Mine chief gets chance to face EPA foe in ‘war on coal’
Suit proceeds over climate policy
ST. CLAIRSVILLE, OHIO | Late in the afternoon of Nov. 12, Robert Murray got the news he had been waiting for — a judge said his company’s lawsuit to stop the Obama administration’s central climate change policy would move forward, and ordered Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to sit for a deposition in the case.
Mr. Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., America’s largest coalmining company and possibly Ms. McCarthy’s harshest critic, said he would be there personally for the deposition. He said he expects her to have to personally defend the policies that have devastated coal regions.
“I want to be looking at her the whole time,” the 75-year-old said, rising from his desk at his headquarters in eastern Ohio and walking gingerly across the room, showing effects of the three times he has broken his neck — two of them stemming from mining accidents.
For Mr. Murray, who fancies himself as one of President Obama’s greatest enemies, the looming court case represents the best chance to stop what he and his employees routinely refer to as the “war on coal,” a series of policies this administration has issued to crack down on energy that scientists say produces greenhouse gases.
The company’s lawsuit challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan now has the full backing of 26 states, and some legal analysts say the case ultimately could derail the president’s environmental agenda. Murray Energy already has faced off against the EPA in court and won, including in a Supreme Court case that struck down the administration’s mercury and air toxin standards this year.
“I believe I’ve understood the political process for at least 20 years … but when we’ve got the greatest destroyer that America has ever seen in the White House, Barack Obama, it became obvious that he was going to destroy entire sectors of our society,” he told the Washington Times during a lengthy interview in his office. “Half of the people here are not working since he took office. Half, in the coal industries … I think he’s doing more damage to this country than a terrorist could do — a terrorist.”
In St. Clairsville and other areas where his company has a foothold, Mr. Murray is leading a self-funded public relations campaign that has turned coal miners into part-time activists.
Many of his 7,000 employees — some of them grizzled veterans of a dying industry, proud of the coal dust on their hands and faces but anxious about whether they will have a job at this time next year — have stickers on their helmets reading, “Stop the war on coal — fire Obama.”
Some say they have the same message emblazoned on yard signs in front of their homes, and they often sound honored that their company has become the leading foe of Mr. Obama’s ambitious environmental agenda. Mr. Murray seems to take great joy in firing up his troops.
But fewer and fewer people are waving the flag for coal, and even Mr. Murray acknowledges his industry is in trouble.
The number of workers in the U.S. coal industry continues to decline as companies slash labor costs to try to stay afloat. Murray Energy Corp. cut at least 1,400 jobs over the past six months. Fewer than 70,000 people now work in the coal mining industry, down about 20 percent from five years ago, federal figures show.
Hundreds of coal-fired power plants have been taken offline, and utilities have announced plans to retire more in the coming years, cutting coal’s share of American electricity generation to about 37 percent, down from nearly 50 percent at the start of Mr. Obama’s tenure. Overall domestic consumption of coal has fallen by about 25 percent over the past decade and is estimated to continue dropping, according to federal data.
A number of top coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, and some coal-sector leaders have given the industry a glaring black eye by trying to escape retirement and pension benefits they have promised to their employees.
As a whole, the industry is in a deep financial hole, but the seismic shift in the energy sector can by no means be blamed entirely on the president’s policies. Mr. Murray and other coal proponents acknowledge that natural gas has played an almost equal role.
Aided by a drilling technique known as fracking, which has helped unlock previously inaccessible fuel in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, U.S. natural gas production has increased to such a degree that gas produced more electricity than coal earlier this year for the first time in history.
But Mr. Obama’s policies signal mortal danger. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which Murray is challenging in federal court, promises to shrink coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation to 30 percent or less, the agency’s projections show.
For the president, it’s a deliberate choice.
“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” the president said this month when explaining why he was rejecting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, though his underlying argument undoubtedly applies to coal production.
In his 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised that anyone who tried to build a coalfired power plant during his administration would go bankrupt.
White House officials wouldn’t respond to Mr. Murray’s “terrorist” remark, a comment that went above and beyond the CEO’s usual tough talk toward the administration. But the White House — and its supporters in the environmental movement — point out that they are working to keep struggling coal communities afloat as the industry inevitably declines.
The administration has proposed pouring tens of millions of dollars into coal communities for job training, infrastructure investments and other efforts that, in theory, would put displaced coal miners back to work.
Some leading environmentalists say coal titans such as Mr. Murray would be better served working with the government to retrain and redeploy coal miners rather than engaging in an ongoing rhetorical and legal war with the president.
“One thing I’d like to see from them is coming to the table and talking about how to build a bright future for the region,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the largest and most successful anticoal initiative in the nation. “There’s a huge opportunity for the restoration of old mining sites across the region. That’s something that could put a lot of people to work.”
Others in the environmental movement, however, argue that Mr. Murray and others should have little, if any, voice in the dialogue.
“It should be clear from their long history of self-serving actions that coal company executives don’t deserve a seat at that table,” said Joe Smyth, a spokesman for Greenpeace.
Some of those self-serving actions, Mr. Murray and other industry leaders acknowledge, have damaged the sector’s reputation to a serious degree. Mr. Murray points to the ongoing Patriot Coal fiasco as an example of how the coal sector has damaged its own credibility.
“They set up a sham there,” Mr. Murray said of Patriot Coal, which was formed in 2007 with assets formerly belonging to Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., leading coal companies based in St. Louis. Critics, including Mr. Murray and thousands of miners, maintained that Patriot was set up to fail and to become a dumping ground for pension liabilities and other financial obligations that the companies didn’t want to honor. Company leaders have vehemently denied that assertion.
For Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray, who fancies himself as one of President Obama’s greatest enemies, the looming court case represents the best chance to stop what he and his employees routinely refer to as the “war on coal,” a series of policies this administration has issued to crack down on energy that scientists say produces greenhouse gases.