Clarke made a fortune with a string of nursing homes. In his early 60’s, he spent his career trying to turn around a variety of companies. He bought troubled nursing homes and turned them into successful businesses. He made so much money he bought a forest preserve in Belize. He also bought a restaurant in Roanoke, VA, a “philanthropub” that was supposed to dedicate its profits to Africa, at least until it closed two years after it opened.
Clark and his wife, Ana, then moved to Virginia, converted his remaining nursing homes into non-profits and transformed them to a new company, Kissito. Because Tom has a tendency to get distracted, he became interested in poverty issues in Africa. He began to raise money for the homeless in Ethiopia. He also built a maternity hospital. By this time he was convinced that drought and extreme temperature variation and floods were caused by “climate change.” Nursing homes, restaurants, South America to Africa, poverty and homelessness, and, finally, the light bulb switched on: climate change was the world’s #1 villain. Mr. Clarke returned to Virginia to focus on the coal industry’s contribution to carbon emissions.
The above is merely an introduction to Tom Clarke’s journey to buy distressed coal mines in order to fight climate change. It is a curious story and the man is either totally off his rocker, or crazy like a fox.
Back in Virginia from Africa in 2014, he saw an interesting opportunity: turn a troubled industry into a profitable, friendly industry. (There’s a peculiar analogy to our industry, except ours is profitable. However, it sure ain’t friendly. Maybe we need a Tom Clarke, a visionary, who will create applications and profit from our waste! Hah, back to Mr. Clarke). Clarke’s concept was to plant trees in reclaimed mine properties, creating carbon credits (matrix to pellets to energy to carbon credits). He would then sell the credits to polluting industries. Really, pretty darn clever, if it works.
This all began after Clarke went to work for Jim Justice, a wealthy West Virginia businessman who had built a fortune from coal. Tom Clarke’s job was to assist Justice and his Southern Coal Corporation in dealing with hundreds of environmental violations at mines all over the Appalachia region. Clarke eventually forged a relationship with a Washington company, C21. C21’s business is planting trees. (You can begin to understand where Clarke is going. Crazy, or a fox!?) The trees soak up carbon dioxide as they convert to wood and leaves. Theoretically it works: tree reforestation in land that needs remediation that generates carbon credits for the coal industry that desperately needs carbon offset credits. Mind you, you will have to plant millions and millions of trees.
The journey from nursing homes to the coal industry with a few twists and turns took about 20 years. Now, let’s fast forward and learn what’s happened to Tom Clarke in the last three years.
Clarke, with little or no experience in coal manufacturing, now owns Patriot Coal’s federal mine in West Virginia. He has also purchased other Patriot mines in Appalachia. Further, he owns Walter Energy, another mining company. In addition, he has made an offer to buy Alpha Natural Resources. (The bid for ANR has not been accepted as of this column). Regardless, Clarke is now a major player in the coal industry. As I have written in earlier columns, the four major coal companies in America have declared bankruptcy. When these companies file for bankruptcy, and most of them have filed two or three times, regulators and environmentalists, both state and federal, are mostly concerned about who is left to clean up the mess. Enter Tom Clarke. With little money and no major investment support, Clarke has set up a non-profit that assumes the liability for environmental issues. His solution is trees in reclaimed land for carbon credits. He has been able to convince companies like Patriot and unions to make significant loans to ensure financial backing and success. In addition, his non-profit gets the revenue from the sale of coal to steel mills, utilities, and the like. In fact, one of his latest ideas is to buy steel mills and utilities to guarantee a market for his coal. This sounds preposterous but think about the process: the coal industry is in trouble; utilities have switched to natural gas to reduce emissions; there are stock piles of coal inventory; liability for these companies include both environmental and health; they are being chased by the authorities and regulators. Bankruptcy is the solution. However, in many cases, bankruptcy does not absolve top executives for liability for mine clean up. The coal industry has already played the pyramid game, forming new companies, moving assets one way and liabilities the other. They’ve done this for years and the end of the chess game is in sight. Along comes this Jesus-like figure, Tom Clarke. His scheme is an opportunity to move liability. His non-profit company answers environmental and reclamation obligations and ultimately releases top executives from liability. All he wants is a few million to help him with cash flow. Once he is established, the revenue from the sale of coal will kick in.
Mr. Clarke’s journey is just beginning, though. Unfortunately, he can’t sell his coal. Energy prices, oil, gas, and yes, coal, have tumbled. Inventories of finished product are high. Effluent from these enormous piles is seeping into the ground water, resulting in environmental violations, and finally if that isn’t enough, Mr. Trump vows he will repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan. You see, Clarke’s idea was to sell green-coal credits toward carbon emission goals set by Obama’s act. If it’s repealed, they won’t be needed.
There is no middle ground when talking about Tom Clarke and his vision for “green coal.” You either believe and support him or, as in the case of the Sienna Club and other environmental groups, consider him a con artist building pyramid schemes with everyone. To be fair, he has his supporters. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia lauded Mr. Clarke in his State of the State Address for helping develop “new and innovative ideas.” Robert McAtee, a well-known coal industry veteran, said, “Tom is a real visionary. He stepped in when no one else would.”
Crazy like a fox. By now, his non-profit may be the single largest non-corporate coal owner in America. His green coal plan is incredibly creative and probably works if he can sell coal. And if he can’t, the companies that virtually gave him their assets will keep loaning him money. They can’t let him fail because then the liability will fall back on them. Further, he continues to employ hundreds of men who lost their jobs when the coal industry collapsed. Likewise, the unions will continue to loan him funds. And there is the Trump angle: he promised to restart the coal industry.
Sometimes journeys are long. It took years for Patagonia to develop a non-neoprene suit, for example. I wonder how long it will take our industry to find a Tom Clarke visionary who will create innovation for our waste. Linerless is only part of the solution and at present a very small part. Between spent liner and matrix, we still look at an industry that generates over 50% waste. News of this innovation will be twitterpated immediately to our industry so Mr. Clarke better get out of the way of a fast moving train (watch for my next column on carbon credits, pros and cons).
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is