King Coal Tries, Fails to Tar Tesla’s Elon Musk

Joe Kernen, CNBC's climate-change denier, helps mine a dark shaft of environmental misinformation.

Tesla Elon Musk
UtahAmerican Energy Inc./Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Fair criticism of Tesla is one thing, and I’ve engaged in my share. Poisonous political attacks are another, especially when they come from the black, self-serving lungs of a coal company executive.

Robert Murray released a cloud of calumny and obfuscation on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” calling Tesla a “fraud” that had taken $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies while failing to turn a penny of profit. Murray is the chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., the nation’s largest underground coal company, which extracts 65 million tons of bituminous coal a year from 12 active mines in the U.S. and Columbia.

You might think that Murray would have no issue with people buying electric Teslas and connecting them to a carbon-fired teat, at least in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio that generate at least 70 percent of their electricity from coal. But it didn’t take long to see what was really eating Murray, or "Squawk Box" co-host Joe Kernen, who regularly argues that man-made climate change is a myth, and has called environmentalists the "Eco Taliban."

Murray tried to link red-meat names like Warren Buffett and J.B. Pritzker with Tesla’s Elon Musk, darkly hinting that Hillary Clinton wants to subsidize her cabal of supporters for reasons “that have nothing to do with supporting the environment.” (About the only names he didn’t mention were Vince Foster and the Rothschilds). Oddly, the Pritzker family earned its fortune in Hyatt hotels and real estate, not energy. More strangely, as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, parent company of Nevada natural-gas utility NV Energy, Buffett has tangled with Musk over electricity rates for solar customers, and has tweaked Musk over “big time” tax breaks for Tesla’s battery plant. So much for energy conspiracy theories.

But logic really went out the window with Murray’s smiling insistence that “...you could close down every coal-fired plant in the United States today and you would not affect the temperature of the earth at all. Not at all!”

Host Kernen eagerly took the bait: “Just the temperature in that lady’s house, er, you might affect that temperature, but not the temperature of the planet. Thanks for making the case.”

Wow. I've heard of Coal Miner's Daughter. Kernen is apparently Coal Miner's Talker. Is it just me, or is cheerleading for a notoriously polluting, life-snuffing industry an especially rich vein of bullshit for a purportedly objective business journalist?

Kernen's “case,” of course, is that climate change is a fraud or a conspiracy that the world's scientists have somehow managed to keep secret, even though most scientists will confess their geek love of cellos and Miyazaki on a first date. And, that any rational response to this "phony" crisis, aside from extracting and burning fossil fuel to the planet’s literal last drop, is a symptom of government overreach or collective madness.

Musk saw through CNBC's smokescreen, and tweeted back: The “Real fraud going on is denial of climate science. As for 'subsidies,' Tesla gets pennies on the dollar vs. coal. How about we both go to zero?”

Murray didn’t mention that coal power plants are America’s (and the world’s) number-one source of carbon-dioxide emissions—about 25 percent in America, roughly 44 percent around the globe—and the leading contributor to climate change. Coal plants are also directly implicated in smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution, including more than half the nation’s mercury emissions and the most sulfur dioxide.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with clear-eyed debate over the best strategies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. We can acknowledge stark realities—including Americans' current dependence on natural gas and, yes, coal—wasteful practices or misguided avenues. Hey, the ethanol boondoggle that mainly benefits corn-growing agribusiness—there’s a good one. I’ve personally criticized the government for subsidizing production and sales of six-figure EVs, including Teslas, for wealthy buyers who don't need or deserve huge tax breaks.

But too many of those debates are insincere, with climate deniers and axe-grinders using them as an excuse ultimately to do nothing at all. We need emissions cuts across the board, not major polluters like Murray complaining that their share is a meaningless drop in the worldwide bucket. And I can still support smart subsidies of alternative-energy cars and energy innovators, including Tesla, as long as those efforts target mainstream consumers, measurable reductions in emissions and a competitive edge for American companies and products.

Flying home to New York from Detroit this week, I sat beside a young flight attendant named Chris. The Honda Civic Hybrid owner told me he had put down a deposit on a Tesla Model 3. Chris said he’d recently received a Tesla letter assuring him his Model 3 would be delivered in early 2018. That timeline felt shaky to me, I said, especially since Chris had some 300,000 people ahead of him in the reservation line. Tesla, I patiently reminded him, has missed previous deadlines in bringing cars to market and ramping up production. But Chris was adamant. He’d be getting his Tesla on time, or a discount on a Model S instead. Asked about potential interest in the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EV, Chris complimented some General Motors cars he’s owned, but said they’d eventually suffered major electrical issues. No, Chris said: It was Tesla or nothing.

Tesla may or may not build Chris' Model 3 on time. But that doesn’t sound like a fraud to me. It sounds like a groundbreaking American company—akin to a young, un-ripened Apple—that’s found the pulse of a barely tapped market, and is halfway toward blowing it open, from an Apple-like reputation and obsessed customers to healthy stock and richly compensated investors. And you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the greenhouse winds are blowing, and the coming storms of regulation. If I was a savvy investor like, say, Warren Buffett, I’d see that fossil fuels are the latent fraud—the technological, regulatory and planetary dead-end—and start bankrolling companies like Tesla instead.