a dozen miners,” and Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch in West Virginia, where an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010. We’re given to believe that despite time and higher commodity prices, Cline himself still feels bad about these disasters (which didn’t involve his companies).

But Cline hired Chris Blanchard, who managed Upper Big Branch for Massey, to oversee the Donkin startup. Blanchard only escaped prosecution himself by cutting a deal to testify against Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was found guilty of willfully conspiring to violate mine safety standards and sentenced to a year in prison. So, yeah.


Rags to riches

Cline was “[t]rim, powerfully built, 5-foot-11” and, in Helmen’s telling, spoke “in a quiet growl from the back of his throat, as if accustomed to keeping his thoughts to himself.” (How Helmen squares that assessment with Cline giving an interview to a national business magazine escapes me.)

But what really matters, at least for a paragraph or two, is that Cline was poor, like his father before him. Pappy Cline “operated rich men’s mines in exchange for a cut of what his team pulled up.” He used to pay young Chris to fill little bags of dirt that he’d use to pack explosives in coal seams and one day, while Chris was busy digging under the house, the front porch collapsed and the six-year-old learned a lesson about “the importance of engineering roof supports.” (I’d like to think he brought that lesson to Donkin but the repeated rockfalls do make one wonder.)

A man and a woman on a ski slope.

Elin Nordegren and Chris Cline “flaunt their love on the slopes” of St. Moritz, 2016. (Source: Page Six)

I think this is a very standard Forbes narrative trick—once you’ve established that your subject began life poor, you are then free to lavish all the attention you like on their present-day wealth:

Cline’s first, battered hard hat sits above the fireplace in his mansion in Beckley [West Virginia]. He created a lake here by damming up the hollow; it’s big enough for waterskiing and features a 400-foot waterslide. There’s also a go-kart track and a pasture, where 150-pound Italian sheepdogs keep tabs on livestock including Fabio, a white stallion who stands at stud in a luxurious stable. Cline has four kids, now grown. His first wife died of cancer; he’s divorced from his second. For four years he dated Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren….

Cline…spends 400 hours a year in the air—most of it on his $50 million Embraer Lineage 1000—shuttling between his homes, making due-diligence tours of mines in Australia and Colombia…

There’s also a yacht and a Porsche and a Lamborghini, for good measure.


In our blood

Nova Scotia gets rather short shrift in this piece, although a couple of familiar faces pop up to assure the reporter we’re very happy to welcome Cline. The mining jobs, paying $100,000 a year, are “an economic lifeline” according to one Geoff Mac[L]ellan, “a rep in the Nova Scotia legislature” (now employed by Kameron Coal, so somebody got an economic lifeline) although even Helmen has to admit the originally promised 200 jobs had not materialized. But:

Even First Nations peoples, like the Mi’kmaq, have been placated with jobs and a royalty on every ton.

“Environmental opposition” here is “restrained” and, according to one Paul Carrigan of the Port of Sydney Development Corp:

Even those protesting the trucks know the coal is a good thing for the community. It’s in our blood.

So the elected officials are co-opted, the First Nations are “placated” and even the tree-huggers are secretly pro-coal, what else is there to know about Nova Scotia? Well, we have “plentiful wind and hydropower” putting us “well within Canada’s emissions standards” and we are, according to “Legendary coal trader Ernie Thrasher,” Cline’s partner on the logistics side, located “nearly halfway across the Atlantic,” something I have to admit was news to me.


Global cooling

The revelation of our mid-Atlantic location aside, I think the wildest part of this interview is Cline’s views on climate change. Remember, this was 2017 and Nova Scotia was at least paying lip service to the need to cut emissions and wean ourselves off coal, but according to Helmen, Cline thought the “carbon crusade” was “folly”:

“I’m all for getting sulfur and mercury and nitrogen oxide out of the air—that’s common sense,” but ultimately, he posits, “global cooling” will be a bigger threat. “I believe in our children’s lifetimes that they’ll wish they had paid us per ton to put more CO2 in the air.”

Helmen rushes in to clean this up a bit, writing:

(It’s easy to forget that, as recently as the 1970s, fear of a coming ice age was part of the mainstream climate conversation.)

Yes, it’s easy to forget that over 40 years ago, when Cline was TWELVE, “global cooling” was a thing, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he should still believe in it in 2017—it couldn’t possibly be that having built a $2 billion fortune “putting more CO2 in the air” it serves his purpose to  tell himself he’s actually saving the planet.

The piece ends this way:

Cline plans to enjoy the rising sea levels in splendor. He recently acquired Big Grand Cay, a 280-acre archipelago in the Bahamas that used to be owned by Bob Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray can. On his iPad, Cline scrolls through plans for a serene resort amid azure waters and nonjudgmental massage therapists. It’s too expensive even for this billionaire to haul in enough diesel to keep the generators running, so he’s installing solar panels and researching Tesla batteries, and has three wind turbines on order. “Where it makes sense,” Cline says, “I’m absolutely for it.”

A man spraying an aerosol can.

Bob Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray can.

Cline died in a helicopter crash off Big Grand Cay in 2019.

Donkin was issued a stop work order after a fire on Sunday and while numbers are not readily available, I’m guessing the mine has not entered the “rocking and rolling” phase in which Cline predicted it would generate $500 million in annual revenues and “put $100 million in cash” into its owner’s pocket.

The Cline Group’s Alberta mine is subject to a federal environmental impact assessment by a government that says new thermal coal mining or expansion projects “are likely to cause unacceptable environmental effects within federal jurisdiction and are not aligned with Canada’s domestic and international climate change commitments.”

I want to say Cline’s last big bet on coal was a bad one, but I fear that would be premature, so I’m just going to hope Cline’s last big bet on coal was a bad one.