Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jen Boynton headshot

3p Weekend: John Oliver Squirrel Lawsuit Shows Coal Industry on Last Legs

By Jen Boynton

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

John Oliver's most recent Last Week Tonight took on the plight of out-of-work coal miners and the millionaires who used to employ them.

Specifically, he targeted the CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, Robert E. Murray. Murray has blamed the coal industry's problems on an “evil agenda” set by former President Barack Obama. Of course the coal industry's problems are largely economic in nature and supersede any one political party.

Murray Energy owned the mine at the site of the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster which took the lives of six miners and three rescue workers. In the three years leading up to the collapse, the mine was issued 325 citations by MSHA for safety violations.

Rather than stand as a pillar of strength during the early efforts to save the miners, Murray held a press conference described by one publication as "a self-serving and semi-hysterical rant."

Murray began by declaring that “The United States is a great country,” and proceeded to denounce government measures to control global warming and reduce green house gasses as an attack on the American people.

He asserted repeatedly that the cause of the cave-in was an earthquake, a “natural disaster” for which he had no responsibility. “This was an earthquake,” he bellowed. “It had nothing to do with our mining activity. All mining activities at the Crandall Canyon Mine were in accordance with all laws and mining regulations and a mining plan approved by federal regulatory agencies.”

A congressional investigation found that senior staff at the mine hid crucial information from federal mining officials that could have prevented the collapse. The company eventually settled for an eye-droppingly modest $1.15 million without accepting liability. Not bad for being in charge when 9 people died.

So, yeah, this guy deserves to have a poke.

When Oliver's team reached out to Murray Energy in advance of the story for a comment, Oliver's team got a cease and desist. Murray has a habit of threatening journalists with lawsuits -- filing at least 9 "against reporters, editorial writers, a cartoonist, media organizations and radio stations that carried a paid advertisement from an activist group that was critical of Mr. Murray," according to one report.

Like any journo/comedian worth his salt, Oliver took it as a challenge and proceeded to tear into Massey for 24 minutes, up to and including reporting on a rumor that he got into the coal business because a squirrel told him to. Enjoy!


Monday morning, Murray's team proceeded with a lawsuit alleging, according to the Washington Post, that:

Oliver deliberately omitted facts offered by Murray Energy that, in the company’s view, contradicted Oliver’s account of the mining accident in Utah.

It also references the squirrel:
In reference to Mr. Murray’s denial of an absurd story that Mr. Murray claimed a squirrel told him he should operate his own mines, Defendant Oliver stated, “You know what, I actually believe Murray on that one” and “Even by your standard that would be a pretty ridiculous thing to say.” This implied that Mr. Murray lied about other, more important matters, such as the cause of the mine collapse, and that he treated the affected families with “honesty, sincerity and compassion.”

Ducking, please don't sue us, we're just the messenger!

Image credit: Screenshot

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton