Mine chief gets chance to face EPA foe in ‘war on coal’

Suit pro­ceeds over cli­mate pol­icy

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

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...

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